Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on two-year agriculture programs in the region. This first installment focused on North Dakota and South Dakota colleges. This week's focuses on programs in Minnesota and Montana.
Agricultural programs at technical colleges in Minnesota and Montana are striving to get students into the workforce to fill a myriad of jobs available on the farm and in the industry.
Students at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota, for example, who graduate with a two-year associate degree from the popular agribusiness program are hired by agricultural retail companies where they work in sales or customer service, said Curt Yoose, Ridgewater College agriculture instructor.
Meanwhile, students who graduate in farm operations management, which also is another one of the nine agricultural programs offered at Ridgewater College, use the skills they learn on their own family farms or managing farm operations.
About 40% of students graduating from Ridgewater College agricultural programs are returning to the farm and about 60% are working in the agricultural industry, Yoose estimated.
Most of the students who enroll at the two-year college do so because they like the hands-on experience they garner there, he said. Besides focusing on giving students the opportunity to get practical experience, Ridgewater College aims to connect students to the agricultural industry by hosting tours and speakers and through field trips, Yoose said.
ADawn Nelson, agriculture program manager and animal science instructor at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, also works to give her students interactive experiences by traveling to working farms so they can practice the skills they’ve learned. If that’s not possible, the students watch demonstrations at the farms.
Nelson, a 24-year veteran of teaching agriculture, first at the high school level then at colleges, believes it is important not just to teach theory in the classroom, but to show students how to apply it, she said.
“I just love actively engaging students and having them learn by doing,” Nelson said. Their hands-on experiences pique the students’ interest in their future careers and demonstrate to them that every day they will be doing something different, she said.
Another advantage of the hands-on learning is that it keeps students enrolled in the agriculture program at Northland Community and Technical College who aren’t from farm backgrounds interested in agriculture, Nelson noted.
That’s important because as the number of farms in Minnesota declines, so do the number of NCTC students who grew up on farms.
“We need to encourage them to go into agriculture because our pipeline will run out,” Nelson said.. “We can’t say anymore that we’re’ a generation removed from the farm, we’re two or three generations removed.”
In Montana, Miles Community College in Miles City draws most of its students from within eastern Montana and western North Dakota, but some come from other western states to get degrees in its agricultural programs. Options include agriculture business, animal science and agricultural education, said Kimberly Gibbs, Miles Community College agriculture instructor.
One of the reasons that the college is a good fit for its students — many of whom come from rural backgrounds — is that class sizes are small, similar to the sizes of their high school classes, Gibbs said.
About half of the students enrolled in the agriculture program at Miles Community College return to their family farms and ranches and the other half pursue a four-year degree after graduation from MCC, Gibbs said.
During the past 10 years that Gibbs has taught in the MCC agriculture program it has grown from nine students to 36, and a major part of the reason for that has been because of MCC’s work to ensure that credits students earn there transfer easily to four-year universities in the region.
Meanwhile, students have an opportunity to be outside doing hands-on work in their applied sciences classes, such as natural resource management and range management, Gibbs said. Inside, students attend classes in an agricultural center that includes classrooms and an indoor riding arena.
Students at MCC bring not only the skills they need to their post-graduation jobs, but also the ability to work independently, Gibbs said.
Like other technical colleges with agriculture programs, students at Miles Community College also develop relationships with members of the agricultural community during their years enrolled there. For example, MCC has a Young Farmers and Ranchers Club in partnership with the Montana Farm Bureau, and as members, students travel to competitions, Gibbs said.
The five-acre farm on campus, besides raising produce, also does small grains research, said Heather Estrada, agricultural program director and associate professor.
Besides gaining experience by working on the campus farm, FCC students also do an internship with a business in the agriculture industry.
“We try to provide them with a really broad experience,” Estrada said.
Many graduates, most who live in the Flathead Valley, use that experience to start their own small-scale fruit and vegetable production businesses.
“We also have transfer tracks to four-year colleges,” Estrada said.
In Minnesota, about one-third of the graduates at South Central College in North Mankato go back to their family farms after graduation and the remainder work in the agricultural industry, said T.J. Brown, South Central College agriculture business instructor.
The jobs SCC students have after graduation are similar to those that a four-year college graduate would have, and the pay is competitive, he said.
“Our biggest three programs are agribusiness service and management, agribusiness production and agribusiness service technician,” Brown said.
The demand for agricultural jobs for graduates of SCC is highlighted by the number of scholarships the industry provides to its students.
“We have 35-plus businesses to support students' tuition,” Brown said, noting that the scholarships available outnumber the students who use them.
Students in SCC agriculture programs do hands-on work in a large building on campus where they gain experience in their chosen fields. For example, students enrolled in the service technician program how to work on forage equipment, engines and transmissions and assemble tillage equipment.
“Anything from small engines to large diesels, they’re working on all of those things, in some cases for farmer customers or for their own projects,” Brown said.
The training students receive at SCC puts them into the workforce sooner and, as Brown and agriculture instructors at other technical colleges have noted, that means they have less debt when they graduate.
“Economically, it’s a good career choice,” Brown said.