ATHENS — Although fewer residents live or work on farms today, agents at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System say agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state and will continue to see job growth in the future.
Regional Extension Agent Doug Chapman, who specializes in commercial horticulture, said the industry has diversified the past few years as the process of farming and desires of consumers have changed.
Chapman said agricultural workers are in demand in Alabama, despite the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a declining or slower-than-average growth in agricultural jobs nationally.
"As long as the population continues to grow, all those people will have to eat, and we'll have to feed them," he said. "The only way we're going to continue to be able to do that is to become more efficient and more productive."
As the industry experiences growth locally, Gerry Thompson, regional extension agent with the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center in Belle Mina, said prospective workers will need adequate training before entering the field.
"The first step in working in this field is to get involved in it at some level to see if that's truly what you want to do, like taking a summertime job in high school or helping a relative," he said. "After that, because there's going to be a continued need for more well-educated, technologically-advanced farmers, going to school would probably be in many people's best interests."
The Alabama Cooperative Extension Center in Athens offers educational programming, including agriculture, forestry and wildlife, urban affairs, family and consumer sciences, economic and community development and 4-H and youth development.
The system started in 1862 when the U.S. Congress created the land-grant university system to provide more educational opportunities in agriculture and mechanical arts. Auburn University was Alabama's first land-grant college.
By 1971, a new extension program was established at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville to serve 12 counties across north Alabama. In 1995, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System was created and now employs agents in 67 county offices statewide.
Chapman said the state extension system is a "grassroots type of agency that tries to help people improve their lives."
Chapman said one of his main job duties includes improving crop productivity and vegetable yields through drip irrigation and plastic mulch.
He also provides pesticide recommendations for conventional crops, research plans for organic growers and helps farmers with nursery crops.
"Farms have gotten bigger and more productive over time, and our technology just continues to increase and get better," he said. "We're trying to be farm smarter and engage in more economical decision making."
Thompson, who focuses on animal science and foliage, works on an Auburn-owned research farm in Belle Mina, where he studies cotton, corn, soy beans, irrigation and foliage. Thompson also answers calls relating to animals and their health, including beef cattle, horses, hogs, sheep and goats.
Extension specialist Mark Hall works with traditional farmers conducting feedstock development. He uses corn, soy beans and other materials to produce sustainable and alternative energy sources.
Hall said he doesn't "have a crystal ball" to determine future job growth in his field, but skilled laborers will be needed to keep the industry thriving.
"The skills we'll need in renewable energy will be the same skills we need now," he said. "We'll need welders, agronomists, lawyers, engineers, chemists. There will be a need for traditional skills used in new fields."
Lucy Berry can be reached at 256-340-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|