Think studying agriculture is just about learning how to plant seeds and shear sheep? Think again! Agriculture has been at the center of human civilization since, well, since civilization began – and it remains at the heart of many of the most pressing issues for modern societies.
Poverty, famine, development economics, genetic modification, environmental sustainability, disease epidemics… agriculture intersects with all of these, and agricultural graduates are involved in research and development work in all these fields.
Read on for an overview of agriculture courses, specializations, key skills and possible agriculture careers.
Common skills gained from a BSc Agriculture degree include:
Typically offered as a Bachelor of Science (BSc Agriculture), agriculture courses are highly interdisciplinary, requiring students to have a good grasp of both natural sciences and social sciences, and drawing on areas such as biology, environmental sciences, chemistry, economics and business and management. You will first build a strong scientific foundation in agriculture by studying biology, natural environments, agricultural production and agricultural science. As the course continues, you’ll usually be able to personalize your degree with optional modules to reflect your interests.
The range and combination of topics taught will vary depending on the institution. Some agriculture courses focus on preparing students for work at an international level – covering topics such as bio-based economies, sustainability on a global scale, and global food systems.
Others will have focus on agriculture within a specific country or region, or on a particular aspect of agriculture – such as crop farming, marketing of farm products, animal care, sustainable practices, or large property management. Overall, you’ll gain a wide range of technical skills and knowledge, as well as an understanding of the scientific, moral and commercial principles behind the agricultural industry.
There is also some variation in the degree of hands-on training required of students. Most agriculture courses will include at least one required or optional work placement of up to a year, and some universities even have their own farms. The UK’s Aberystwyth University, for instance, operates more than 2,500 acres of farmland. Overall, you’ll be taught in a combination of lectures, tutorials, laboratory sessions and (if possible) practical sessions at the university’s farm.
If your work placement is optional, it’s a good idea to opt in. This is a great chance to put what you’ve learned into practice, get a better idea of the type of agriculture career you’d like to pursue, and gain valuable experience to improve your employability when applying for agriculture jobs.
While many agriculture graduates go on to roles where mud and manure are not regular elements (including positions in management, research and consultancy), any student considering this subject should definitely be comfortable with spending time outdoors and in close contact with the natural world!
You’ll typically need a high school diploma/A levels or equivalent to be admitted to a BSc Agriculture degree. You are likely to need to demonstrate strong background knowledge in science, with two A Levels in science subjects often required by UK universities. Relevant work experience is likely to help your application.
Most agriculture courses will allow students to choose a field of specialization as they progress, while some are already fairly specialized to begin with. A significant number of agriculture students also go on to further specialize at master’s and PhD level, perhaps in one of the following fields:
As a specialist in animal science, you’ll study animal physiology and biology, and apply your knowledge to issues of contemporary importance. Key scientific fields here include immunology, genetics, biochemistry, physiology and immunology. Meanwhile the applied side could focus on issues such as animal nutrition, reproduction, behavior and productivity.
See also: Veterinary science degrees
Here you’ll focus on the sciences and technologies surrounding plant cultivation, covering both food crops and plants which are cultivated for other uses – from gardening to medicine. Careers in this specialism could include plant conservation work, research and development to improve crop yield, and gardening and landscaping projects. A related specialization is agronomy, which has a more specific focus on crop production.
Soil is, of course, one of the most essential elements in agriculture. As a specialist in the subject, you’ll learn to analyze the biological, chemical and physical properties of soils, and apply this knowledge to issues such as increasing crop production, protecting human health, and ensuring environmental sustainability.
A specialization in rural development will mean more of a focus on links between agriculture, incomes and living standards. Students may explore ways in which agricultural innovations and training can be used to improve conditions for particular communities, combining case studies with economic and sociological theory.
Agriculture courses specializing in land management require knowledge of many of the above fields, along with an understanding of relevant aspects of law, planning and development, construction and building maintenance. Careers could mean managing large rural properties, working in land acquisition and valuation, or perhaps in conservation.
Other related specializations include agricultural economics, food science, livestock production, forestry and woodland management, fish farming, pasture management and hydroponics (growing plants without soil).
As an agriculture graduate, you’ll be able to offer employers a strong understanding of the scientific principles of crop and animal production, combined with business management and practical skills.
Prospective employers include landowners, public and private research agencies, manufacturing companies, food processing companies, supermarkets, farms, land agents, conservation and environmental organizations, watchdog organizations, livestock dealers and logistics companies. You could consider roles within farm management, research and development, sales and marketing, sourcing and purchasing, quality control, agency and surveying – amongst many other options.
Agriculture jobs you may be interested in include:
Agricultural consultants are specialist advisors who advise and support clients such as farmers, growers and landowners, to ensure their business is running as effectively as possible. You’ll typically specialize in offering either business or technical expertise. The former involves giving advice on finance and business strategy, while technical consultants help with agronomy, livestock, nutrition and other practical issues. For this agriculture career path, it would be useful to study business management as part of your degree.
Farm managers usually work in animal, dairy or crop production, though you could potentially oversee the entire range of productions – this will depend on the nature and size of the farm. This is a varied role, which includes both farm-related tasks such as crop management and administrative tasks, so you’ll need to have technical and practical capability as well as strong business acumen and awareness of customer demand. You’ll also need to be committed to animal welfare and the environment.
Another of the many possible agriculture jobs you could pursue, as a rural practice surveyor you might work and specialize in a number of areas, using your agricultural knowledge to provide professional and technical advice to clients. Areas of specialization include agriculture, forestry and environmental regulations, but you could also work within auctioneering and property management.
Plant breeders and geneticists aim to improve the quality and performance of agricultural and horticultural crops, as well as working to create new ones. This role is crucial to the agricultural industry, due to constant challenges to meet market and consumer demands and maintain crop yields. Possessing a relevant postgraduate degree and/or work experience would be an advantage when seeking agriculture careers in this area.