Students explore diversity of agriculture at USDA forum

FIU students Randy Juste and Christian Gonzalez were two of only 30 university students from diverse fields of study selected nationwide to attend the 2014 Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Virginia.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this year’s forum, “The Changing Face of Agriculture,” introduced students to contemporary agribusiness, future trends, scientific research and agriculture policy in today’s real world environment.

Participants of the USDA's 2014 Agricultural Outlook Forum pose with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Participants of the USDA’s 2014 Agricultural Outlook Forum pose with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The students toured USDA headquarters, as well as its Agricultural Research Service and National Research and Conservation Service facilities. They also met with the USDA’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden, and Chief Economist Joseph Glauber – and participated in a dialogue with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Administrator Rajiv Shah.

“It was an incredible experience. I didn’t expect to be chosen, considering how competitive the selection process is,” Juste said. “Meeting so many people from different academic and professional backgrounds proved to me that agriculture has such a broad spectrum for college students to dive into. There is so much room and so many fields in which to immerse our skills, desires and education.”

Juste, a junior majoring in chemistry, was chosen to participate in the forum based on his essay, “Agriculture as a Career.” He credits his family’s upbringing in Haiti, where they relied on gardening as a source of food and supplemental income, and taking a world nutrition course  with inspiring him to pursue research on efficient biodiesel yields through FIU’s Agroecology Program.

Gonzalez, a second-year student in the Master of Arts in Global Governance program, was selected for his essay response to “The Greatest Challenge Facing Agriculture over the Next Five Years.” Gonzalez earned a bachelor’s in international relations from FIU in 2012.

“There is a huge disconnect between people and where their food comes from,” Gonzalez said. “Growing up in Puerto Rico, in the third grade, our class was tasked with growing our own vegetable garden. That experience still has a lot of meaning to me 20 years later. Knowing where your food comes from definitely helps you make better nutritional decisions and helps you understand and appreciate food security.”

As part of his graduate thesis, Gonzalez is working in collaboration with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service in developing a systematic review that explores microfinance as a means to help small farmers in developing countries improve their livelihoods.

“I think people really underestimate the importance of agriculture. Our nation’s agriculture budget is about the size of some developing countries’ complete gross domestic product. We compete in a global market place, so the world is affected by it.” Gonzalez said. “There’s also a big disconnect between science and policy. If we can better communicate our science, and if we better educate our people and encourage agriculture practices in schools, we can better influence policy.”

The students selected to participate in the forum are from land-grant, Hispanic-serving, and non-land-grant agricultural and renewable resources universities. In 2012, FIU was one of the first universities in the nation to receive the USDA’s Hispanic-Serving Agricultural Colleges and Universities designation.