An alarming lack of young people are planning to work in the agriculture industry, according to a new survey funded by Arden Hills-based Land O'Lakes Inc.

Only 3 percent of college graduates surveyed and 9 percent of millennials (born between 1982 and 2000) said they had thought about an ag career or would consider it.

The highest career interests from those surveyed came in health care and technology, each at 21 percent, followed by education at 20 percent and several professions — marketing and sales, finance, manufacturing and engineering — all at 12 percent. Only 6 percent of those surveyed said they were interested in agricultural professions.

"To me this is sort of a wake-up call," said Brian Buhr, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

The U has been working with Cargill, CHS, Land O'Lakes and other companies to learn how to attract the next generation of ag professionals, Buhr said, but he was still surprised by the survey results.

"Our general challenge is making people more aware of just what the job opportunities are," he said.

"People still think you have to wear boots and overalls to work in ag," said Lydia Botham, executive director of the Land O'Lakes Foundation, in a statement. Most don't realize that modern agriculture has become a technologically advanced field with a wide spectrum of careers "from seed geneticists and soil conservationists to supply chain analysts and economists."

The survey also showed that 54 percent of respondents believed that it was difficult or very difficult for recent college graduates to find jobs in agriculture, and 76 percent either did not think or weren't sure that ag careers pay well.

In reality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that more than 20,000 agriculture jobs go unfilled each year.

Botham said the industry offers many career opportunities with good salaries and job security: positions that need to be filled as the world's expanding population and growing middle classes ramp up their demand for food.

The shortage of talent entering the industry has become a growing concern for food companies, agricultural groups and universities, including the University of Minnesota.

"Many people don't realize that agriculture is very much technology-driven now," Buhr said. Advancing fields include genetics, soil chemistry and the microbial side of agriculture to produce more food.

Information technology is also "huge," Buhr said, as it improves understanding about how weather, soils, seed genetics and other variables interact to affect crop production and yields.

Buhr said that in addition to more opportunities opening up in new areas, there will also be a need to backfill in many existing ag professions as more baby boomers retire during the next decade.

For those entering the field, careers are there. Buhr said that 94 percent of the college's seniors last year had accepted full-time jobs in their areas of interest within six months of graduation.

To attract new students, companies including CHS, the nation's largest farmer cooperative based in Inver Grove Heights, have tried to contact undergraduate and community college students early in their studies to inform them about ag-related fields and careers. Food companies have also established stronger partnerships with colleges and universities that include more money for scholarships and internships.

Land O'Lakes has also created a yearlong fellowship program called the Global Food Challenge — Emerging Leaders for Food Security.

It provides selected college students with the opportunity to learn about global food security, including travel to farms in the U.S. and rural Africa and workshops in Washington, D.C., to learn about food policy.

The online survey for Land O'Lakes was conducted by ORC International, and polled a demographically representative sample of 1,020 U.S. adults between Feb. 8 and 10.