USDA grant strengthens future of agriculture systems, workforce

A smiling woman stands in a sunny field.
Courtesy of Jodie Anderson
An $18 million USDA grant will help the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension and four other institutions cultivate the next generation of food and agriculture professionals. IANRE Director Jodie Anderson is the lead on the grant for Alaska.

A five-year $18 million grant awarded to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension will help prepare the next generation to take active roles in the country’s agricultural sector.

Hawai’i Pacific University, University of Guam, Arizona State University and FoodCorps are partners with UAF in the grant, which is part of a $262.5 million investment in higher education funded by President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

The project, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  is called “Diverse NextGen Food Policy Leaders Trained in Resilient Systems and Federal Workforce Readiness.” 

“It will bring together young people from each of the participating institutions with community partners to plant the seeds for the next generation of leaders to participate in the diverse range of careers within the USDA,” IANRE Director Jodie Anderson said. The grant will allow increased participation in important conversations surrounding changing climate and food systems.

“We will leverage the institutional experience and expertise of our unique institutions and community partners to connect a new generation of agriculturists who understand the importance of geographic knowledge, Indigenous ways of knowing and place-based understanding of climate change to influence the future of food, fiber and fuel production in the United States,” Anderson said.

The program will enable eligible institutions, from New York to the Northern Mariana Islands, to build and sustain the next generation of food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences workforce. This includes efforts to strengthen USDA’s workforce through enhanced educational support, experiential learning and exposure to early career opportunities.

The Institute will use the funding to develop scholarships and internship opportunities in the fields of food systems, food sustainability and agriculture. By partnering with community organizations and programs within UAF, Hawai’i Pacific, Arizona State University and the University of Guam, the program will engage first-generation and underrepresented students, ensuring that the majority of the funding will go directly to the internship and scholarship opportunities.  

“We are on the front lines of climate change,” said Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Arizona State University Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. She is  ASU’s principal investigator for the project. “Given our geographies, we understand how critical it is to train the next generation of food and agriculture leaders to problem-solve like never before. This USDA investment will allow us to accelerate training of diverse young leaders who will become decision-makers at USDA and beyond.”  

“Each generation of agricultural professionals faces new challenges as we feed our world’s growing population, and the future generations give me hope that we will rise to the occasion to meet these challenges with opportunity,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Manjit Misra, director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said one goal of the NextGen program is to identify, inspire and prepare young people, particularly in underrepresented communities, to be the next generation of hunger fighters and agricultural problem solvers. 

“This is the right thing to do and the right time,” Misra said.