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Agriculture companies are desperate for workers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you want to work in agriculture but life on a farm is not for you, well, here's some news. The largest number of open positions in agriculture are in cities and in science. Kate Grumke of Harvest Public Media reports on a new crop of ag jobs.

KATE GRUMKE, BYLINE: A parking lot with office buildings in suburban St. Louis is also lined with something a bit out of character - rows of huge greenhouses. This is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a research institute devoted to studying plants. In a lab in one of the buildings on the campus, people are sitting at stations lined with trays of bacteria cultures. You can hear the hum of freezers and the buzz of a labeler. They're working on a bacterial product for plants used in agriculture.

NATALIE BREAKFIELD: It's almost like a probiotic for a plant.

GRUMKE: That's Natalie Breakfield, vice president for research and discovery at NewLeaf Symbiotics, a biotechnology startup. Although this is a science-heavy job, not every position here requires a Ph.D. NewLeaf has some hands-on lab positions requiring just an associate's degree or technical training program. Breakfield does have a Ph.D., but she says she came to this field in a roundabout way. She had a molecular biology degree but didn't really have any experience with plants before starting her first job as a lab technician.

BREAKFIELD: Well, I knew I liked science. I didn't really know these kind of jobs existed. And that was my first real introduction into working with plants, and then I actually just fell in love with it.

GRUMKE: While it worked out well for Breakfield, that's a key challenge for the agriculture industry - making sure people who like science know about these types of careers. Kim Kidwell sees this firsthand as an associate chancellor at the University of Illinois and a former dean of the College of Agriculture.

KIM KIDWELL: When people meet folks that work in the ag industry, they're often shocked about what they actually do for a living. And, you know, there's a lot of engineering. There's a lot of business. There's a lot of computer science. There's so many things that underpin what we do in food ag, and people just don't connect the dots.

GRUMKE: Corteva Agriscience is also feeling the demand for workers. The global chemical and seed company lists about 500 open positions on its website right now, based all over the country. Angela Latcham leads the company's North America seed production and supply chain teams and says people think they have to have an agriculture degree to work for a company like Corteva.

ANGELA LATCHAM: And that's far from the truth. We're looking for people with, you know, nontraditional backgrounds.

GRUMKE: Back in St. Louis, one program is trying to fill the worker pipeline by training students to work in labs. Elizabeth Boedeker runs St. Louis Community College's Center for Plant and Life Sciences. She says even without a four-year degree, her students are in high demand, and salaries for these jobs are around $45,000.

ELIZABETH BOEDEKER: You are getting some solid foundation, and there is a huge workforce demand right now. So the odds are pretty good you're going to get a job at the end.

GRUMKE: One of her students is Kasha Vanyoka (ph), who was exposed to agriculture early in Poland, where she grew up on a farm. Vanyoka has always been interested in science but has an untraditional education background and never finished her degree.

KASHA VANYOKA: But it's fine because everybody's education takes different pathways. And I think this is important to recognize that not every pathway is good for everybody.

GRUMKE: Vanyoka says now she's finally found her field, working part time at a plant science startup while finishing up her community college program. After that, she says she wants to keep doing research in microbiology, not on a farm but in the city.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Grumke.

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INSKEEP: Harvest Public Media is a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest and Great Plains reporting on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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