Ag leader of the future: The farmer technologist
An interview with Dr. Karl Dawson
The following is an edited transcript of our interview with Dr. Karl Dawson, vice president and chief scientific officer at Alltech. For Karl’s full bio, click here.
Before you joined Alltech, you were head of the University of Kentucky (UK) animal science department for 20 years, and you still serve as an adjunct professor with UK. You have a unique insight from being in the private sector business as well as academia. How do we interest the next generation in ag science?
That’s a real interesting question because there’s been a gap develop between what we call agriculture, particularly animal science, and the technologies that are being developed today. As a scientist, I think the technologies are really exciting, but sometimes it’s kind of hard to get the next generation, particularly the people from rural America and agriculture, to get excited about the same things. We have a lot of unique technologies. We talk about molecular biology and the things we can see with molecular biology; most farmers I talk to, most siblings from farmer’s kids that are coming off the farm, do not have a good understanding of what those things are, so we have this gap that we need to fill.
What we’re finding is that often times just the university education is not enough to give them confidence and the ability to lead in agriculture through using these technologies. One of the things we are doing right now is looking at a lot of outside programs that go beyond their degree and beyond academic training to see how we can interest students in doing those things. It starts at a very young level. We have programs that are set up at the elementary school. On our staff in research, we have two liaisons that do nothing but interact with college, high school and elementary students to get them interested in what we’re doing in terms of science and how that can be incorporated into farm life.
Other programs that are very interesting are those that are competitive. We have an innovation program, where we have students build projects that will become a business plan themselves, taking technology and applying it to specific problems. It’s an outside-of-the-classroom activity that gets students excited. There is nothing like seeing them light up when they win an award for a project.
We have, at a higher level up, a career program. This is built around the idea that students who come out of college need that little extra boost and piece of information. We actually take students and embed them into the business situation and, in some cases, right on the farm so they get to know the animals and what the farm business really looks like. This is before they go out and try to set up their own business or work within a commercial business.
The take-home message is that we really need to give experience, hands-on experience outside of the classroom. That’s really becoming almost a requirement for our people as they move into our business.
That certainly makes sense. As a professor, and on the Alltech side as the head of our research program, are the up-and-comers that you’re seeing from an agriculture background, or do they come into agriculture by chance because of other things they are interested in?
You run into both kinds. I came up through the agricultural school system, so I’m used to land-grant universities and the kids that came from the farm. But I actually looked at the list of students that were competing in our Young Scientist awards, and I asked them: How many of you are from an agriculture background? Of the 15 sitting in the room, only two raised their hands. You know, the kids are gravitating to agriculture because they see some of the applications that can take place.
It’s almost reverse of what we think. We think about children leaving the farm and never coming back. These are students coming in from urban environments, from science environments, and wanting to understand what’s going on on the farm.
That’s encouraging and fascinating.
It really is. You think about that and it really reflects the excitement of agriculture research and application technology. I kind of coined a term I’m going to use in my presentation here talking about the “farmer technologist”; that is the kind of people who will probably be our leaders in the future.