CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Tristesse Jones will probably never drive a tractor or guide a combine through rows of soybeans at harvest time.
There isn't a farm within miles of where she grew up on Chicago's west side, but she's set to graduate with a bachelor's degree in crop sciences from the University of Illinois' agriculture school next spring.
"People ask me what is my major, and they say 'What is that? So you want to grow plants?'" Jones said.
She is one of a growing number of students being drawn to ag schools around the country not by ties to a farm but by science, the job prospects for those who are good at it and, for some, an interest in the environment.
Enrollment in bachelor's degree programs in agriculture across the country grew by 21.8 percent from 2005 to 2008, from about 58,300 students to nearly 71,000, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the numbers are likely higher—not all schools respond to the surveys.
National enrollment figures for 2009 aren't yet available, but numbers from major schools make clear the trend continues: The University of California-Davis has more than 5,490 students enrolled in agricultural majors—a jump of 210 from a year earlier. Purdue University has 2,575 ag students this fall, up 40 from last year.
Yet the number of farms nationwide has dropped for decades. There were about 2.4 million farms in the United States in 1978, and 2.2 million last year, according to the USDA.
Many students are choosing to major in agriculture, educators from across the country say, after finding out that much of what they'll learn is science — biology, chemistry and a long list of more specialized areas that can land them jobs at companies that produce the seeds and chemicals for farmers or in still-forming industries like biofuels.
Almost a quarter of the incoming freshmen at the University of Wisconsin each year say they want to do "something in biology," said Bob Ray, associate dean for undergraduate programs and services.
Agriculture schools are doing their best to reach out to such students.
Texas A&M University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has several full-time recruiters on the road talking to high school students. It also uses its Web site, YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to reach prospective students. A lot of the messages boil down to job prospects.
"Every one of our poultry science graduates, they average about five job offers per graduate," college spokesman Bill Gibbs said.
Demand for science graduates, agriculture industry officials say, outstrips supply.
Monsanto, the St. Louis agribusiness giant that makes seeds, pesticides and an array of other farm products, can't hire enough.
"We find it really hard to find people in science, in particular, because they tend to get snatched up by medical and health care-related things," said Monsanto spokesman Darren Wallis, adding that it has openings for 100 researchers in St. Louis.
UC-Davis' College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is one of the country's biggest ag schools and still has plenty of students studying in traditional areas, said Diane Ullman, the college's associate dean for undergraduate academic programs.
But more than 3,200 of UC-Davis' ag students—almost 60 percent—are studying so-called human sciences, such as nutrition, or environmental sciences, such as environmental policy and landscape architecture.
"I think that young people are recognizing all of the issues that surround our society that have to do with food, and I think there's a real interest in new ways of doing things and solving some of these problems," Ullman said.
Kate Molak is one of the students Ullman is talking about.
Molak is from Portola Valley, a suburb of San Jose, and plans to graduate in June with a bachelor's degree in community regional development. She wants to work in public health.
"I wouldn't say that agriculture necessarily has anything to do with that, but we do deal with a lot of environmental issues with public health," she said.
At Illinois, Jones said she wound up in the ag department after her high school pompon coach—who happened to be a biology teacher—steered her toward a summer science program at the university.
"I always liked to pick apart worms—I thought I was a weirdo," Jones said
Now she's applying to graduate programs and hoping she'll eventually be a research professor, maybe working on how to grow a better soybean.
"I love doing research," she said. "Just having that hands-on experience, and being able to see the product, even if it takes years to see it."