The fields around Monroe still haven’t been planted. The weather has been too cold and too wet.
But that’s the only pause in agribusiness.
Agronomists, dairy farmers, herdsmen, ag equipment operators, breeders, sales people, mechanics, food scientists, ag lenders, commodity specialists, dairy farmers and other producers all are working.
It’s that comprehensive view of agriculture that led Blackhawk Technical College to expand its agribusiness program from continuing education for farmers to a one-year certificate program and then to a two-year associate degree.
The program has been successful enough that the college’s board approved $650,000 to build a 3,200-square-foot lab for the program. The building will give students the space for hands-on training, regardless of weather conditions, according to a news release from the college.
On a recent rainy morning while his students studied for final exams, ag teacher Dusty Williams showed where the new ag lab was emerging from the ground. Next to it in the parking lot stood a six-row planter customized by students.
Blackhawk Technical College has offered agricultural courses from its earliest days, but they were more like continuing education for farmers, Williams said.
That program still exists as “farm business and production management” and is designed for farm operators.
“So part of the problem was that the courses weren’t transferable, and it wasn’t at the associate degree level,” Williams said. “So we weren’t really offering anything for people who wanted to work in the industry.”
The school created a one-year certificate program for agribusiness specialist. The two-semester program includes a variety of three-credit courses, such as Introduction to Plant Science, Introduction to Animal Science and Math with Business Applications.
Students also leave with a commercial driver’s license, a commercial applicator’s license and a technical certificate. The cost for the 35 credits is $5,395, and students can apply for federal financial aid.
That one-year certificate course now serves as a base for a two-year associate degree in agribusiness/science and technology. The second year of courses takes a more in-depth look at livestock management and nutrition, marketing, microeconomics and precision agriculture techniques.
Students leave with an associate degree with transferable credits and the certificates they earned their first year. The cost for two years of school and 64 credits is $9,589.
School to work
But isn’t farming, as we know it, going away?
Yes and no, Williams said.
Small and midsize dairy farms are disappearing at a disheartening rate, while larger operations are thriving. Midsize crop farms are also disappearing, but large operations and niche operations of less than 50 acres are increasing, Williams said.
And agribusiness has always needed specialists of all kinds.
“This is an industry that has been used to hiring retired farmers and farm kids,” Williams said. “But now there are so few retired farmers and farm kids that the industry is shifting, and they’re having to hire people that didn’t grow up on a farm.”
At the groundbreaking for the new lab, Art Carter, Green County Board chairman, said agriculture was important to the region.
“We need to keep training new people to meet our demands. The technology of the industry changes constantly, and if we don’t develop new workers, agriculture for the county will suffer,” Carter said.
The challenge isn’t finding jobs for graduating students—that’s easy enough.
Rather, Williams finds himself fighting against the perception that tech colleges are second-best.
He had a parent tell him Blackhawk Tech couldn’t be as good because it was less expensive. The technical college system is supported by property tax dollars, and that’s one of the reasons its tuition is less expensive, he told her.
One of Blackhawk’s primary competitors is the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course. The 16-week course runs from November through March to accommodate farm schedules. Students earn a certificate in the “foundations of farm management.”
The 12-credit course costs $3,673. Housing is another $3,500, and the cost of food ranges between $500 and $1,300, depending on how often the student goes home.
Short-course students can earn additional certificates during a second year in the program. But it’s not always easy to transfer those credits to another college program because many of the classes are single-credit courses. Most college courses are three credits.
Another challenge is that the short course is not eligible for federal financial aid, although it does offer scholarships and students can get bank loans.
Williams acknowledged that part of the appeal of the short course is the “college experience”—going to football games, parties and the fun of being away from home.
Colleen Toberman was Parkview High School’s valedictorian in 2018, so when it came to picking a college, she had plenty of choices.
“I did tour Platteville, and I thought I might go there,” Toberman said. “But when I went to Blackhawk, it felt like the right fit.”
She got some flak for her decision. People told her she could go to UW-Madison if she wanted, so why BTC?
Blackhawk’s small class sizes, hands-on activities, the ability to live at home and work, and, of course, the lower cost all played a part in her decision.
“I didn’t know if I would be challenged there, but I was, and they kept me busy all the time,” Toberman said.
She joined the Professional Agricultural Student Organization, which allowed her to network with other agribusiness professionals and students. This summer, after she graduates with her associate degree, Toberman will work in her second paid internship at Landmark Services Cooperative in Evansville.
Next year, she plans to pursue a business degree using Blackhawk Tech’s credit transfer agreement with UW-Whitewater. In two years, when her friends at four-year colleges are getting their first internships, Toberman hopes to be established in her chosen field.