Career pathways abound in North Carolina agriculture

Posted January 25, 2021 11:43 a.m. EST

As the largest economic driver in the state, agriculture employs more than 700,000 North Carolinians in fields such as agricultural engineering, plant biology and farm management. (sedrikfoto/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, BASF.

Last year, agriculture-related industries contributed $1.109 trillion to the United States gross domestic product — and North Carolina played a significant role in helping reach that total. More than 46,000 farms cover 8.4 million acres of land across North Carolina, which is roughly the equivalent of 11 million football fields. Through these farms, agriculture has become the state's biggest economic driver, employing over 700,000 people.

With such a significant impact, the industry has career pathways available in everything from communications to engineering.

"Agriculture is probably one of the most diverse industries there is. We need all skill sets to truly collaborate and solve one of the world's most pressing challenges – how to feed and clothe the world's growing population with less natural resources like land and water," said Robert Upton, director of marketing for U.S. Crop Protection at BASF, a chemical company with an emphasis on agriculture and crop protection. "Today, I imagine you would find that many agriculture jobs are off the farm. At BASF, I engage with business people, scientists, lab technicians, chemical engineers, software developers, lawyers, community activists and even meteorologists to name a few. With advancements in technology, we are continuing to see crossover in interest and opportunities from traditional tech, IT and software."

Upton's background in agriculture stretches back as far as he can remember.

Growing up on a farm in a small town in rural Northeastern North Carolina, Upton was an active member of 4-H and the National FFA Organization throughout his childhood.

Through these experiences, he broadened his understanding of agriculture and what it takes to make the industry successful — including aspects of science, business and technology. In doing so, he quickly learned that potential careers in agriculture covered a much wider spectrum than he originally thought.

"My career in agriculture has continually evolved – just like the industry itself. I've been fortunate to experience many facets and disciplines within the agriculture industry, and I've held positions in the veterinary pharmaceutical, animal feed ingredient and crop protection sectors of agriculture," said Upton. "I began my career in the technical sciences discipline and over time progressed to sales, marketing and business management roles.  I've had the opportunity to live and work abroad, as well as travel to more than 50 countries on five continents throughout my career, experiencing agriculture in many forms and fashions."

Now, Upton leads the marketing organization that has responsibility for all U.S. crop protection products for BASF. As the marketing director, his department works alongside the company's farmers and partners to provide information on products that may be helpful to their farm operations.

According to Upton, the FFA remains a valuable resource for young adults curious about a career in agriculture.

Chloe Hobbs, current North Carolina FFA state president, similarly grew up around agriculture and has since learned of the career opportunities available in the field — just as Upton did years before her.

"When it comes to specific topics and careers in agriculture, there are a wide variety of different pathways that offer many careers — but a lot of careers aren't specific to only one pathway. In animal systems, for example, it might include anything from being an animal geneticist on the science side to a breeding manager on the business side," said Hobbs. "When people think about agriculture, they might not think about technology and engineering and lab research — they might think of it as being in the field and getting dirty working with animals and plants, but it's that and so much more."

Currently in college, Hobbs plans to graduate with a degree in communication. Moving forward, she hopes to use the communication skills she learns to contribute to the world of agriculture, whether it's becoming an extension agent and spreading information to the public or an advocate for the agriculture industry.

Many high schools in North Carolina offer agricultural education programs, and local organizations like the FFA can help young people connect with more agricultural opportunities. Hobbs also recommends researching online resources provided by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National FFA Organization. These websites offer information on the foundation of agriculture, as well as details on scholarships and programs.

While some misconceptions about what sort of careers are available in agriculture may still exist, both Hobbs and Upton emphasize the wide range of possibilities the industry offers.

"You can find other industries and sectors that seek professionals with an agriculture background or degree," said Upton. "For example, a drone company who is working to collect data on weather patterns would want someone who understands how weather patterns affect the growing season and crop yields in order to interpret the data in a way that's useful for farmers."

"Oftentimes you might be riding down the road and see workers in a field and think that's agriculture. But when you go to the grocery store and see things like bread, vegetables and even clothes made out of cotton, all of that goes straight back to agriculture too," echoed Hobbs. "No matter what field that you plan to go into, whether it's in college or a trade school, there is a place for you in agriculture and there's a wide range of careers available. The potential is almost endless, and as an agricultural advocate, I hope to help people see that."

This article was written for our sponsor, BASF.

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