Recruiting the youth to agriculture: Advice from young researchers

Fields of wheat. Photo by: Zaza D. / CC BY-ND

CANBERRA — For a food-secure future, the world needs young people with an interest in science, research, and agriculture. But in an increasingly urbanized environment, agricultural is rarely at the forefront of attractive career options for youth.

At the Crawford Fund Annual Conference, held in Canberra last month, 40 early agricultural researchers received scholarships to attend the conference and engage with established researchers in this space — to understand career prospects as well as the impact their work can make.

Cathy Reade, director of outreach with the Crawford Fund, has spent years working to promote agricultural research and prospective careers that can support developing countries and create a food-secure future. Youth involvement is key to addressing knowledge gaps in an increasingly ageing sector.

The scholarships aim to encourage broad participation from disciplines associated with food security — including agriculture, policy development, gender studies, economics, nutrition, environment, social sciences, and more.

Devex spoke with some of the researchers to understand how they chose their career and what obstacles have limited greater participation.

Demi Gamble, 25

Demi Gamble was brought up in a dairy farming family in one of Australia’s largest dairy farming regions, which shaped her interest in agriculture.

“I’m particularly interested in areas of research that aim to address some of the biggest challenges to Australian farming systems due to my upbringing,” she explained to Devex. “I am extremely passionate about the effects of heat and drought stress on crop productivity.”

Her focus today is on cotton research, working with the Australian National University and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to investigate cotton abiotic stress, physiology, and biochemistry

Her career path aims to be research focused — her intention is to become a fully fledged research scientist in the field of crop physiology and biochemistry, helping to develop crops with superior performance under heat, drought, and other environmental stresses. It’s a crucial field as climate change wreaks havoc on crops across the globe.

But like so many others seeking a career in agricultural research, she has had to overcome obstacles — particularly economic ones.

“Firstly, I believe many people passionate about agriculture and food security are from farming families who are classified as being socioeconomically disadvantaged — like I was,” she said.

“Consequently, these people struggle to get into their desired courses at university. Secondly, as I experienced in my first university, the opportunities and support offered to students wanting to pursue this area of study is not as profound as in other fields, such as medicine and engineering.”

And Gamble said there is still a communication gap that needs to be overcome with youth.

“I often find older generations are generally more interested and inquisitive in this sort of field regardless of their interests, while young people are fairly closed off to their own interests,” she said. “But I believe it is the responsibility of all of us as a collective — rather than a few individuals — to build and secure a future that we all aspire to achieve.”

Camila Ribeiro, 30

Camila Ribeiro, originally from São Paulo in Brazil, is in Australia studying agricultural science and forestry at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

For Ribeiro, agriculture was always her career of choice.

“Before being in research, I have worked in extension services and also in the coconut production industry,” she explained to Devex. “Everything I have considered as an option has been related to agriculture.”

Social issues linked to food systems and ecological crises are the focus of Ribeiro’s work, and she explained that there is strong interest in what she does among those she speaks to.

“Everyone seems to be concerned at some level about the future food and of the planet as well,” Ribeiro said. “Not all are willing to modify their lifestyle or habits to help change come true, though.”

Ribeiro anticipates a career in agricultural research, focused on projects that promote local development and natural resources management through agricultural activities. But she believes the physicality of the work can create a barrier to many would-be professionals.

“In my perspective, there is a lot of demand for professionals in this area, especially in the broad field of agriculture,” Ribeiro said. “The food security part may be a bit more restricted because it depends mostly on governmental and private agencies funding, but opportunities are certainly increasing. You must be willing to go out in the fields, sometimes remote places, and importantly be able to communicate assertively with people from all sorts of backgrounds.”

But Ribeiro urges those considering a career that the rewards are worth the effort.

“We all need food, fiber, and fuel to conduct our lives, and we are in a new era where we are learning new ways of doing things,” she said. “We need passionate, creative, and transdisciplinary perspective people to build a new paradigm in agriculture. It is fun, it is yummy, and the way nature works is just abundant, clever, and rewarding.”  

Cooper Schouten, 25

The path to researching beekeeping in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands was an unusual one for Cooper Schouten from Southern Cross University, and it is far from his home in a small coastal town in Australia.

But expanding his geographic footprint opened Schouten to new global perspectives — and career opportunities.

“I wanted to help people,” Schouten explained to Devex. “I was working in rural Timor-Leste and there were honey hunting communities harvesting honey from the Giant Asian Honey Bee which build massive single combs in the tops of very tall trees. Youth my age were falling to their deaths climbing these trees at night, often with a burning branch in order to harvest the honey and generate some income.”

Today, Schouten aspires to be a master of beekeeping and specialize in various sectors of livestock development.

“At present, I am pursuing a career in academia, though I see many possibilities from working in international government agricultural research organizations, NGOs, and private sector,” he said.

But despite his personal goals, external perceptions of agriculture is that it is not a “cool” career path and this can create barriers to more young people seeking work in this space.

“We need to present a fresh, new, and inspiring image of what is means to be a responsible steward of the land we farm and the important role agriculture plays in our economy,” Schouten said. “Practical meetings and collaborative workshops, information, and field days will help. Scholar programs like the Crawford Fund and DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] student scholarships, and getting young agricultural professionals to talk at high schools and universities will all help.”

Selling the impact, Schouten believes, will be important in getting new blood to agriculture.

“Our generation will be dealing with some profound changes in our lifetime,” he said. “Environmentally sound technologies for food, fiber, and energy won’t be an option, they’ll be a necessity. To quote Jane Goodall: ‘You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’”

Scholarship success stories

According to Crawford Fund’s Reade, the expansion of the scholarship program and growing interest over less than a decade is an important sign that there are young people interested in agriculture; they just need the guidance to see a career.

“The introduction of … one-on-one mentoring has proved to be another success story. But perhaps the best success stories are some of the development of the individual scholars,” she said.

Reflections from participants on their experience as a conference scholar regularly indicate “the experience has provided them with the impetus to reposition their study or work toward a more international development focus, or to apply for related volunteer positions or become researchers in overseas projects,” Reade explained. “Increasingly a fair proportion of ACIAR [Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research] graduates are former scholars, and an ACIAR graduate position has got to be one of the best opportunities around in this field.”

The importance of a network to support young researchers has not been lost on the program alumni. In 2014, a number of scholars and other interested parties formed Researchers in Agriculture for International Development, an Australian-based network that works to connect, engage and support early- to mid-career agricultural scientists working, or seeking to work in this space.

“We now have an alumni of almost 270, and former scholars are overwhelmingly positive about their conference scholarship experience, seeing it as an invaluable mentoring, networking, and motivational experience in the field of agricultural development,” Reade said.

Despite this, Reade is aware of the challenges to overcome in encouraging young people to consider agriculture a part of their future, especially in developing countries.

“The biggest barrier is young people not knowing how to break into the international scene,” she said. “To network and be mentored by key researchers, academics, and policymakers involved in food and nutrition security makes it seem much more ‘doable.’”

Reade added that the Crawford Fund will continue to work with young researchers to build their capability and confidence in making a difference to the world through agriculture. After all, they are an important piece of the puzzle in the future of global food security.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.