Youth Isn’t Wasted On Some Young

When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was crazy about animals (and still am) and the idea of helping them appealed to me. That lasted until I was told I’d be in school until at least the age of 25–ancient!–if I wanted to be a doctor of veterinary medicine. That ended that.

I tried on other aspirations before, as an “adult,” I found my way to the grape and wine industry. But if I had been asked when I was in, say, fifth grade, what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wouldn’t have had even the slightest notion of the career I have and love today.

So, when I hear about programs like Sun-Maid’s Board of Imagination (for kids aged 6 to 12), USDA’s AgDiscovery Summer Student Program (for 7th to 12th-graders) or Cornell AgriTech’s Summer Scholars (for undergrads) that help young people connect with careers in agriculture–specifically viticulture, I’m amazed. As a kid, I had zero connection with the land. To me, “mixed vegetables” was a block of frozen orange and green cubes–I barely identified them as carrots, green beans and lima beans! How would my life have been different if I’d been introduced to farming and food production at a young age? Could I have been the impassioned, teenaged Greta Thunberg for grapes? Will 12-year-old Wyatt Youngblood, son of NGRA Board member Jessica Youngblood, be? (See story under “In the News,” below.)

Even in graduate school, young people newly exploring grape and wine research bring fresh enthusiasm and ideas, and often a degree of fearlessness. Witness the student presentations at academic conferences like ASEV and ASEV-Eastern Section. They are terrific opportunities to revisit the joy of discovery–even in the failed hypotheses that contribute valuable new knowledge, too.

I’m proud to report that NGRA is sponsoring our first-ever fellowship candidate, for the FFAR Fellows of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture. His application was due on Monday. If our sponsored Ph.D. student is selected, he will enter a three-year program that includes both academic and industry mentorship and training in professional skills like giving scientific presentations to non-scientific, industry audiences. What I wouldn’t give for an education like that today!

We’re also starting a series of workshops this spring that gives voice to the many recent grads with academic appointments in viticulture and enology programs across the country. The NGRA new-scientist engagement series will gather small groups of early-career researchers in topical conversations where they can share the focus and outcomes of their programs with industry members, who can in turn ask questions and provide feedback and direction on where their youthful innovation is yet needed.

So, yes–in many ways I agree with George Bernard Shaw’s complaint that “youth is wasted on the young.” I wouldn’t want to be a kid again, but there’s so much I’d do differently if I’d known then what I know now! That’s what’s so compelling about sharing knowledge with young people: the unforeseen and potentially game-changing impact of that act, for them and for us.

Donnell Brown