When the number of agriculture (Ag) majors dropped to six in 2011, Snow College (Ephraim, Utah) leaders considered closing the department. Instead they revamped it to focus on agriculture business skills for family farmers.
By adding agriculture-related advanced technology content to existing STEM courses with the goal of helping small farmers run their operations efficiently, the college has restructured its agriculture offerings with the addition of twelve courses and two faculty members. Students have responded enthusiastically to the change. In fall 2017, 181 students took agriculture courses and Snow College had 128 declared agriculture majors.
“To me it’s looking at the pieces of the puzzle, and re-configuring those pieces into programs,” said Jay Olsen, director of Agriculture and Farm/Ranch Management at Snow College.
The college’s newest program, Agriculture Systems, was developed with the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education grant. (#1601397) Twenty-eight students enrolled in the program’s three inaugural courses in fall 2017; 26 are currently taking the next two courses in the associate in applied science degree program sequence. Two stackable certificates are part of the degree program that articulates to the Utah State University’s Agriculture Systems Technology Bachelor of Science degree program.
Mentor-Connect Helps Shape New Ag Systems Program
Olsen said questions from Osa Brand, the college’s Mentor-Connect mentor in 2015, helped him and Michael P. Medley, the dean of Business and Applied Technologies, clarify their thinking about the curriculum. Olsen and Medley had done a long-range plan for the agriculture program that fit with the college’s strategic plan prior to being selected for Mentor-Connect.
In the initial phase of restructuring, the college eliminated under-subscribed animal science and agronomy degree programs, and replaced them with an Agribusiness Associate of Science and Associate in Applied Science degree programs. Next the college added an equine management program with four new equine courses. (In 2013, the college also started an interscholastic rodeo team.)
Olsen and Medley then hoped to obtain NSF support for an agriculture mechanics program. Because the college had never had an NSF grant, it first applied to Mentor-Connect. Mentor-Connect is an ATE project that helps teams of community college faculty and administrators prepare competitive grant proposals. It provides each team with mentoring from an experienced ATE principal investigator and technical resources.
At that point, Olsen said, “We were halfway down the road.”
Brand, Snow College's Mentor-Connect mentor, has a PhD in geography, but does not have a background in agriculture. So her questions came from a “different perspective,” which Olsen said led him and Medley (who were Snow College’s Mentor-Connect team) to reconsider the needs of farm families in the six rural counties the college serves.
Water Management Woven into Agriculture Mechanics & Technology Courses
The grant proposal they wrote requested NSF support to develop a program that blends agriculture mechanics and advanced technologies, and instruction about the region's hydrology. Efficient use of irrigation water—prescriptively applied on crops via pivot irrigation systems that use global positioning systems (GPS)—is critical for Utah farmers whose economic challenges include the rapid expansion of water demands for residential and business developments.
As Medley wrote in a summary of the project, “Failure to implement proven new technologies affects current productivity and also limits opportunities for next-generation farmers.”
The agriculture systems curriculum, which they devised with the support of the $198,671 ATE grant that the college received in 2016, includes entrepreneurship as well as diesel engine repair. Irrigation system lessons cover maintenance of the mechanical equipment and the programming of the GPS units that control valves and movement of the irrigation pivot system in each section of a field. Students also learn to operate and repair unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, which farmers increasingly use to monitor irrigation systems, crops, and livestock.
Olsen attributes the strong initial enrollment in the new program to “word-of-mouth” from current agriculture students, the agriculture advisory committee, and area Future Farmer of America advisors. The technical and mechanical skills that the agriculture systems students are learning to keep their families’ farms running well also qualify them for technician jobs with commercial farms and equipment dealers.
“For students desiring more knowledge and skills in ag systems, either in the technology or mechanics emphasis areas, there is much more interest in completing certificates or degrees rather than ‘just [taking] classes,’” Olsen explained in an email. In the past, individuals operating family farms would take a course or two when they wanted to know a particular skill such as welding.
The college is now in the process of hiring a part-time recruiter who will interact with high school Future Farmers of America chapters.
“We’re still small,” Olsen said in an interview, but he is encouraged about the exponential growth in Snow College’s agriculture program since 2011. The next big goals are to add animal science and agronomy degree programs back into 2+2+2 pathways that the college is developing with its feeder high schools and Utah State University’s College of Agriculture.