FAYETTEVILLE, Tenn. — Farris Beasley stands in a barn on his 600-acre farm, pointing out equipment both ancient and modern and longing for the days when all of it was as easy to repair as his 1939 John Deere tractor.
Like Beasley, a retired large-animal veterinarian, farmers nationwide are hard-pressed these days to find mechanics trained to maintain their 21st-century equipment or workers who understand the complexities of modern farming or how to tend to cows or horses.
Here in Fayetteville, a rural community 80 miles south of Nashville and 33 miles north of Huntsville, Alabama, agriculture is by far the largest industry, generating at least $110 million a year in surrounding Lincoln County. Until recently, though, the only college in town had no agriculture classes — and nobody can explain why.
It’s a problem contributing to a widening skills gap in rural communities across the country: Not only are rural high school graduates less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to go to college; higher education institutions in many of these places aren’t training them to fill the jobs that are their regions’ lifeblood.
In many cases, all sides agree, this is a result of a lack of communication and even a cultural divide between educators and farmers and other rural businesses. In others, colleges are putting a priority on turning out computer coders and other graduates with skills in demand farther afield. There’s another reason, too: Many rural colleges just don’t have the money to run pricey programs in tractor repair or veterinary science.
Many states have financially neglected rural community colleges, which don’t usually have the local tax base or private money available to urban and suburban schools, said Stephen Katsinas, a University of Alabama political science professor who directs that school’s Educational Policy Center.
In many cases, this means rural colleges can afford to teach the basics, such as math or English, but not vocational skills that could help their local economies.
“My fear is a lot of these colleges have moved away from their comprehensive model,” Katsinas said. “You can do X or you can do Y or you can do Z, but you can’t afford to do X, Y and Z.”
In addition to the shortages of people qualified to fix digital-era tractors, rural areas are having trouble finding veterinarians like Beasley who will stick around and spend their days wading through manure to treat cows and horses when they can make more money tending in comparative comfort to suburban cats and dogs.
Beasley used to teach animal science at Motlow State Community College, which has a small campus in the hills on the outskirts of Fayetteville. But Motlow got rid of its agriculture program years ago — nobody can say why — and Beasley watched students go elsewhere for their educations.
“They left and probably after that even went somewhere else, maybe, to live and work and didn’t come back home, which is somewhat the story of rural America today,” he said. “People leave where their roots are.”
Beasley wasn’t willing to let that happen to Fayetteville, where a sign at the city limit reads “Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow.” When a new dean, Lisa Smith, took over the local Motlow campus, Beasley was on her doorstep immediately to proselytize for an agriculture program. He and other farm owners arranged an “agriculture day” and took Smith on a tour.
“We went to several commercial farms. We even went to the stockyard,” said Smith, who said she hadn’t been aware of agriculture’s dominance in her college’s community before arriving on the campus in 2016. “It had a huge impact. Why would we not have a program that addresses the No. 1 industry in our area?”
Now Motlow does have one. The campus has teamed up with Tennessee State University in Nashville to let Lincoln County students earn first an associate degree and then a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business or animal science at the community college, without having to leave town.
The program is starting out slowly — the college offered just one animal science course with eight students in the fall — but there are plans to expand to more than 30 students by next fall. Smith said she is looking for grants to pay for a new agriculture education facility on the Fayetteville campus, which consists of two boxy, nondescript buildings next to an industrial park, just down the road from the Jack Daniel’s distillery and a sprawling Frito-Lay plant. Hay bales dot a field across the highway from the school.
But follow-through can be challenging for rural colleges. Motlow attempted a similar partnership with another institution, Middle Tennessee State University, about eight years ago, but quickly scrapped it. Nobody at Motlow said they remembered the details, and Middle Tennessee State spokespeople and professors did not respond to repeated requests to discuss it.
Among the first Motlow students to take the new agriculture class was Taylor Howell, a sophomore from Fayetteville who didn’t grow up on a farm but is interested in food marketing and plans to transfer to Tennessee Tech University to study agricultural communications.
Although Fayetteville is surrounded by farmland, some of her high school classmates made fun of kids who were interested in agriculture, Howell said.
“They just don’t understand where food comes from, I guess,” she said.
Rural areas sometimes have high schools with robust vocational programs and Future Farmers of America clubs, but today’s workforce needs higher education, and rural residents are less likely to get it.
While rural places often have community colleges, they don’t typically have universities. People in such “education deserts” attend college less often than others, and rural areas are also less likely to have sufficient internet speeds for residents to take courses online.
Just 59 percent of rural high school graduates immediately enroll in college, compared to 67 percent in suburban areas and 62 percent in urban areas, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. And while 42 percent of people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in all of higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 29 percent of rural people in that age group are enrolled, compared to nearly 48 percent from cities.
Those statistics matter. People with associate or bachelor’s degrees make far more than those with high school diplomas, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And the factories and farms that dominate rural areas no longer hire high school graduates who once could get work on assembly lines or harvesting crops; most of those jobs now require some college education, but many rural residents remain convinced they can get by with the old model, experts say.
“Everybody, to some extent, keeps farming the way their daddy or granddaddy did,” said David Qualls, who runs the University of Tennessee Extension’s agriculture program in Fayetteville. “If a kid learns something new, they learn it in college.”
Like many in the agriculture business, Fayetteville rancher Brad Parton worries about the future of rural life. Young people just don’t seem to care about where their food comes from, he said as he dumped feed into troughs for his 25 cows.
“It’s one of those things where you think, that next generation, are they ready?” said Parton, who led the local high school’s Future Farmers of America chapter before recently taking a regional role with the organization. “I just don’t think that it’s there. A lot of those skills and trades aren’t being passed down.”
With workforce needs evolving, communication between educators and industry leaders is essential. But those conversations happen much too rarely, according to Katsinas and others. In some cases, he said, that’s a result of “fractious turfism,” in which each side thinks it knows best how to solve workforce shortages and is unwilling to work with the other.
This affects some unexpected businesses.
On California’s far northern coast, the shellfish industry in remote Humboldt and Del Norte counties has struggled to find skilled workers, said Greg Dale, the North Coast manager for Pacific Seafood. Dale noted he hadn’t hired any graduates of College of the Redwoods — the local community college — in about 10 years because they rarely have the skills he needs.
While nearby Humboldt State University has a fisheries program that trains students for higher-level jobs in the shellfishing industry, College of the Redwoods does not have a two-year program that educates the skilled laborers it needs. And the recently legalized marijuana industry — Humboldt County is the longtime hub of the state’s cannabis supply — has only made the worker shortage worse, Dale said.
“In the last five years, it’s been difficult to compete with the cannabis crowd,” he said. “Most of those guys are going into the hills to earn $300 a day. We can’t afford to pay $300 a day.”
But Dale admitted he had not discussed fishery needs with College of the Redwoods officials, and the college’s president, Keith Snow-Flamer, said he had not reached out to the shellfish industry.
“What we have found recently is that we need to do a better job filling the gaps,” Snow-Flamer said. “I know we need to have a much stronger connection between industry and College of the Redwoods.”
Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s community colleges are in rural areas, according to the Rural Community College Alliance, putting them in the best position to train rural residents for the jobs that make those communities run.
But even when they’re aware of local workforce needs, those colleges often have trouble meeting them. A college far from a major city often finds it tough to hire qualified instructors, for example, a situation that has challenged industries ranging from oil to nursing.
And the equipment and buildings required to teach agriculture, nursing or oil production is too expensive for many schools to afford.
This lack of professors and equipment puts colleges in a tough spot. John Deere, for example, brings its specialized associate degree program only to a handful of better-prepared colleges, with the result that poorer rural communities in greatest need of it lose out.
“The college would already need to have those sorts of programs, the facilities, the instructors,” said Craig Hansen, who manages John Deere’s 16 college partnerships in Canada and the United States.
A farming community without a mechanic trained to deal with tractors controlled by computers — as most are these days — can face big problems.
“We’ve got a 10-year-old tractor and we can’t do nearly anything on it,” said Tracy Tomascik, a Texas farmer and associate director of the Texas Farm Bureau.
In Tennessee, state officials are trying to help colleges in the most disadvantaged counties. The Supporting Postsecondary Access in Rural Counties, or SPARC, initiative is trying to boost college-completion rates by, among other measures, providing small grants to community colleges in “distressed counties.”
In tiny Lake County, for example, just 8 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees or higher, far below the state’s 27 percent figure. A boat manufacturer recently relocated to the county but was having trouble finding qualified welders; SPARC paid for a welding instructor to travel to the remote county in the state’s northwestern corner and train some as part of a dual enrollment partnership between a high school and technical college.
Most of the 21 recipients of SPARC’s $75,000 grants have told the state the money was “a game-changer,” said Lou Hanemann, who oversees the program for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
“A lot of the counties have been very thoughtful about either augmenting programs that were almost there or invigorating programs that had been allowed to atrophy,” Hanemann said.
But without a program such as SPARC, solutions to rural workforce shortages come down to better communication between colleges and local farms and industries.
Back in Fayetteville, the new Motlow agricultural program was serendipitous for Tennessee State University, a historically black school that was having trouble getting students in Nashville to take an interest in agriculture. The partnership allows Tennessee State to boost its enrollment while helping the agriculture industry overall, said John Ricketts, a TSU agriculture professor.
It’s important to give rural students a chance for an education without leaving home, said Ricketts, who added that John Deere had asked his department for help finding graduates who understand rural life.
“It’s an issue across the ag industry,” Ricketts said. “Even people who are answering phones can’t answer questions because they can’t relate to rural America.”
This story about rural higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
Reporting supported by a fellowship from the Education Writers Association.