Editor’s note: Dr. Pratheesh Sudhakaran’s name was changed to reflect the correct spelling.

SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — The United States Department of Agriculture is partnering with Texas State University to create a larger and more diverse workforce for the agriculture industry.

USDA is giving out grants to Texas State, and dozens of other schools across the country, to help recruit new students into the workforce. Texas State will receive $5 million over the next five years to accomplish this project. In total, the federal agency is investing $262.5 million into the program.

How is it going to work?

Dr. Doug Morrish and his team at the Texas State agriculture department, which includes Dr. Eryn Pierdolla, Dr. Nicole Wagner, and Dr. Pratheesh Sudhakaran, will lead the recruiting efforts for the university.

Dr. Morrish said they will try to recruit current Texas State students, and students at four Texas community colleges, to go into the agriculture industry with an incentive of a paid internship with the USDA or other agencies. The hope is those students will then become full-time employees after graduation.

Fifty-five students every year will get to work in a semester-long internship. Those jobs could be all around the country and deal with a variety of things. By the end of that five year time frame, 275 students will have worked in these internships at Texas State alone. USDA estimates this program will create 20,000 new workers nationally.

“Some are going to be working with world-renowned scientists that are working on cancer research, that are working on our food, that are working on some kind of pharmaceutical or beef cattle production. There are some working on soil restoration and sustainable agriculture practices. So really, the door is wide open,” Dr. Morrish explained.

The doctors, along with students chosen to be part of a Bobcat student organization, will go to community colleges and speak with students who do not necessarily study agriculture, but have some sort of science background. The key is to teach kids about the opportunities they have within the agriculture industry.

Dr. Morrish explained the school is changing the curriculum to offer a class for freshmen and transfer students that will have guest speakers from the USDA and other agriculture agencies who will talk about their careers. The class will also bring in former students who now work in the industry to serve as inspiration for current students and get them excited about a career in agriculture.

“For those students to see somebody that was in their seat a long time ago, do exactly what they could do, is pretty impactful,” Dr. Morrish explained.

Job growth and diversity

The goal is students will join USDA or other agencies after their internships. Currently, the USDA is facing a worker shortage following a wave of retirements and not enough recent graduates to fill the vacancies.

It’s also facing a diversity issue. Dr. Morrish said the agency is 72% white. In a news release, the agency said the program is working to achieve equity in the industry.

Bobcat Farm

Something unique to Texas State’s program is Bobcat Farm, a 1.5-acre in the Hill Country that serves as a lab for students in the agriculture department. Dr. Wagner said students will learn about the complex issues that face our cattle and crop system today.

Students will be addressing the drought and weather vulnerability of the cropping system, restoring rocky soil that is increasingly losing carbon, and ultimately find innovative solutions to these issues.

“This new workforce that will be able to address these issues,” Dr. Wagner explained.

A history of success

Dr. Morrish said he found success with a similar program in the past. In 2011, he traveled to Laredo Community College with a similar recruitment goal. When he first arrived, he said students would tell him they did not want to leave Laredo and they did not want to work in agriculture.

“Agriculture has a misconception of being cows, plows, and sows and that there is no jobs within agriculture. There is a lot of opportunities and high-tech opportunities and careers for these students. We just have to educate them through these particular internships,” Dr. Morrish explained.

He was able to successfully recruit students who now work in agriculture. He said he can now name 15 of them who are working in federal agencies.