Back to the Farmlands: African Americans Excel in Agricultural Fields
By Dianne Anderson
How to get more Blacks back to fields of agriculture hasn’t been the easiest of tasks for Sharon Nance.
When she first started recruiting high school students to consider good paying farm careers, she hardly received a warm welcome. “Students would walk past my table and make cow and pig sounds. I said, okay, I get it,” she said.
However, she often caught the ear of their parents on how their students could get into good fields to match their interests, whether business, worldwide travel, marketing, scientific research, economics or statistics.
“My task was to reframe agriculture from the traditional strictly production agriculture,” she said. “You can take virtually anything, look at a component, and add it to agriculture.”
Careers are wide open. In fact, she said some of the best agricultural schools in the nation are deeply embedded in Black history.
In the 1890’s, colleges were the only way that African Americans could pursue specialized mechanical and agricultural science degrees. Unlike the HBCU’s, which mostly focused on Liberal Arts, the 1890’s Black land grant colleges served students who were otherwise discriminated from attending land grant colleges.
Today, she said those 1890s colleges are still going strong, and countless jobs are available across numerous categories.
Agriculture is not what it used to be.
Nance works with scientists across the board, including MANRRS (minorities in agriculture, natural resources, and related sciences), an organization that assists minority youth in agricultural careers.
“These students get fully supported room, board, and tuition. They get stipends for summer work experiences that can take them through any USDA agency across the country,” she said.
The 1890’s colleges offer scholarships and many amenities to lure students to consider careers where they can earn good money, and, it doesn’t necessarily involve a shovel.
Students, for instance, can choose lab research in North Carolina for their first summer, and scope out the Northwest to work forest service the following summer. As a college grad, she said an entry-level USDA researcher might start in government at $55-60,000 a year. If they venture into the private sector, they can add another $25,000.
“And that’s three or four months after you get your college degree,” she said.
Nance, a self-described “child of asphalt and chain link fences,” is from Cleveland Ohio. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio Dominican University, and a Master’s Degree in Education, as well as a Ph.D. in Rural Sociology and Agricultural Economics, both from Ohio State University.
Among her own varied expertise, she has worked the Civil Rights Division, Legislative Affairs Office, the Outreach Division, and served as a USDA StrikeForce Coordinator for eight western states. She also has a background as a Soil Conservationist, a District Conservationist and an Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations.
Some fast-growing fields within agriculture are in environmental science. In California, anything in forestry, water or air related careers are hot. Commodity exchange and foreign agriculture positions to assist in negotiating international trade agreements are among the many possibilities.
The money is great, but African American students are not really going after the opportunities. “It’s a pittance,” she said. “You blink your eye and you’re going to miss us.”
But for those who make the leap, they are loving it.
Some of today’s top agricultural career go-getters include:
Curtis Tarver – Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations in southern California with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Tarver is located in Riverside, watching over and guiding field offices for ten counties, an equivalent to one-third of the state from the coast and the desert to urban agricultural regions to the mountain forests. Among his specialty areas are farm irrigation systems, water quality, and soil erosion reduction.
Tarver holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He began his career as a soil conservationist in Fresno, later serving as District Conservationist in Visalia. Since then, he has received national civil rights recognition for him and his team, credited with introducing the San Joaquin Valley resource conservation districts to central California’s minority producers. He is currently president of the West region Chapter of the National Organization of Professional Black NRCS Employees.
Sam Cobb — District Conservationist at the Blythe, CA NRCS Field Office
Cobb has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Education from Fresno State University, an area of study and work he describes as a lifelong passion. Among his specialty skills are production agriculture, such as evaluating the irrigation conditions of an Alfalfa field.
He says the profession gives him the opportunity to work directly with farmers and ranchers, and like-minded people.
“People who want to produce the best crops possible, while at the same time maintaining and improving their soil and water resources, so that growing cycles will continue on and into future generations,” he said.
For more information, see https://nifa.usda.gov/program/1890-land-grant-institutions-programs