First comes a bold vision, a plan and then implementation.
Northeast Community College has big dreams for their ag program overall – that is envisioning a host of opportunities for the students they serve, many of whom will become the leaders of farms, rural communities and ag businesses across Nebraska and beyond.
“Not many people know that Northeast’s agriculture program is actually the eighth largest, two-year degree granting program in the nation, with approximately 350 agriculture students enrolled annually in 12 different areas of study,” said Tyler Vacha – Director of Major and Planned Gifts.
That passion and forward thinking has led to Northeast being viewed as a national leader in two-year agriculture education. In 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a taskforce on agriculture workforce development, after a study by Purdue University indicated that job growth in agriculture far outpaced graduation rates of qualified employees at two and four-year institutions. The coordinators of the effort reached out to Dr. Tracy Kruse – Associate Vice President of Development and External Affairs at Northeast to speak at the event.
By this time, Northeast had already began having conversations with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about how community colleges could work with the NRCS to educate future agriculture producers and technicians about the benefits of conservation and land stewardship practices. NRCS, with field offices across the country, saw a huge opportunity to hire more community college graduates and educate future producers. Kruse said the taskforce presentation prompted NRCS to say, “Let’s put a pilot program together with a group of institutions.”
This conversation began Northeast’s effort to develop the Community College Alliance for Agriculture Advancement, which attained its 501(c)3 nonprofit designation this year. “That conversation five years ago was the basis that formed this alliance. We pulled nine Midwestern colleges together that had working farms as part of their programming. Our goal is to become a national network of community colleges leveraging agriculture education resources,” said Kruse.
Setting Northeast apart from other community colleges is its diversity of programs with recent additions in precision agriculture and natural resources management as well as their collaboration with industry partners to conduct applied research hands-on-learning opportunities that demonstrate new and innovative technologies and methodologies to students, on the college’s 500-acre farm.
Corinne Morris – Dean of Ag, Math and Science provided a precision ag and agronomy example, “Bob Noonan is a faculty member and seed corn farmer. He started looking at a college field with marginal sandy soil and years of mismanagement. He saw an opportunity to partner with the National Corn Growers Association and implement applied research using cover cropping, manure management, and soil sampling with the goal of regenerating soil health. He is really able to teach students in a hands-on fashion, good management practices and demonstrate the scientific results to back them up.”
Northeast leaders also realized that in order to continue providing students a strong educational experience, something would have to be done about their aging facilities, leading to the establishment of the College’s Nexus Campaign. “We cannot continue to operate in 1920s facilities. But it’s not just about the buildings, it’s also about people and programming. As we prepared for this campaign, we brought several hundred people to the table – employers, producers, industry representatives and others. Together, we began to envision how Northeast could better prepare students for the future of agriculture,” Kruse said.
Morris said the focus of the Nexus campaign is multi-fold and includes curriculum and applied research in soil health, water quality, sustainability and best management practices, “Our goal is to teach best management practices that minimize inputs, maximize results, conserve water and still get to that bottom-line producers need. It’s not just about getting equipment and technology – it’s about the right equipment and technology that makes producers profitable. We want to get students looking in the direction of farm profitability and best management first and foremost.”
Morris shared, “Really, all programming at Northeast Community College, is essential to building rural communities. We provide EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians), electricians and heating and air conditioning technicians, nurses and more in addition to our agriculture graduates.”
In closing, Kruse said the following about the power of the community college network across the country, “It’s a huge component of what is keeping rural America alive.” Learn more at: agwaternexus.com.