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For skills, and survival, more farmers head back to school

(Sunday, March 21, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Jean Ortiz, Associated Press, 03/19/04: Clint Dubas wants only to be a farmer. But because he's not sure he can, he's made other plans.

Dubas went back to school for a degree in agriculture economics to give himself a backup if the cattle business he runs with his father doesn't work out. Lately, because of a weak economy and changes in the farming industry, it hasn't been.

"When I started farming, I didn't start it to become rich," Dubas said. "I just wanted to make a living, and that's not the case."

Dubas isn't alone. Agriculture Department figures show the number of farmers going back to school is rising. Experts say some of these students are searching for fallback skills, like Dubas; others are simply trying to develop the business and technological savvy necessary to compete in modern farming.

"I think that the educational expectations have continued to change over time for the entire rural population and I think farmers are not immune from that," said Robert Gibbs, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service.

According to the ERS, the estimated number of farm operators completing four-year degrees or higher rose from 15.2 percent in 1991 to 20.4 percent in 2001 -- the most recent year for complete figures. The percentage of farmers with some college education rose from 20.6 percent in 1991 to 24.2 percent in 2001.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said the risks in farming today require some sort of safety net.

"Given the financial challenges, and the risks involved (in farming), there's just a lot of parents that want their kids, if they are going to come back, to at least get a college education and training, so that if it doesn't work out on the farm, they've got a backup plan," Hansen said.

Dubas said that's exactly why he enrolled at the University of Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis after finishing high school in 1999. He says he's already using the skills he learned in college to work on farm machinery, supplementing his income.

Peter Korsching, a professor of rural sociology at Iowa State University in Ames, said the need for skills in marketing and purchasing are forcing farmers to become more sophisticated, making higher education well worth the expense in the long run.

Daniel Whitaker, 19, a freshman at Iowa State, said he's doing everything he can to return to the family farm to raise assorted crops, sheep, cattle and hogs.

"I probably wouldn't give my right arm, because I'd need that to farm," he quipped.

Whitaker, of Hillsboro, Iowa, is studying agriculture and biological systems engineering, which he says will give him an edge in raising crops that have the best yields.

While many of his classmates may be giving priority to another career, with farming as a side operation, Whitaker said he hopes to make farming his main venture, while possibly going into politics, like his father, Iowa state Rep. John Whitaker.

A trend of farmers seeking other careers first, whether to build equity or business skills, is also emerging, said Larry Kline, member services director of the Kansas Farm Bureau.

Vern Jansen, 46, a dairy farmer in Plymouth, Neb., said he has no regrets in taking the time to earn a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics years ago, even though he did it to get a break before going into the business established by his great-great grandfather.

He said a college degree merits consideration.

"There's connections I have with people and some of the things I learned," he said. "It's not so much what you learn, but you learn where to go to find answers when you need them."

Jansen cuts hay and corn silage for neighbors to keep pace with rising expenses and milk prices that haven't changed since 1975, he said.

"I'm just happy if I can hold it even," Jensen said.