Saving the family farm

 

In the state often referred to as “The Breadbasket of the World,” agriculture claims prize of place in collegiate studies. So it’s only fitting that agriculture at Seward County Community College/Area Technical School is flourishing.

“It’s my goal to do everything I can to help our ag programs grow,” said Division Chair of Agricultural, Business, and Personal Services Kim Zant. Having grown up on a cotton farm in West Texas, she understands the farm life.

“You’ve got to be passionate about it,” she said. “We have many students who come here having grown up on the farm as I did. Our hope is that we can introduce them to ideas and methods they may not have encountered, but more than anything, we are here to teach people how to think and learn as they go through life. Hopefully, they will take away the thinking skills that will help them be as profitable as possible.”

This is not blind enthusiasm about a way of life that is in danger of fading away, noted the division chair.

“There’s a huge future in agriculture, beyond what we have seen for years,” Zant said. “The folks from K-State were on our campus last semester, and the representative from the agriculture department told me she can’t get enough graduates to fill all the jobs out there. That’s not just one specialty – that’s across the board in livestock, high-value crops, ag business, corn production — everything.”

That optimism is matched with real-life, real-money projects at SCCC/ATS. In partnership with the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the College will introduce a new component to an already-diverse ag program.

SCCC/ATS Associate Director of Advancement Charity Horinek crafted a grant application that qualified for the KDA and USDA funds. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program is designed to increase opportunities for specialty crops — fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.

“It’s a unique thing, and we’re pretty excited,” said agriculture instructor David Coltrain. “I’ve been telling people out here about how high-value crops can make the difference between starting a farm and not being able to afford the equipment and loans. The incubator plots are a way to demonstrate this. It is possible to make a $100,000 income through farming a four-acre space.”

Doubters have only to look at the college’s own agriculture plots under cultivation. With two traditional greenhouses, three newly-constructed “hoop houses,” a four-acre plot, and daily applications of elbow grease and farming smarts, Coltrain, instructional assistant Andy Davis, students and community volunteers grew an astonishing amount of edible produce between April and November, 2015.

“I called it the $100,000 garden, because that’s basically the value of the food we raised,” Coltrain said. Funding sources prevented the program from actually charging money for the pick-your-own produce offered to the public every Tuesday evening. However, Coltrain made good use of the sessions to promote the program — and give local gardeners good information about how to make the most of their own plots of land.

All this makes perfect sense to Dr. Todd Carter, Dean of Academic Affairs. The farming way of life is important to him.

“My brother and I started our own farm operation in high school, working land that belonged to a great-uncle,” said Carter.

He farmed as he attended college at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla., and began a career as a biology teacher.

“I reached a point where I no longer wanted to farm,” he said. “The double-digit interest rates, the fact that I was teaching in order to supplement farming … when I had the opportunity to go to graduate school, my father said, ‘You should do it.’”

Agriculture and small town life are different now, Carter said.

“There are two perspectives. The large family farms have survived, but there aren’t very many of them. So there are these very large operations, or you can have more specialized operations. The track my family has taken is to diversify and do several things.” Carter’s extended family provides grass seed, high performance cattle, custom baling, liquid feed — “They don’t rely on growing production anymore; that part has shrunk down from 6,000 acres to a thousand, maybe 1,200 acres now.”

It’s those choices and changes that instructors at SCCC/ATS want to equip their students to navigate.

Ag instructor Nick Noterman has experienced the need for flexibility firsthand. After he earned his Bachelor of Science in agriculture and animal science from Fort Hays State University, he spent five years at regional farm and ag entities — beef and pork production, farm labor, and seed and fertilizer sales. The variety proved a boon to Noterman, who grew up in Colorado raising sheep and hogs.

“It was always my intention to do what my parents and grandparents did,” he said. However, progress and profit changed Noterman’s hometown landscape — literally — as the Front Range community caught the attention of developers. Noterman appreciates the contrast he observes in Western Kansas.

“Farmers out here are so rich in tradition,” he said. “They survived the Dust Bowl. They’re more remote — nobody’s going to build a suburb out here — but even if someone wanted to, I’m pretty sure they’re never going to give up the farm.”

Noterman has focused significant effort on revitalizing the College’s animal science studies, as evidenced by the recent Celebrity Livestock Auction sponsored by the Block & Bridle student club.

“The kids know there’s a future in this, and they’re willing to work hard to make it happen,” Noterman said. “I’m really proud of them.” He’s looking forward to more auctions and show events with students in 2016.

Coltrain, too, is a former hog farmer who experienced the sudden, disheartening changes in agriculture when corporate hog farming arrived in the 1990s in southeast Kansas.  He returned to college, earned a Master’s Degree at Kansas State University in Manhattan, and applies life- and academic experience to the job of educating future farmers.

“I think there’s always a future for farming, but if we don’t keep educating people, we won’t have enough farmers,” said Coltrain, echoing Zant’s observations about expanding employment and business opportunities. Coltrain teaches high schoolers enrolled in concurrent classes, traditional college students who come to Liberal from the small farm towns, and nontraditional students seeking a fresh start in life.

The KDA grant offers a particularly appealing opportunity to students in the last two categories, Coltrain said.

“We’ve got a lot of people who want to be farmers,” he said. “Maybe they’re kids from smaller towns, whose families don’t have a lot of land, or never farmed at all. They can’t get a $2 million loan to start out. Or maybe there are people from other countries who have come here, and they don’t know how to make a living yet. This is perfect for them.”

The incubator grants allow students who enroll in the class to use plots of college land to grow high-value crops that they can sell. Business courses teach them to balance profit and loss, and at the end of a two-year course of study, Coltrain said, “they could be ready to buy a small amount of land and make a good living.”

KDA hopes Coltrain and grantwriter Horinek are correct.

“This grant helps the State provide financial resources to strengthen and grow the specialty crop sector in Kansas,” said Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey. “Opportunities exist to grow the fruit and vegetable industry in Kansas and these grants allow us to support entrepreneurs in the specialty crop industry.”

At SCCC/ATS, of course, opportunities also exist for students to study traditional agriculture, animal science, and complete prerequisites for transfer studies at four-year universities.

“The goal is to equip them for whatever careers they might choose in agriculture,” said Zant. “It’s pretty exciting — the best of our past, and the best of the future.”

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