Farmers and Education


A college education doesn’t necessarily make you a better backhoe operator; nor does the lack of one.

It never ceases to amaze me that so many people have a vision of farmers and ranchers as hayseeds who have limited education and can just barely read. That prejudice often extends to all of those who dwell in more rural areas. It’s as though “formal” education and advanced degrees are the prerogative of those who “work clean.” One of the girls who graduated from high school with the eldest granddaughter talked about the prejudice she ran into along those lines. In her valedictorian commencement speech, she said her advanced mathematics teacher asked why the student would need such knowledge if she was “just going to be a farmer.” Other counselors and teachers expressed surprise that she would have such high grades since she came from a farming background. These folks were not only displaying an unfortunately common prejudice about those involved in agricultural work, they were sadly misinformed. In reality, there are plenty of folks out there in the sticks who are highly educated.

Don’t let the google-eyes fool you; all these 4H kids either went on to college or are headed there.

As of 2017, 69 percent of farmers under 35 years old had college degrees, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s considerably higher than the general population. About one-quarter of all farmers have college degrees – and not necessarily in agriculture. Writer and farmer Wendell Berry holds an MA in English from the University of Kentucky and was a Guggenheim Fellow. The late Contrary Farmer Gene Logsdon completed the work for a PhD, although he never actually got his doctorate. I’m willing to bet, knowing Gene, that he got ticked off at jumping through the required hoops and told the dissertation committee to go take a hike. Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser, of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastapol, have multiple degrees. The Kaisers’ degrees are in international relations, natural resources management and sustainable development (Paul), and public health and nursing (Elizabeth). John Jeavons (Ecology Action/Biointensive Gardening) has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale. Mel Bartholomew (Square Foot Gardening) was trained as an engineer. Elliott Coleman (Four Seasons Farm) has a master’s degree in Spanish literature.
I have a couple of friends in a very small community up the road about 40 miles who have lived in the woods since the 1980s or earlier. They use a Pelton wheel to generate their electricity and implemented a number of other forward-thinking improvements on their homestead well before such things became fashionable. One is an electronics and computer wizard; not sure what his actual degree is but I suspect it’s a master’s or PhD. The other was a nuclear physicist in a former life. However, I know him from his multi-year tenure as the executive director of a small community health center well out in the boonies. He LOVES data-driven decisions and is fond of saying that very few things in this world are rocket science. His favorite tee shirt is one a group of friends got him to celebrate a major birthday milestone. The logo on the front of the shirt says, “It’s not rocket science.” The logo on the back reads: “But I AM a rocket scientist!”
In my own little town – about 400 souls when everybody’s home at night – we have three veterinarians, a dentist, a Doctor of Divinity, several registered nurses, at least six teachers, a physician and a lawyer. My late father was a vascular surgeon and a rancher. I can think of at least 10 local people off the top of my head who hold either bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Some, like the Kaisers, hold more than one advanced degree. You’ll find them building fence, bucking hay, wrangling cows, raising their own food and cutting wood. Apparently they don’t buy into the notion that higher education has no place in the farming world.

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1 Response to Farmers and Education

  1. Karen says:

    Makes me think of the saying that goes something like, “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.” Joel Salatin is another person that has been disparaged due to being “just” a farmer. Yet, like the others you have noted, the man is a genius. What an upside down world we live in.

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