sealPurdue News

November 1994

New age ahead for agriculture, says new Purdue dean

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Beyond the farm gate.

That's where agriculture is, says Victor Lechtenberg, dean of agriculture at Purdue University since May.

Although the importance of the farmer and the food produced on the farm will never diminish, most job opportunities are available off the farm.

Economics, microbiology, environmental science, marketing, food processing and landscape architecture are some professions awaiting graduates of Purdue's School of Agriculture.

One group of graduates -- food science majors -- has its pick of jobs.

"We've had 100 percent placement of food science graduates the past eight years," Lechtenberg says. "Food science and ag engineering are the hottest job areas both in terms of job placement percentages and high starting salaries."

A survey of all 1994 Purdue ag graduates found that 93 percent had found employment or other professional activities by Oct. 1. This was a slight increase from 1993.

"If you take out the number of students who decided to pursue a graduate degree, this is actually the highest job placement we've seen in the past five years," Lechtenberg says.

Allan D. Goecker, assistant dean of academic programs for the ag school, says he has noticed a few changes in the eight years he has been involved with the job placement survey.

"This year in the area of sales and marketing, companies are hiring more tech reps and fewer order takers. Agriculture is getting increasingly specialized and technical, and the job placements reflect that," Goecker says. "Also, companies are placing most of their emphasis on hiring graduates for entry-level positions rather than looking at individuals for a long-term career. Companies anticipate a lot of movement in a 40-year career, much more than in the past."

Goecker also says that employers have cut back on recruitment. "Several years ago companies would recruit students at 25 or so universities. Now they only go to the top ten in the field they're interested in," he says. (In 1994 the National Education Standards' "Gourman Report" ranked Purdue's School of Agriculture as fourth in the nation overall.)

In Lechtenberg's view, schools of agriculture ought to be broad-based, ought to educate students to get jobs, ought to develop programs to match the job market. So think of row crops and animal husbandry when you think of Purdue Agriculture -- because there are no microwaveable entrees without corn, wheat, cattle and hogs -- but think bigger, broader.

"Because most of our students are from in state, the quality of our graduates relies on the quality of Indiana high school graduates," Lechtenberg says. "So it is essential that we become involved in education in kindergarten through 12th grade."

Also, in the century since tractors replaced horses on farms, many of the low hurdles in production agriculture have been cleared: increasing yields, controlling insects and weeds that choke crops, devising feeding strategies to provide lean meat, to name a few.

"Many of the gains in technology have been made," Lechtenberg says. "Now the knowledge-based strategies have to take over."

One such strategy is "integrated pest management," a complicated year-round plan intended to produce high yields and at the same time reduce reliance on chemicals.

The old way -- applying chemicals before and during the growing season and plowing under what's left after harvest -- has shown its shortcomings. The chemicals don't break down totally, sometimes ending up in streams or wells along with silt and topsoil. And insects and weeds have shown an alarming ability to evolve -- to build up resistance to pesticides and herbicides.

This kind of pest management is studied in the School of Agriculture, taught to students in entomology and crop management classes, and carried to farmers through Purdue Cooperative Extension Service offices throughout Indiana.

Even this kind of strategy -- dependent on constant study, revision and education of producers -- doesn't reach the kind of complexity Lechtenberg has in mind.

"The new strides will be made by unlocking the secrets of nature," he says. "The importance of fundamental research has never been greater."

An example is developing crop varieties that have "built in" resistance to pests.

Nature is filled with plants that repel insects, grow in arid climates or outperform weeds. But nature didn't put these traits in one strain of corn or beans or wheat.

"Genetic improvement offers our best hope of developing varieties that naturally accomplish the work of chemicals," Lechtenberg says.

Any characteristic exhibited by a plant -- or an animal for that matter -- is encoded at the cellular level in its DNA -- deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA holds the secrets of heredity, and transferring these traits from plant to plant is the kind of knowledge-based strategy Lechtenberg talks about.

The work builds on old-fashioned plant breeding -- transferring traits of one plant into the seed of another and trying to grow it to maturity.

But unlocking the secrets of nature and opening the door to crops that exhibit all the traits desired is incredibly complex and at some point involves knitting at the cellular level -- actually cutting away strands of chromosomes from a cell in one plant and splicing them into the cell of another.

The work takes time, money, scientists, and sophisticated laboratory space and equipment.

Lechtenberg says Purdue research will help change the way of things in the same way that tractors changed production agriculture when they replaced horses.

"The advances being made and yet to be made will completely alter life 100 years from now," he says. For instance, he says, renewable resources from the farm field gradually will replace finite raw materials.

Already Purdue researchers are working on:

Further, these new uses of crops and uses of new crops yet to be developed will help the farmer make a living in an era of declining agricultural subsidies.

Sources: Victor Lechtenberg, (765) 494-8391; Internet,
Allan Goecker, (765) 494-8473; Internet,
Writers: Jay Cooperider, (765) 494-9573; Internet,
Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: This story first appeared in Perspective, the quarterly magazine published by Purdue University. Black-and-white photos of Victor Lechtenberg are available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096. To receive the text of this news release via e-mail, send an e-mail message with this text "send purduenews 9411ep6" to this address:

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page