Days of decision for America's farm youth

YOU can tell it's late summer in central Illinois. Overhead, the sun is hot and hazy. But here, as John DuBois jumps the wooden gate and walks into his father's cornfield, the air is cool and moist.

``Farming's what I want to do,'' says the college sophomore, turning eventually to the dark green stalks that tower above his tall, slim frame. ``But I don't think I'll be able to. It [the farm] is not big enough.''

On the other side of this small town of 1,700 people, Jennifer Dell strolls out the back door of her parents' house and into the fields.

``I just like being on the farm,'' she says. A life on the farm may not be in her future, but an agriculture-related job could be, she says. She hopes to take part this fall in an internship at a local grain elevator -- part of the agriculture program at the two-year college she attends.

These are days of decision for America's farm youth. Watching their parents battle farming's worst financial crunch in 50 years, some teen-agers are passing up a career in agriculture for something else, while others are looking into agriculture-related fields. But farm roots run deep and strong here in Princeville, Ill. Elsewhere in rural America, many farm youths yearn to stay.

``It looks pretty good,'' John says, as he examines the nearby cornstalks. He peels back a few husks to reveal a full ear of school-bus-yellow kernels. The prospect: a good harvest, but poor prices.

If the farm economy doesn't improve, John's hopes to stay in farming look dim. Of the 50 or so graduates in his high school class, John knows only one who went directly into farming. Like the rest of his farm-bred classmates, he is looking for other opportunities in agriculture-related fields.

It has started to rain as Jennifer begins walking back to her parents' house. Large drops land with a ``plop'' on the tall cornstalks, momentarily interrupting her talk of job prospects. Like John, she has just begun her second year of agriculture classes. Unlike him, she doesn't plan to transfer to a larger university next year. Already, she has spotted ``help wanted'' ads from a local farm-implement dealer and a grain elevator.

As suddenly as it started, the rain stops. Jennifer's father, Robert Dell, appears.

``I still think the future's here,'' he says. ``We're seeing so many more jobs today -- feed concerns, seed sales. . . . There's always going to be employment here because the elevator's always going to be there.''

Other parents -- especially farther west, where the farm economy is in worse shape -- aren't so encouraging.

``I've lost a lot of friends already,'' says Harvey Hoops, a grain farmer near Byron, Neb. ``And it's going to keep going that way.''

At one time or another, all of his five sons have been interested in returning to the farm, he says. ``They're stupid for wanting to come here. Too many debts and you don't make anything.'' So far only one son is farming with him and, according to Mr. Hoops, he's just making it. The rest are either in college or holding agriculture-related jobs.

Agriculture in the United States finds itself moving down two divergent roads. On the one hand, bleak prospects for farming have spilled over into farm-support industries -- hurting manufacturers and dealers of such items as fertilizer and farm implements.

On the other hand, in agriculture-related industries such as food processing and retailing, the outlook is much better.

``We don't have any big hiring plans,'' says Bob Shoup, spokesman for Deere & Co. ``Frankly, we're looking at cutting back.'' The giant farm-machinery-maker has even reassigned its recruiter, who used to tromp around college campuses, to other duties.

``I think opportunities on the retail-food end are brighter than they have ever been,'' says Dick Gady, vice-president of economic research at ConAgra Inc. Bright indeed, if the Omaha-based company is any indication. Since Mr. Gady, himself the product of a farm near Champaign, Ill., joined ConAgra in 1973, sales have zoomed from around $100 million to roughly $5.5 billion.

At the end of this school year, John DuBois, the co-vale dictorian of his high school class, hopes to transfer to the agriculture school of the University of Illinois.

``I don't know whether to be in the economics end of it or ag/finance,'' he says. ``I was thinking about ag/engineering. But that's work behind a desk. I don't think I could handle a job behind a desk.''

This shift to agricultural jobs away from the farm is nothing new. The farmers' share of the US population has been declining since the days of Thomas Jefferson. But in the 1980s, as agriculture itself undergoes dramatic changes, the shift may be accelerated.

One government study even projects that some agricultural jobs requiring advanced degrees will go begging for the rest of the decade, because too few candidates will be adequately trained. For example, the study forecasts a nearly 18 percent shortfall of manufacturing and processing scientists and managers, while traditional farming jobs will be filled. Data for the study are five years old, says Jane Coulter, director of higher-education programs for the US Department of Agriculture. But new figures ma y well show even more acute shortages in areas requiring advanced degrees.

All of this poses great challenges for land-grant colleges and universities, where enrollment in four-year agriculture programs has fallen 21 percent since 1977.

``We're trying to evolve away from . . . an emphasis that is very strongly production-oriented,'' says Donald A. Hegwood, dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Maryland. But ``we don't always know what to expand in.''

Besides the growth in scientific jobs, such as bioengineering, another emerging need for expertise will be in what Dean Hegwood calls agricultural ethics and policy. As agriculture itself moves increasingly into international markets, policy generalists will need to be equally at home when asked to discuss new wheat varieties or the impact of African cultures on food production.

On this hot and hazy day, John DuBois isn't thinking too deeply about the future of farming. For one thing, the hog house needs mending. When asked, he ponders for a moment the current financial crunch and its impact.

``America's losing some roots, but they're getting stronger,'' he says. What's important ``is not so much quantity. It's quality.''

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