As Wisconsin’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry continues to grow, the state’s technical colleges have responded by adding new study programs, building training facilities and strengthening relationships with local agribusinesses to maintain a steady flow of talent to the agriculture community.
An Education in Ag
Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore offers certificates and associate degrees in four areas – agribusiness science and technology, dairy herd management, ag power and equipment technician, and farm business production management.
According to Deb Ihm, Business and Production Management instructor at Southwest Tech, the number of programs will soon grow to around 15 as the college diversifies its ag-based course offerings to reflect expanding career opportunities for graduates.
“We have added additional classes so that we can now provide more specific training in the areas of agronomy, animal science and ag business management,” Ihm says. “Our diversification of programming includes preparing individuals for industry work and going back to the farm, and we are also providing more specific training in the areas of agronomy, animal science, business management and mechanics.”
Northcentral Technical College’s Agriculture Center of Excellence is an example of creating enhanced learning opportunities for students pursuing agriculture careers. This farm-of-the-future learning laboratory includes a cow barn, robotic milker, pastureland, cropland, woodlands and wetlands.
Fox Valley Technical College has also responded to industry evolution with an updated curriculum and changes to course offerings. The school added the state’s only precision agriculture program to its roster, which includes horticulture, natural resources, ag business, farm operations and ag power technician, among others.
Fox Valley’s off-campus farm business production management program allows students to work toward a certificate or degree on a local farm rather than in the classroom, and has become a popular resource for family farms. The school also has a dual enrollment arrangement with area high schools that awards college credits to students.
“When you look at that full spectrum of offerings that we have, and when you look at the family structure of the farms, if the kids have any interest in farming – whether it is mechanics, growing crops for production,growing crops for urban industry, raising cows – we have a program for them,” says Mike Cattelino, associate dean of Agriculture and Manufacturing Technologies at Fox Valley Technical College, which boasts a 94 percent employment rate for its graduates.
Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland offers several programs that enhance students’ knowledge of agriculture and provide real- world application. Specifically, the college’s dairy herd management program and the newer agribusiness science and technology program allow students to learn in the classroom, but also apply that knowledge in a farm- based setting. Like Fox Valley and Southwest Tech, LTC works with local farms and agribusinesses to give students hands-on experience through corporate internships, farm visits and farm internships.
“With hundreds of careers in agriculture, the possibilities are endless. A student could go back to the farm, become a salesperson for a company, or design and engineer the next new technology,” says Rachel Kroeplien, Agribusiness Science and Technology instructor at Lakeshore Technical College. “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are nearly 60,000 high-skilled agriculture openings expected annually in the U.S. and only 35,000 graduates available to fill them. There is truly something for everyone in agriculture.” Third-generation farmer Becky Levzow agrees. Together with her husband, Ralph, and son, Kenneth, Levzow owns and operates a 180-cow, fourth-generation dairy farm near Rio, and represents the agriculture industry as a member of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board.
“Farming has changed so much since my grandparents were farmers, or even my parents. Today, you need business skills. It’s like any other small business and it doesn’t matter if you have 10 cows or a 5-acre garden plot where you sell at farmers markets or a 1,000-cow dairy – all of us need business skills and communication skills and even marketing skills,” Levzow says. “There are a lot of skills you learn through the technical college system that help us be better business people, promote our products and communicate with consumers that we are good stewards of the land.”