Mark Rieger, dean of the University of Delaware's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, talks about the school's role and the job prospects for its graduates.

Whether it’s operating cooperative extension offices, conducting research into the latest innovations or educating the First State’s future farmers, the University of Delaware plays a crucial role in the state’s agriculture industry.

We recently caught up with Mark Rieger, dean of UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to ask about the school’s role and the job prospects for its graduates.

Q What do you see as the University of Delaware’s role in the state’s agriculture industry?

A I hope we’re the knowledge and innovation engine in Delaware agriculture. That’s what we intend to be and that’s what I think we have been in certain areas. Our role is to keep the latest technology out there for the growers and doing the research that’s going to be applicable 20 years from now. So we’re doing both the short term and the long term, and hopefully we can provide answers and keep agriculture viable in this state.

Q How has that role changed over time?

A Fundamentally, it hasn’t. We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act that created the cooperative extensions. Honestly, production of new knowledge and the extension of it to the people who can use it, that hasn’t changed in over a 100 years. [But] what we’re extending is very different in how we do it … The first people who were extension agents, they were going around on horseback or in horse and buggy … Now it’s all smart phones and apps. A grower can walk out in the field and press buttons on a smart phone that goes up to satellite that creates a map of that field, and he can go back and look at that five or 10 minutes later on a computer and figure out what he needs to do. We’re just adapting with the times and using the tools that are available for all industries to try and keep agriculture as efficient as possible.

Q What are some of the challenges the ag community will be facing in the future that you’re hoping to help them address?

A Raising yields without increasing the footprint of agriculture is our grand challenge … We feed the world while we protect the planet … [W]e’ve absolutely got to raise yields 50 to 100 percent to feed more people on the same amount of land. We don’t want to encroach on the wild lands or the wetlands that are a great part of Delaware. We want to keep the yields high on the best land and leave everything else alone. That takes a lot of things, from robotics to precision ag to genetics. It takes a lot of different sciences to come together to make that happen.

Q What are some of the ag-related educational opportunities the University of Delaware provides that the general public might not be aware of?

A USDA assesses every five years how many jobs there are going to be in agriculture and how many graduates are coming out of colleges like mine. Well, it’s 54,000 jobs and 29,000 graduates, so we like to say there are two jobs for every graduate. And most of these jobs won’t be in production. Eight-five percent of people are going to be in sales, marketing, management, science, technology and communications. So we would love to double the number of kids coming into the College of Ag because there are wonderful opportunities out there, and they’re not in driving a tractor or milking cows. It’s as advanced technology as you can imagine.