Are There Many Viable Careers in Agroforestry?

Most of my opinions about getting a job based on agroforestry / regenerative agriculture stem from the time I was fresh out of college a little over one decade ago.

At that time I was considering Mizzou's agroforestry masters degree program, but I didn't feel like I could justify the investment. It seemed the program would be churning out many more graduates than job vacancies needing to be filled in the market. This is similar to what I've learned in Peru. I have met many "Ingeniero agronomos" and "Ingeniero forestales" (Agronomists and Forestry Engineers, respectively) who have shared that the vast majority of their former classmates and graduates never found work in their field.

The limited openings I did see globally were generally for PhD level scientists working for the FAO and other similar organizations. The openings were few and far between and generally reserved for those with very senior level experience.

It seemed that the topic of study was better suited to individuals looking to improve their approach to their own farms, or for the few with enough knowledge, marketing experience, business savvy, a large network and the self-confidence (absence of impostor syndrome) to feel they could make an honest living by being a consultant, giving advice to others.

After college, I decided to simply study on my own time. I volunteered for a local non-profit in California that focused on cultivating mission-era fruit trees in a mixed orchard, representing a living example of the plants cultivated by the Spaniards in Alta California hundreds of years ago. Similarly, I published my book, Alternative Crops for Drylands, Proactively Adapting to Climate Change and Water Shortages.

Nevertheless, I still did not envision a proper career path, seeing almost exclusively volunteer positions available unless at the very senior levels.

Ultimately, I decided not to go that route. I became a long-haul truck driver instead, lived out of the truck, and grew substantial savings for the first time in my life. This provided the opportunity for my wife and I to own land in her native country, Peru. Other than some small-scale mediterranean-climate orchardry management and gardening I was finally able to exercize my passion in depth - now in a tropical context.

That's what I have been concentrating on for the past three years in the high jungle in Rioja, Peru. It has been fulfilling, as the pace of ecological succession is night and day compared to my native mediterranean climate. Reforestation is tangible within three years.

So, naturally, I fell into the earlier mentioned category of "individuals looking to improve their approach to their own farms." I feel that is where most participants of this discussion group are as well.

So, now that it's been a little over a decade, what is the job market like? Are there jobs for someone with my experience in certain organizations? Private businesses? Would I fit for a "caretaker" or property manager position? How much could one expect to earn in this sector at a position well-below the senior FAO ultra PhD level?

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Follow-up question: What additional training/education programs are recommended? What specialty niches should be focused on? I was thinking about going down the rabbit hole of plant nutrition and making that my primary focus.

My formal education as it relates to the topic, is restricted to a degree in Environmental Horticulture at the Associate (Technical) level. I also graduated from the University, but the areas of study were the Spanish and Basque languages.

Thanks for this good question Scott. It took me a while to find work focused on agroforestry, and I would have agreed with your post completely a few years ago, but thankfully there is some progress. Here’s some big picture thoughts specific to temperate-climate agroforestry in the USA:

Mainstream support for agroforestry has grown dramatically each year for the past 5 or so years. I mean that both in terms of growing recognition for its importance, in terms of federal, state, and philanthropic investments in it, and more jobs focused on or related to it.

Institutions expect workers to have Bachelors or Masters degrees in many cases (e.g. extension, government agencies, non-profits with federal funds). It's a tough situation as we recognize a need for more agroforestry experts and empowering underserved communities, yet require degrees that are often inaccessible (in terms of time, expense, and more) and as you said, academic paths toward agroforestry looked risky in the past. Most people I know working in agroforestry are entrepreneurial: consultants, educators, ecological landscapers or consulting foresters. Despite significant expertise, they may be seen as unqualified for job openings because they did not spend years and lots of money on academics, but they are finding their own niches and clients.

Even for those pursuing academic credentials, there is a dearth of university courses specific to agroforestry (silvopasture, forest farming, alley cropping) with few exceptions. Landscape architecture/design or ecological engineering has always struck me as the closest technical training to permaculture, forest gardening, and multifunctional hedges and buffers. Still, there are many other useful skills to learn at school: forestry, horticulture/agronomy, project management, farm/forest business management, communications. Any of those topics would help someone work on agroforestry and would open the door to other environmental jobs.

In any case, there is now a growing demand for agroforestry-specific work. As an example, in the past year here are a few of the agroforestry-focused vacancies filled or still open. Cornell Cooperative Extension: Agroforestry Educator, (2) Ag Climate Resiliency Specialists, Payment for Ecosystem Services Educator (focused on agroforestry). Pasa Sustainable Agriculture: Agroforestry Coordinator, and numerous related positions. PA DCNR Bureau of Forestry: Ecosystem Products and Markets Specialist (supporting agroforestry). USDA: Director of National Agroforestry Center, Natural Resources Specialist in Agroforestry. NRCS is also expanding support for agroforestry practices.

Maybe more importantly, there are bigger needs in related fields moving closer to agroforestry practices in day-to-day operations. Forestry, urban forestry, and watershed health are fields with many openings and soon to be many more as average-aged employees near retirement. One example highlighting forestry careers is https://paforestcareers.com/ and that does not include opportunities with arboriculture companies and landscape/horticulture work.

Hopefully this is an encouraging shift. Still much progress to be made, but I’m happy to share: more agroforestry-focused jobs are opening up, and related work in forestry and agriculture is moving closer to (and getting funding for) what we think of as agroforestry in terms of holistically and mutualistically meeting our needs with trees and forests.

Zooming in on your specific situation/second question: a practical Associates degree, with in-field experience, and the ability to speak English and Spanish fluently seems like a great background for job applications. From there I’d consider what your main strengths/specialties are (e.g., design, education, project management, implementation of a specific type of practice) and look for who is getting that kind of work done in your area.

As an example, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture is hiring a part-time Farmer Outreach Specialist, which does not require a degree and offers a higher rate of pay for Spanish fluency: https://pasafarming.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Farmer-Outreach-... Maybe not relevant for you, just one example of what's out there. Pasa's other job postings are at https://pasafarming.org/jobs-internships/

Thanks for the long and detailed response. I appreciate your perspective. It sounds like it is just a matter of understanding one's own pursuits and preferences. It's helpful to know of some real examples of actual jobs available in order to see what one can work towards. 

Based on your description, it sounds like agroforestry has grown in mainstream acceptance over the past years. That is good news. In my case, I think I tend more towards entrepreneurial pursuits, but it is also nice to have the option and stability of a job. 

Would you recommend the missouri online masters degree program? I would have to think long and hard about what I would end up doing with it. I could potentially see myself consulting for others' projects someday, both in Peru and the USA and possibly other countries, but I also don't view that as something stable to rely on. I am autodidactic and definitely don't need a degree to successfuly run my own farm(s). I prefer to learn things for free (who doesn't?) and am passionate about studying these topics in my spare time. I can fill in the gaps of knowledge piecemeal by studying a topic in-depth whenever it comes up. The disadvantage with this is the lack of structure: having to sift through low-quality information, clickbait, paywalls, not knowing which books are the most relevant, etc. as well as the complete lack of mentorship to help focus my attention in the right areas. Lots of time can be wasted. 

Likewise, I know of no reliable, objective way to vet the quality of a university degree program. I checked with my alma mater, UNR, and their agricultural science Bachelor degree program includes a lot of general education requirements such as US History, English, and other courses that are not relevant to my core interest of agronomy and plant nutrition. So clearly lots of time could be wasted with university programs as well.

What I'm really interested in, would be some sort of degree program in the vein of John Kempf's Regenerative Agriculture podcast. I agree with his notion that the future will involve competing to grow the most nutrient-dense foods via biological farming.

The Missouri masters degree program in natural resources with emphasis in agroforesty is tempting, because it can be pursued entirely online, and it has been around for a long time. I'm sure the program has been extensively fine-tuned and is extremely well-organized and efficiently progresses from one module to the next. Unfortunately, I'm sure a lot of the program is information I already know, but I would also expect that I wouldn't waste time sifting through junk information. Conversely, perhaps a lot of the program is information I don't have an adequate foundational knowledge for. In which case, it would be nice if the program be self-paced since it is online, so I can take the extra time to brush up on foundational concepts. Do you know anyone that has completed that program? What kind of person do you think it would most benefit?

One hurdle I encountered ten or so years ago, was that the University of Missouri was going to require me to take the GRE in order to apply to the program. These are the sorts of things that turn me off from such university programs, as I would be forced to study for the GRE and all the irrelevant information therein such as algebra, calculus, etc. Also the pricetag is always a consideration, as I could easily see myself using the money to invest in other things such as vacation rental structures on our property, and farming enterprises like calf production, which have a much more tangible return on investment.

If you don't mind me asking, what was your background and what is your current involvement with agroforestry and regenerative agriculture?

I think if I had to choose between the Bachelor program from a University like UNR or the Missouri online Masters program, I think I would choose the Masters program, just because a Masters Degree holds more weight, and I believe it would be more easily transferable and valued in a country like Peru. The fact that I wouldn't have to physically go to a college campus is also a huge advantage. 

The bottom line was, is, and maybe always will be, what would I do with the degree to justify the expense? I'm sure for consulting in Peru, locals would really appreciate having that Masters title. But regardless, I'm not confident I could generate enough demand here (or elsewhere) to pursue professional consulting. If I could be fairly confident - that with my real-world experience that I already have plus the Masters degree - that I could choose from a number of different jobs that interest me, then perhaps it would be worth it.

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