NORFOLK, NE – ‘All roads do lead to a rural route.’ Those same roads led a nationally-syndicated radio broadcaster to visit Northeast Community College recently to discuss the institution’s newest initiative to train and develop America’s future farmer-scientists.
Trent Loos’ “Rural Route” program airs on over 100 stations across the country and boasts three-million listeners on-air and online, featuring programming aimed at bridging rural and urban America.
“I have made my way to northeast Nebraska and it happens to be Northeast Community College,” Loos said as he opened the broadcast.
Dr. Tracy Kruse, associate vice president of development and external affairs, told the broadcaster from central Nebraska that the focus of Northeast is to bring college to local and area residents.
“When you look at the programs that we offer, they’re made up of the things that the local region needs. So we are the local community partner – whether it’s for workforce development training or for economic development.”
Kruse explained the role of community colleges in providing career and technical education at a time when America needs expanded workforce development opportunities. She said graduates with two-year degrees are helping to meet employers’ needs with well-trained employees.
“(It’s) the workforce that fills the jobs whether it’s manufacturing, whether it’s in agriculture. Those are the jobs that are here in our local area and they’re critical to keeping rural America alive. … “When you think about the fact that we’re educating for our local region, we’re keeping people here for the jobs that exist here.”
Loos spent the rest of the program discussing Northeast Community College’s agriculture program, which annually features approximately 350 students. Corinne Morris, dean of agriculture, math and science, told Loos that Northeast has the best collegiate agriculture department in Nebraska, if not the nation.
“Our ag department has just a super reputation for giving students a solid start,” she said.
Morris said Northeast’s ag faculty keep their fingers on the pulse of the industry. She said the instructors abide by the principle of what is old is new again with a basis of the foundational knowledge that students learn.
Northeast features 12 agriculture programs, with a degree in natural resources starting in fall 2019. The newest program, precision agriculture, was developed three-years ago after faculty saw Northeast agronomy, agri-business and diversified ag students get hired by local cooperatives and ag businesses, but those employers had to train the graduates in precision agriculture techniques.
“(That’s when) we started looking into developing a precision ag program,” Morris said. “And in just that three-year start, we were recognized in an irrigation technology magazine last year as one of the top (precision ag programs) in the nation. We work very hard at providing hands-on experiences.”
Those experiences have included a student-built precision planter that is used by the students in their applied research. However, Morris said precision agriculture is much more than technology.
“It’s about management for production purposes, always trying to turn a profit, but it’s also about taking care of our natural resources all at the same time. Minimize your inputs, maximize your outputs.”
Loos agreed with Morris. He said in the year 1900, farmers needed five-acres of land to produce enough food to feed one person for a year.
“In 2019, it’s one-third of an acre or less to produce the same amount of food as it did in 1900 and this is one of the large components,” he said. “It’s what (Morris) just said, ‘producing more with less.’”
Northeast students fall into one of two categories, according to Rob Thomas, farm manager at the college. He told Loos some of the students come the institution to obtain an education in order to take the training and skills they have developed back to their family farm operations while others who grew up around farming want to get into the ag-business sector.
“What drives both of them is that they just want to learn more about ag - more than what their parents have told them or what they have seen. I think coming here and getting a good science background helps them understand ag a little bit better.”
One project Thomas and agriculture students will be involved with on the Northeast farm will determine what other crops can be grown besides a corn and soybean rotation. This will include experimenting with sustainable agriculture techniques.
“What we are looking at is building organic matter on our farm because it has just been so depleted. It’s going to take time and that’s what we’re really exploring - different management strategies for how fast we can build that organic matter back up using cover crops and heavy manure applications.”
Thomas said these are the types of techniques that are necessary to sustain feeding an increasing world population. He said it comes at a time when producers are raising close to 200-bushel corn with more and more nutrients being removed from the soil.
“We have to do that by increasing our production. We’re only going to increase our production by putting a greater strain on the soil. So, what we need to do with that greater strain on the soil is make sure we’re replacing the nutrients that we’re taking off; keeping the same structure on that soil and just keeping the soil microbiology alive throughout the growing season using cover crops. I think that’s really what’s going to sustain us through this next generation of farmers that’s coming up.”
Thomas, a May 2019 Northeast graduate from Pennsylvania is one of several out-of-state students who have attended Northeast to obtain agriculture-related degrees. He said many students understand that an area such as precision agriculture is the future of the industry.
“They see that our program is one of the best precision ag programs in the country.”
In addition, Thomas credits strong partnerships with ag businesses and dealers in allowing Northeast to build a good base for the curriculum, which, in turn, attracts the interest of students.
While the work of Northeast agriculture faculty and students who use state-of-the-art equipment is innovative for the 21st century, it is taking place in 20th century facilities. This includes a 1920’s era dairy barn that has been repurposed a number of times and a current building that houses the college’s veterinary technology program.
Tyler Vacha, director of major and planned gifts at Northeast, said there is a strategy in place to replace the aging structures.
“We’ve got a $23 million first-phase of a (capital) campaign that we’re working on to raise money to build a new vet tech facility, a new large animal handling facility and a new precision ag facility.”
Vacha said the plan is to relocate all of the college’s agriculture facilities to near Northeast’s Chuck M. Pohlman Agriculture Complex at Highway 35 and E. Benjamin Ave in Norfolk.
The new facilities will be designed to allow students to build upon Nebraska’s rich agricultural heritage while exploring and discovering new methods in agriculture, conservation, science, and technology to provide a globally competitive workforce and create a sustainable future. Students will take on roles as farmers and ranchers, engineers, conservationists, agronomists, animal scientists, and educators who impact and inspire others in state and beyond.
“We’re also doing that because our students are running from our main campus over to the Pohlman building and out to the college farm,” Vacha told Loos. “And they’re running over trying to make it between classes and internships and it doesn’t work very well for them. It also takes away the ability for the extra collaboration that happens in between classes between instructors and students. We are trying to capture that and make it easier on the students to participate in everything the college has to offer in agriculture.”
Loos expressed his support for the plan at the end of the broadcast.
“Northeast Community College must be a big deal,” he said. “It must have a power-packed team that’s excited about the future.”
The program featuring Northeast Community College aired on Thursday, July 11, and can be found online at http://www.loostales.com/audio/loos4.mp3--###--