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Celebrate the Faces of Agriculture During Virginia Agriculture Week

By: M. Ray McKinnie, Dean/1890 administrator, College of Agriculture at Virginia State University.

With the arrival of spring comes a perfect time to celebrate the industry and all the people working on the frontlines and behind the scenes. First thoughts may be the farmer on his tractor already at work at dawn, the sun rising over fallow fields, rows of freshly plowed soil. Virginia Agriculture Week is March 18-24, and Tuesday, March 20 is National Agriculture Day. I ask you to think about the people who are the heart and soul of American agriculture and those who support agricultural industries.

For more than 100 years, Virginia State University’s (VSU) College of Agriculture has supported farmers and provided a rigorous curriculum for its students who have gone on to successful careers in agriculture. Our alumnae have made and continue to make notable contributions to the industry, and our current students the next generation of rising stars. Students with Ag degrees pursue careers in state and federal government agencies, in agribusiness, teaching and research, veterinary medicine, and traditional farming and ranching.

These are some of the many and diverse faces of agriculture.

They’re the people who plan and administer 4-H programs, like Dr. Maurice Smith, a 2009 VSU graduate, who recently returned to oversee the university’s 4-H programming with Virginia Cooperative Extension. Smith will develop innovative programs to meet the needs of urban and hard-to-reach youth that are not aware of 4-H. 

They work in state and federal government agencies to advance and implement agricultural policy. Ronald Howell Jr., a 2009 VSU graduate, has had an impressive career with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and most recently served as a special assistant in the Office of the Secretariat for Agriculture and Forestry in Virginia. Dr. Robert Holland, a 1978 VSU graduate, serves as the associate director for operations at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) after an outstanding career in veterinary medicine.

They have dedicated their entire careers to agriculture. People like Dr. Clint Turner, who is the first Virginian and first VSU alumnus to be inducted into the George Washington Carver Public Service. Turner started as an Extension specialist, then served as associate vice president for agriculture and Extension with the College of Agriculture. He is also a former Virginia commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.

On the frontlines, it’s people like Cliff Somerville, who has spent 30 years working alongside farmers in the field as part of our Small Farm Outreach Program. Dozens of Virginia Cooperative Extension specialists and agents are at work every day at VSU to support farmers across the commonwealth.

And they’re the future of the industry. As one of three universities in the commonwealth that offers a four-year degree in agriculture, VSU prepares the next generation agricultural workforce. VSU students and USDA/1890 Scholars like Ivi Mitchell and Keia Jones will be well equipped to pursue post-graduate studies and careers in agriculture and to contribute in a global economy.

Agriculture is a growth industry. Each year it contributes $70 billion to Virginia’s economy. A study conducted by the UDSA-NIFA and Purdue University, suggests each year there are 57,900 job openings in agriculture and related fields. Annually 35,400 students graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher in Ag, which means there are 22,500 vacancies. Annual starting salaries in agriculture are more than $51,000.

I strongly encourage urban and rural youth to consider a career in food and agriculture. There are almost limitless opportunities and the future is very bright. Design your preferred future—become an agriculture major!

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