EDITORIAL: Lost chance: Agriculture courses dropped as need apparently growing

It’s unfortunate that Texas State Technical College has decided to drop its agriculture technology program, at a time when people with this unique training might soon be more in demand — and necessary.

It’s especially unfortunate in an area like South Texas, where much of the economy remains dependent on agriculture — from vegetable and citrus crops to sugar cane, cotton, commercial fishing and shrimping and even wildlife management at our refuges.

TSTC officials said they decided to shutter the program after tracking former students and finding that only half held jobs that utilized their training, with wages of about $28,000 a year.

As ag director Sammy Gavito noted, students left the program prepared to land jobs with government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Animal Health Commission. They work at packing houses, retail meat and produce markets and food inspection stations all over the country. Many go on to complete their degree plans at Texas A& M University; six of the current TSTC students already plan to move on to A&M.

It’s understandable that professional and technical colleges focus more on short-term job placement; they are funded in relation to their students’ postgraduate success.

But agricultural science is not a profession for those seeking prestige or wealth, especially with market pressure to keep food prices low and affordable.

But the low return belies the immense value it has for all of humanity. And it appears that value will only increase.

New challenges constantly are arising concerning how to feed a growing population amid steadily declining farm and ranchland, as well as increasingly unstable weather patterns and their effect on planting and harvesting seasons — not to mention the constant threat of new pests and diseases that attack our livestock and produce.

Not that long ago — just a few short decades — a movement that was growing in popularity called for“zero population growth.” Proponents pushed the theory that world had reached its capacity for agricultural production and we wouldn’t be able to feed a growing population. Widespread famine and death were predicted.

Since then advancements including raised-bed seeding and genetic engineering have increased productivity and reduced spoilage, easing such apocalyptic fears. But as more farm and ranch land is developed for new homes and businesses, research must continue to keep those overpopulation concerns at bay.

Adding research to address such threats might be a better policy than shuttering the agriculture program and thus reducing the number of people studying the subject — or driving them elsewhere, perhaps other parts of the country, to find the education they desire.

Fortunately, the expansion of Texas A& M in the Rio Grande Valley and continued growth of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will continue to provide local options for agriculture students. But with so much of the Valley still devoted to food production, our preference would be to see a greater, not lower, investment in agriculture sciences.