More and more high school and college youths are becoming interested in agriculture, according to Paul Peterson, agriculture specialist at the Utah State Office of Education.

Peterson, who oversees the state's Future Farmers of America programs, says agriculture hit a low point three years ago at the worst period of the decade-long American farm crisis, when prices for commodities were low and a record number of farmers went bankrupt.Since then, prices for food and fiber produced on American farms have increased, interest rates have lowered and farm efficiency and net profits have increased.

"Farming has always been a great life - working with the soil and animals and working outside - and when farming is profitable, it becomes a lot more attractive to young people."

He said there are more than 2,500 high school age youths in Utah who belong to 58 FFA chapters in practically every county in the state.

"These youths are learning every phase of agriculture and about related businesses, including production farming, agricultural sales and service, forestry and natural resources, agricultural mechanics, animal science and technology, plant and soil science and technology and ornamental horticulture."

Many of these high school students are planning careers in agriculture and expect to attend college and study some aspect of agriculture, Peterson said.

Many of the nation's land-grant universities, including Utah State University, are reporting increased enrollments this year in their colleges of agriculture.

Officials say renewed interest in agricultural studies is coming at a time of increasing demand for agriculture and life sciences professionals.

J. Patrick Jordan, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research Service, says starting salaries for agriculture majors are also up. "Campus placement officials report the nation's agricultural businesses are offering better starting salaries to get the graduates they want.

"Graduates with superior records in highly demanded fields can command starting wages exceeding $30,000. Employers in more expensive metropolitan areas offer even higher salaries," Jordan said.

Some university officials say this year is the best job market for agriculture graduates in 20 years.

"USDA figures show 13 percent of the jobs in agriculture will go unfilled because of the lack of qualified applicants. FFA and high school and university agricultural education courses are preparing students for more than 200 different high-tech careers in some aspect of farming."

Across the nation, he said, there are more than 404,000 FFA members in 7,800 chapters. Utah FFA members will hold their State FFA Convention April 7-8 at Brigham Young University.