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Minnesota Soybean Business

Excelling in education: MN Ag Center preps students for farming careers

July-August 2019

In a growing agriculture workforce, the Minnesota Agriculture Center for Excellence is primed to educate and mold today and tomorrow’s agriculture professionals.

“Our mission is to focus on the workforce needs that we have in agriculture,” says Brad Schloesser, longtime dean of the Southern Minnesota Center of Agriculture. “Some of that is production-oriented, but a lot of it is in the ag business sector, too.”

The Ag Center aligns with industry partners to offer a diverse array of prospective careers in agriculture: jobs ranging from aquaculture to animal science to agronomy to genetics. The Center is also focused on identifying pipeline-related jobs. One study shows that U.S. aquaculture’s workforce is running at about a 40 percent deficit.

Thirty six Minnesota colleges currently have majors offering degrees in Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources. South Central, Riverland Community College, Minnesota West, Southwest Minnesota State, Rochester Community and Technical College and Minnesota State Mankato (in development) are all partners with the Center of Ag Excellence. The Center also works with Minnesota high schools to develop and grow introductory ag education classes, including Minnesota’s metro areas.

“About half of high schools don’t have an ag education program to enroll in,” says Schloesser, who cited Mankato West and East high schools as examples of schools that are launching ag education courses. “All these schools are recognizing the opportunity to have their young people stay in their community with a viable option by concentrating on agriculture.”

Tom Slunecka, CEO of the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, serves on the Center’s ex officio committee along with other agriculture leaders.

“Our organization is certainly supportive of the Ag Center’s efforts to grow the next crop of professional in this field,” Slunecka says. “The Ag Center is really an ideal resource to help develop and recruit professionals in agriculture.”

The Center has three full time staffers and a farm business management program with 15 faculty on more than 600 farms, and about 125 to 140 students in South Central College’s ag business program.

“We try to reach a unique audience where we can have a positive impact,” Schloesser says.

The Center aims to be proactive, not reactive, in an agriculture world that’s always evolving.

Brad Schloesser is the director of the Southern Agricultural Center of Excellence

“You’ve got to be comfortable with change in ag,” Schloesser says, “and we try to stay in front of the change.”

Growing talent

In northern Minnesota, Keith Olander serves as the director of AgCentric and Central Lake College Ag & Energy Center, and works alongside the Center of Agriculture.

“My role is defined through ag outreach and connecting researchers and industry leaders with agriculture students,” Olander says. “We can bring so many professions back to agriculture.”

AgCentric sprung up in 2014, and according to Program Manager Judy Barka, had humble beginnings.

“We started with nothing,” she says. “Our success has been a testament to our base partners and, of course, our students and faculty. Since then, we’ve become a go-to for career pathways in agriculture.”

One area in which the Ag Center and AgCentric has devoted resources to is raising awareness for rural mental health. During this year’s legislative session, $1.3 million was devoted to increases for rural mental health services and advocates.

“Both Keith and Brad have really advocated, both publicly and behind the scene, for more mental health resources throughout greater Minnesota,” Barka says. “It was gratifying to see the legislature get behind this; it also shows that we’re committed to supporting our students and communities.”

As agriculture continues growing, Ag Centric and the Center for Excellence team up to educate and assist the next generation of professionals.

Careers in agriculture, Olander says, are ripe for the taking.

“The demand for agriculture careers has never been better or offered greater compensation,” Olander says.

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