This story was first featured in the November-December 2018 issue of Soybean Business. Click here to read the online version of the magazine.
When Donavan Phoenix was looking at Midwest collegiate agriculture programs, he admits Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) in Marshall, Minn., wasn’t on his radar.
“I was looking at places like the U of M and River Falls, but my high school counselor told me to check out SMSU,” says Phoenix, a southeastern Minnesota native. “Honestly, I hadn’t even heard much about it.”
Phoenix visited SMSU with his mom during his junior year of high school, and was impressed when the university’s recruiter for ag program postponed her vacation to show Phoenix around the campus. Then Phoenix’s entire outlook on SMSU changed.
“She stayed back just to meet with me, and that really resonated with me and is consistent with the people here,” Phoenix says. “I felt like I was more than a number at SMSU, that I was a person.”
This anecdote isn’t unique to Phoenix. Ask almost anyone why they’re involved in SMSU’s Department of Agriculture, Culinology and Hospitality Management, and they’ll offer a similar response: There’s a family feeling everywhere you turn at SMSU.
“There’s no hiding in a place like this,” says Steve Davis, a professor of agronomics research. “You can’t get lost in the shuffle here.”
Ian Wyffels, the university’s assistant director of recruitment for ag programs, is a familiar face in Marshall. He hardly takes a few steps on campus without saying hello to a student, or sharing an anecdote about a fellow member of his church whom he just passed in the halls.
“It’s a family atmosphere here,” says Wyffels, who also helps out in his family farm in Lyon County. “There’s a lot of competition for colleges, and we want to serve students in any way we can.”
SMSU’s “Farm to Fork” burgeoning ag program, which offers a comprehensive list of agriculture majors ranging from ag education to agronomy and ag communication & leadership to hospitality management, is in its third year. The program continues to grow since the merger– about 175 students are enrolled in the program.
“When I came here, we didn’t have a program,” says Kristin Kovar, an assistant professor of agriculture education. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see something go from nothing to what we have today, which is a flourishing program for ag students.”
SMSU is one of only three Minnesota colleges –along with the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and University of Minnesota Crookston – to offer ag education courses.
“We’re the newest but we have about the same (ag education) numbers as the others,” Kovar says. “I think a lot of students prefer a smaller institutions like SMSU.”
The “Farm to Fork” program offers students an array of opportunities outside of the classroom: internships, an Ag Club, Ag House, a post-secondary organizations and thousands of dollars in scholarships. At last year’s Ag Banquet, the department issued more than $33,000 in scholarships to its students.
One of the marquee attractions of SMSU’s ag program is an off-site, 20-acre research plot that affords students a chance to conduct undergraduate research. The plot, just three miles off campus, is used for experimenting on a dozen crops, including corn and soybeans, as well as late-season planting on other crops for pest management purposes.
“If students want to do something in the field, the best way to do that is have on-farm experience,” says Assistant Professor of Agronomy Lee French. “That’s what our research plot provides.”
SMSU also conducts independent research for companies; the money from those contracts helps fund on-field student research and student scholarships. Partnering with local nutrition company, Ralco, SMSU’s host two “Ag Bowls,” once during the fall football season and again at an invitational in February during the Mustangs’ basketball season. The Ag Bowls have become marquee events for students, local FFA chapters and southwest Minnesota commodity groups.
“It’s a great experience for the teachers and students, but I love it because my students can run an event and have that knowledge,” Kovar says. “I know the FFA kids give it really high comments as a regional competition. The Ag Bowl is just a well-produced event.”
‘Feels like home’
Though the “Farm to Fork” branding was unveiled in 2016, SMSU’s ag department is no stranger to innovation. When other schools eschewed organic ag research, SMSU welcomed it with open arms. In the 1970s, the school received a Rodale grant for $5,000 to grow organic crops, becoming one of the first universities in the national to conduct research on organic crops.
“At the time, other departments thought organic agriculture was a waste of time,” Davis says. “At SMSU, we know what the customer wants. When you go to a big school, everyone lives in their silo. At a school like this, you know the people in plant science, you know the people in soil science. You don’t get to live in your cubby.”
Phoenix holds no second thoughts in his college choice. He knows SMSU was the right place for him. Phoenix ingratiated himself in the SMSU community, and spent the past summer interning at Sleepy Eye High School. After graduation next spring, Phoenix hopes to teach high school ag.
“It’s a different feeling here,” he says. “It feels like home.”