Since Ohio Farm Bureau launched the ExploreAg program in 2018, nearly 300 students from across the state have participated in the program’s activities and events. Funded through Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation’s Fisher Fund for Lifelong Learning, ExploreAg introduces young people – at no cost to them – to the vast opportunities a career in agriculture can provide. This is one part of a strategic approach toward the Foundation’s goal to create and enhance youth pathways into careers in agriculture.
The program is also a way to introduce the state’s youth to Ohio Farm Bureau, noted Adam Sharp, OFB executive vice president.
“ExploreAg allows students not only to get to know Farm Bureau, but to understand the value the organization provides,” Sharp explained.
It’s also a way to help attract more career-minded young adults to agriculture-related jobs. According to USDA, there is a nationwide shortage of qualified individuals to fill careers in agriculture. Ohio alone is projected to have 18,000 new job openings annually in related fields through 2020.
“We know that there are not enough food and agriculture college graduates to fill the many agriculture-related jobs that open up each year in the state, so we need to branch out and attract urban and suburban students,” Sharp said.
ExploreAg offers events ranging from a few hours to week-long camps.
During a one-day event in December, 66 students in grades 7-12 took part in informative presentations and hands-on activities at the John Deere Training Center. At this ExploreAg Experience, participants learned about career opportunities with John Deere, Ag Pro and JD Tech while performing hands-on activities with precision agriculture.
Along with a tour of the John Deere facility, the day’s activities included working with the electric system required for machinery to run, a live look at what the farmer experiences in a sprayer, and an observation of the technology required for automation in combines.
ExploreAg also hosts STEM-based summer camps during which high school students are introduced to various aspects of agriculture, food science, environmental sciences and more. The camps are based on the campuses of the Ohio State University, OSU Agricultural Technical Institute and Central State University, a historically black college.
The partnership with Central State University has helped Ohio Farm Bureau broaden the reach of the program to engage with more students.
“We’re really grateful for the partnership with Central State University. It’s helped us to pique the interest of students from diverse backgrounds,” said Melinda Witten, senior director of leadership development for OFB.
Going from two camps in 2018 to four in 2019, including the camp at Central State University, Witten said OFB’s efforts to reach a broader audience have resulted in half of the 2019 camp participants having no connection to agriculture.
The camps have been cancelled for this summer due to COVID-19, but up to 25 students attended each of the four camps offered in 2019. During the week-long camps, the participants interacted with and learned directly from internationally known teachers, scientists and researchers. Among the subjects covered at the ExploreAg Camps are food science, precision agriculture, animal science, natural resources, management skills, technology and agricultural business. The campers also participate in field experiences that highlight cutting-edge research and meet industry partners to provide a glimpse of various careers in related fields.
For example, after learning about food safety in a lab setting, the students traveled to Bob Evans to watch sausage being processed, said Witten.
“We’ve all heard the about sausage-making process and we did have reservations about it,” Witten said before the first visit to Bob Evans in 2019. “But it was the highlight of camp. Seeing the process from the very beginning exposed the students to 20 different jobs at Bob Evans. That’s what this program is all about.”
A number of sponsors, including Nationwide, Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives and Bob Evans, have partnered with ExploreAg to help offset costs related to on-campus accommodations, meals, staffing, course supplies, program materials and transportation. Like all the other ExploreAg programs, the camps are free for the student participants.
Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation was recognized with a 2020 New Horizon Award from the American Farm Bureau Federation for the ExploreAg program. The award, which honors state Farm Bureaus with the most innovative new programs, is presented annually at the AFBF Annual Convention.