A poster hanging from an office door at the University of Maryland shows a young black woman standing on a busy street corner clutching a planter's hoe.
The poster attempts to illustrate one of the greatest obstacles to increasing the number of minorities in white-collar agricultural professions, says assistant provost Robert Beale, namely the misconception that a career in agriculture means merely working on a farm.
"Farming to a black is a no-no because of the slavery background. . . . (Blacks) try to go as far from agriculture as possible," said Beale, a black chemist.
The federal government is attempting to change that attitude by funding a program at 50 sites around the country putting high school juniors and seniors together with university professors to work on agriculture research projects.
Beale, who runs one such program for 12 students at the University of Maryland, says he hopes to stir interest among minority high school students in fields such as animal science, horticulture, dairy science and entomology.
At first, Jamel Williams, 18, says she wasn't thrilled about spending the summer in a room filled with bugs.
But as she sat patiently in a university entomology lab waiting for her insects to mate, the recent high school graduate from Landover explained that working with flour beetles wasn't too bad since they were so small.
Williams may be one of the summer program's biggest success stories. Not only does she have the sharp eye necessary to distinguish the average flour beetle from a speck of dirt, but this fall, she plans to study biochemistry as a freshman in the university's division of agricultural and life sciences. During this summer's 10-week program, she has been working with a Maryland professor trying to discover whether certain parasites reduce the number of offspring produced by the beetles.
The federal program has paired about 300 students across the nation with research scientists at universities and federally operated laboratories.
It has been difficult to attract minorities to agriculture because there are few role models, Beale said. At the university's college of agriculture, for example, part of the larger division, none of the 118 faculty members who are either tenured or eligible for tenure, is black. The division has two black chemists and a black entomologist on its 131-member faculty.
Beale will spend a lot of time this year in search of qualified minorities to join the faculty at the agriculture division. If he can recruit two, he said, it will be "a phenomenal accomplishment."
Less than 3 percent of the approximately 1,100 undergraduates in the college of agriculture last spring were black, compared to eight percent of the college's graduate students and about eight percent of the 34,432 students on the College Park campus as a whole.
Terry Anderson hasn't decided whether he will go into agriculture, but he's having a good time taking part in the program, which pays each student $1,500. The 16-year-old from Landover has no trouble summing up his favorite part of his job in the poultry science department: "I like working with chickens."
Anderson works with professor John Doerr analyzing the blood proteins of chickens who have eaten contaminated diets.
How many of these students will actually go into agriculture is unclear. Millicent Ager, 17, who is working on a project involving fatty tissue in mice, said although she is interested in agriculture she plans to pursue a career in computer science, "because that's where the job market is."
Last year, only 25 percent of the participants in the apprenticeship program who attended college in the fall said they planned to major in agriculture. Another 50 percent said they planned to take courses in agriculture.
Earlene Armstrong, an entomologist and the only black Maryland faculty member actually working with the high school students, says the program has had only limited success in luring blacks into agricultural professions. Children need to be exposed to the field in elementary school, she said.
Qualified minorities who are interested in science more often go into medicine and other traditional fields, she said, because they do not have much information on the alternatives. Many of the black colleges across the country offer no undergraduate courses in agriculture, she said, and none offer a Ph.D. program.