AIKEN - Few young people are entering careers in agriculture these days, but the South Carolina Department of Agriculture is trying to show high school students that the industry involves more than a tractor and a few cows.
State Agriculture Commissioner Charles Sharpe announced last month a weeklong summer program at Clemson University, the state's main agricultural institution, that aims to steer young people toward agribusiness, fight the stereotype of the common farmer and show students where groceries come from.
The program will introduce about 20 high school students to different areas in agriculture, including production, packaging, genetics and other research.
"Farming is a business. When I talk to kids and ask them where milk comes from, they say the shelves at Piggly Wiggly," said Joe Varn, an extension agent for Barnwell and Bamberg counties. "That program will help get kids exposed to different areas of farming, and that's a good idea because we need more farmers."
Young farmers are quickly disappearing. The national average age of a farmer is 54, and in South Carolina it is 56. Farmers are retiring, and their children are entering other careers.
Mr. Sharpe said he hopes his summer school will help reverse this trend.
"I hope (the program) will be a recruiting tool for Clemson," he said. "We want to promote agriculture in their future and get them thinking about careers in agriculture."
Joe Wilson, who teaches agriculture at Aiken High School, said he hopes to have one or two of his students attend the school this summer because he knows it will play a decisive role when they select a career.
"The school will enlighten students about all the opportunities, and I think it will help them become better prepared to work in the industry later down the road," he said.
Josh O'Rear, 17, a senior at Aiken High, has already applied to attend Clemson in the fall and said he hopes to pursue a career in agricultural economics. Mr. Wilson said Josh would be a good candidate for the summer program.
"I have enjoyed working with plants, and I have seen all the opportunities there are in the field," Josh said. "It has just been so much fun for me, and I enjoy the hands-on work."
Mr. Sharpe said his program will start at Clemson but may be expanded to other colleges if it proves successful.
"This will be so important to young people because they have no idea how food finds its way to the shelves at the grocery store," he said. "I hope we can educate them and get them interested, because somebody has got to feed the nation."
The average age of the American farmer is on the rise, with fewer young people willing to plow the fields:
UNITED STATES: 54
SOUTH CAROLINA: 56
Reach Peter G. Gilchrist at (803) 648-1395.