A college degree can open up a lot of doors, but it’s not always obvious how that translates on the farm. Is saddling the tremendous cost of university worth it for those planning to return to a family operation? Much of the work of growing crops or caring for livestock is obtained from first-hand experience; actually operating machinery in the field, unthawing a frozen cattle waterer, or pulling a newborn calf, for example. There are many jobs on the farm that simply cannot be taught, and a farmer needs to be a jack of all trades. So despite the cost or even the relevance to the farm, is there value in a college education? In my opinion; absolutely.
I studied Middle Eastern history and the Arabic language; two things that really don’t provide much direct value to our operation, apart from singing in Arabic to our replacement heifers at feeding time (they have come to associate my rendition of a song by Fares Karam, a popular Lebanese singer, and a treat of cracked corn).
Even though my degree has provided little direct worth to our farm, the indirect value has been irreplaceable. Learning how to do research, to write a paper, to give a speech, and to think critically all provide a lot of value when it comes to the farm. Being able to communicate clearly, verbally and in writing, is really important- in many cases, my success has hinged on it. The few accounting classes for general credits proved to be money well spent. The ability to do our own books and to edit, interpret, and analyze the farm’s financials has been priceless.
Beyond the classes, college teaches you about hard work, follow through, and how to earn your grade. Regardless of the applicability of your college degree to agriculture, someone with any sort of post-secondary training has demonstrated their ability and commitment to self-improvement. Whether it’s a bachelor’s degree in history, an associate’s degree in accounting, or a certification in a trade craft, the direct application of skills learned to the farm’s operations is not as important as the effort given to achieve the end result. Learning how to put in that effort, and what it feels like to do so, is a vital part of any successful farm operation. College isn’t the only way to learn it- but it is one solid way.
Education is always an important path to off-farm income, which is becoming more and more important in family farm economics. In both ag and non-ag areas, a college degree can provide essential skills needed to provide financial support to rural or farm communities. Post-college incomes can diversify a farms balance sheet and give you the financial security you need to farm or keep a farm afloat during hard times. I know welders, truck drivers, bankers, mechanics, CPA’s, and even a former politician that are all farmers along with their day jobs. Each of their respective skills can provide significant advantages to the farm, be it from welding a joint, understanding finances, or fixing broken equipment.
College is expensive and the direct applicability of skills to the farm may be low. But when you consider the broader lessons you learn in college- most importantly, learning how to learn, the costs seems minimal to enormity of the knowledge and skills gains. Human beings excel at learning; the amount of information that can be jammed into our brain is incredible. Demonstrating a willingness to continuously use this natural learning ability to improve ourselves and society is, in my mind, entirely worthwhile.The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members.