DECATUR — Agribusiness is much different than it was when Kim Kidwell’s career began at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the 1980s.
Now, as the dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the university, she spoke at the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce's Ag Cafe about the future of agriculture.
Kidwell brought her insights to an audience of more than 50 on Tuesday afternoon at the Beach House in Nelson Park for the semiannual gathering at which local business leaders learn about agribusiness and make connections.
The message was simple, Kidwell said: Business leaders should share with young people what they do and why it matters. In her profession, this is a key way to keep younger generations excited about agriculture, she said, especially as the profession changes.
For example, Kidwell said she meets with representatives from Tate & Lyle and Archer Daniels Midland Co. to learn about the type of jobs available in agribusiness and the skills students need. This allows the university to prepare students to be qualified workers in the ever-changing agribusiness field.
Local business leaders also learned about the changing world of agribusiness and the effects it may have on their operations. Here are three things Kidwell highlighted:
Not all ag majors are fresh off the farm
The student population is more diverse, Kidwell said. This means not all students and workers were raised on a farm themselves, she said. Women and minorities are joining the field.
One change with this is not all young people are aware of the career opportunities available in agriculture and require additional exposure, she said.
Young people in the past were more aware of farming and agriculture jobs, but this is changing. One focus is to expose children to agriculture and giving them the chance to ask questions and learn about job opportunities.
Examples are the new FFA program launching in the Decatur School District — known as the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy — and sixth-grade students attending the Farm Progress Show, which are initiatives funded by Macon County Sheriff Howard G. Buffett's private foundation.
Agriculture is more data and technology focused
Farming and scientific study are becoming more technology focused. In the field of agriculture research, these overlap, Kidwell said.
Farmers drive equipment with GPS capability and are always looking to increase yields, while decreasing production costs.
Scientists address these concerns through researching seed genetics and data analysis. Some research like measuring plant yields by hand to find the best specimen, can now be done with the use of drone equipment, Kidwell said.
Agriculture helping to solve world problems
From studying obesity in children to the effects and reasons for world hunger, Kidwell said food sciences are leading the way in research to solve health problems.
One focus of agriculture is to ensure all people have access to healthy food. This means scientists research food security and agriculture in other parts of the world. This includes improving seed genetics and creating sustainable farming practices for local and global farmers.
Some researchers are working to improve local water supplies by partnering with farmers to purify field runoff. Excess nutrients in fertilizer, for example, can affect water quality when it rains or when water and soil containing nitrogen and phosphorus wash into nearby waters or leach into ground waters, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.