Agriculture colleges, long the source of endless cracks about aggies and hayseeds, have become one of the places to be on campus with women and city kids swelling their ranks.
While interest in other fields is declining or leveling off, agriculture schools are riding the crest of a boom that has seen their enrollments triple since 1963, a trend experts expect to continue into the mid 1980s.
Suprisingly, many of the "new aggies" are city and suburban dwellers like Gregg Landrum of Kansas City, Mo. "Kids look at me and say, 'What's a kid from the city doing in agriculture," muses the University of Missouri junior. "But I think agriculture is one of the coming fields. The world's population is growing, and there's more and more demand for food. It has to be dealt with."
"People today are more interested in the basics. It's the whole back to nature and environment bit," adds Leslie Wright of Bethesda, a University of Maryland senior. "Agriculture is the real world. Sociology, history, psychology and those things are all too abstract for me."
Jobs in agribusiness and related fields are another big drawing card. "The employment picture has been very strong in agriculture fields the last five years," says Roger Bruene, placement director at Iowa State University. "We've had more jobs here than we can fill."
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Farming has taken a back seat at other places. The school of agriculture at Rutgers University in New Jersey, for instance, has changed its name to Cook College, and now boosts that its mission is to find "man's relation to the environment." "Very few of the kids who come here are going to be farmers," says Chester Teller, director of college relations. "The idea of going back to the farm has great appeal, but it's very hard to get into farming anywhere in the East. You can't start up with less than a half million bucks."
Instead of farmers, Rutgers and other schools spend most of their time educating graduates who will design golf courses, make bank loans, open up flower shops, go to work for state or federal bureaucracies, teach or join one of the agribusiness giants like Ralston Purina.
nationwide, agriculture enrollments increased from 34,952 in 1963, to 72,644 in 1972, to 97,727 in 1976, according to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. On campus, this growth rate has been matched only in the business and health fields. Last year an estimated half of the ag students from urban backgrounds; 28 per cent of them were women.
Urban students, says Dr. Elmer R. Kiehl, dean of agriculture at the University of Missouri, "see something facinating about agriculture. It may be the old romping horse from the movies, or the big tractors they see on television. Then, a number of them have old ties to the farms. Maybe their grandparents, or great-grandparents were farmers. For them, it's the old nostalgia, back to roots thing."
Several colleges, the universities of Missouri and Minneosta among them, have set up special programs to acquaint their urban students with farms.
But many "new aggies" may never come close to a cow or tractor. They are enrolled in programs in horticulture, forestry, nutrition, home economics or fish and wildlife management, now all popular on campus. The number of horticulture majors at the University of Maryland, for instance, jumped from 74 in 1972 to 360 last year.
Ironically, job prospects, especially for women, are slim in all these areas, except nutrition and home economics Wallace Otterson, director of personnel for the U.S. Forest Service, says there are 3,000 forestry graduates now on Civil Service rolls waiting for employment as forest rangers. Only 55 new rangers were hired last year. To get a job in her field of wildlife management, Leslie Wright of Bethesda says, "You almost have to wait for someone to die."
The biggest and most painful revolution of ag campuses has been the advent of women. Once all-male bastions, many ag classes now are 50 per cent female.
When Bonnie Bell became the second female to enter the University of Nevada's graduate school of animal science, "They really didn't know what to do with me," she recalls. "They didn't know whether to trust me with animals or not. I had to prove myself. After a while, I was treated just like one of the guys."
She also had trouble finding a job because employers "were a little leery of hiring a girl in Nevada. And when she became an instructor at Iowa State last fall, male professors "found it hard to get used to having a female around."
Many women from cities and suburbs enter ag schools hoping to become veterinarians, but quickly find chances of getting into one of the 18 schools of veterinary medicine are slim. "Many of them are unrealistic," says Dr. Orville Bentley, agriculture dean at the University of Illinois. "They've loved an animal at one time, or owned a horse or dog. So they want a career in veterinary medicine. It's a little hard for some of us to take. I told one of the these women that it would scare me to death to have her work on my cows."
Women in horticulture find some of the same problems. At the University of Maryland, Dr. C. B. Link says he tries to discourage women from entering the field: "I tell them there are jobs that women can do in horticulture but they are very limited."
Although almost every ag school - including those in eastern industrial states like Massachusetts - has taken part in the new aggie boom the fastest growing agriculture college in the nation the last two years has been Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. Va.
The home of most agriculture students, however, remains the landgrant schools of the Midwest and West: Texas A&M, the University of California at Davis, Ohio State, Purdue, Iowa State and Michigan State.
There farming has gained a new respectability and the age of farmers has begun to drop in recent years for the first time in decades. The reason is money: the net farm income jumped from $2,400 per farm in 1954 to $4,200 in 1966, to $11,000 in 1973. "There's been a big change in the image of farmers here," says Dr. Lewis Thompson at Iowa State in Ames. "Most of our millionaires in Iowa are farmers these days."
At Iowa State and 13 other Midwestern land-grant schools more and more ag students are going into farming: 20 per cent last year, compared with only 9 per cent a decade ago.
Most experts expect the ag school boom to continue into the mid-1980s. But at the University of Maryland Dean Gordon Cairnes says: "We expect things will taper off. We've had three big periods of growth in agriculture enrollments: right after the depression, the years after World War II with the returning GIs and now the last three or four years.This has been the most pronounced period, but I see no reason to see it as a permanent thing. It's a faddish, tied to the job picture. Why I remember when every tailor in Baltimore wanted his son to be an engineer.