Michael Short, Delmarva Correspondent/University of Maryland News
- The University of Maryland plans to begin a mentoring program pairing agronomy students with farmers for most of their college years.
It’s a pairing meant to immerse students in the community and culture of farming while giving them the benefit of experience. For farmers, it’s a chance to pass on their skills and influence a younger generation still trying to find its way.
This will help students decide if farming is what they really want to do, said Bill Phillips, a professor at the University of Maryland. If the answer is yes, then he hopes the combination of hitting the books and working up a sweat will build future farmers ready to hit the ground running.
Phillips spoke about the new program on July 22 at the Maryland Commodity Classic.
“We want to partner with you. We’re looking for people to mentor our students,” he told the audience. “You really have the information the students need.”
Phillips said that the program will not replace the current internship requirement for agronomy students. Instead, it would pair up a student and farmer beginning in their sophomore year. He hopes to begin the program this year and extend it to include horticulture students next year.
“I think that we’re on our way to really get this kicked off,” he said.
He has pushed for good internship opportunities, but found that students were often not staying in touch with the farmers or ag professionals they had worked with.
“I thought ‘there has got to be a better way,’” he said.
Phillips said the inspiration came from spending time on farms when he was younger.
“I loved plants and being on the farm,” he said. “It really helped to put what I was learning in school in focus. I want them to grow not just as a person and in learning, but also as a person involved in the farming community.”
Phillips said that farming is not just a job, but a position that is tied very much to the local community and culture. He said farmers share equipment, offer advice over morning coffee, share stories and often work together. That’s far different from the intensely competitive world of many fields.
“It’s not like a lot of careers,” he said.
From barn raisings to wheat threshing and hog killings, farmers have often been a closely knit community for generations.
“Farmers really worked together,” he said.
Those farms have strong connections to local economies, he said. Farming is considered one of the biggest industries in both Maryland and Delaware.
“Farms support communities. Without farms, some of these communities wouldn’t be able to thrive,” Phillips said.
He said that most of his students don’t have a farm in their family background. He hopes mentoring will give students a chance to talk with, learn from and question local farmers. Maybe that means working together or sharing a cup of coffee or perhaps even buying the farm when an older farmer retires, he said.