AFNR Curriculum On the Rise in Minnesota Schools
$1,190,000,000,000. That’s over 1 trillion with a T. It’s also the amount agriculture, food, and related industries contributed to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2019: $1.19 trillion. Not too shabby!
That number will only continue to grow, which explains why agribusiness professionals are in demand and ag education is hot, hot, hot.
If you’re picturing a lot of empty tractor seats as you read this, you couldn’t be more wrong. Farmers will always be the backbone of the industry, but there is also demand for employees in biotech, engineering, software, automation, natural resources, finance, marketing, and communications. The list of related careers goes on and on.
“One of the challenges we face is encouraging students and families to see the demand and potential in the agriculture, food, and natural resource industry. It offers high wage, high status, and high quality of life careers that will provide financial flexibility and a balanced future,” Ethan Dado said. Dado is an agriculture, food, and natural resource, or AFNR, instructor and FFA adviser for Mankato Area Public Schools.
To meet the demands of the industry, area schools and colleges are adding courses, hiring faculty, and building labs and greenhouse at a rapid pace. To learn more, I spoke with three area educators who are busy creating new learning opportunities at Mankato public schools and colleges.
Mankato Area Public Schools (MAPS)
Independent School District 77 introduced its AFNR program at Mankato East and Mankato West high schools during the 2019-20 school year.
“The demand for talent in AFNR careers is why our program was established two years ago,” Dado said. “The community saw the need and advocated with the district to play their part in preparing for the future of the industry.”
The high school program has proven wildly popular, growing exponentially in a truly short time.
“The first year we only had 40 students enrolled in our program. For the 2020-21 academic year, we added two more AFNR courses: introduction to plant science and intro to animal science,” Dado said. “As a result, we grew from 40 students to just short of 300 students, an increase of over 700 percent.”
ISD 77 will continue to grow its AFNR programs, hiring a second instructor and adding four more courses next year. The new courses explore a wide range of AFNR subjects: natural resources; introduction to agricultural mech and tech; plant production; and veterinary science.
MAPS is also building a large, technology-enriched greenhouse to provide hands-on learning opportunities and to train students in problem-solving techniques. The greenhouse will be located at Mankato East High School.
“This greenhouse will increase authentic learning opportunities and prepare 21st century students for 22nd century careers,” Dado said. “We have an incredible opportunity to train the next generation.”
South Central College (SCC)
South Central College is a seasoned player in AFNR, celebrating 50 years in agricultural education in 2020. Its current offerings are robust and constantly evolving to meet the growing needs of the industry. Brad Schloesser is the dean of agriculture at SCC. He’s also the director of the Southern Agricultural Center of Excellence.
“At SCC, our agribusiness programming provides opportunities to augment the food, fuel, feed, and fiber chain,” Schloesser said. “Think supply chain. The protein, meat, milk, and plant products that are produced on farms require processing prior to arrival at the store and eventually on our plate. So, at SCC we prepare people for many roles in the agribusiness spectrum, from farm gate to the dinner plate.
SCC divides its AFNR programming into two distinct categories: agribusiness and farm management. The agribusiness curriculum gives students a broad understanding of current ag concepts, innovations, and trends. It includes five associate degree programs and four certificate programs. SCC’s newest program is a sustainable micro farming certificate.
More agribusiness offerings are in the works. A $500,000 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be used to create an advanced ag technology certificate program. This program, which combines agribusiness with mechatronics, launches in August 2021.
Schloesser said 91 students are currently enrolled in agribusiness programs. Typically, these programs attract recent high school graduates and transfer students. But there is also demand by nontraditional students, such as military veterans.
“Veterans have opportunities in agriculture,” Schloesser said. “That was the motivation for our AgSPARK program. It is designed to transfer, retool and apply their military skills and talents to the agriculture fields.”
Farm business management is designed for agricultural producers who are already actively farming. Its goal is to help them make the most out of their operations through one-on-one educational services that lead to certificates and degrees. This popular program’s enrollment has been consistently over 600 students for each of the last three years.
SCC is also investing in its facilities. In 2019, the Hi-Tunnel Greenhouse was built on campus. In 2020, it expanded its Agribusiness Experiential Learning Lab, quadrupling its size, through a partnership with the Crystal Valley farmers cooperative.
The rising demand for AFNR graduates has led to several positive trends. Schloesser is seeing increasing diversity in agriculture, a greater emphasis on hands-on education, and more high schools committing to offering AFNR education.
“There’s a rejuvenated interest and a commitment to ag education where agriculture awareness and career exploration has been absent,” Schloesser said. “Currently there are 202 secondary AFNR programs in Minnesota high schools, with seven more pending, and additional schools seeking the opportunity. You see the same excitement in Mankato, St. Peter, Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton, Cleveland, and Faribault high schools.”
Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU)
Minnesota State University, Mankato is seeing growth in several AFNR-related areas, including one that may surprise you: business.
“As business students graduate, many take agribusiness positions in accounting, finance, human resources, sales, and other management-related positions,” Shane Bowyer said. “The jobs are across the board when it comes to the size of organizations, as graduates are taking positions with large, multinational companies, smaller regional firms, and even starting their own businesses.”
Bowyer is MSU’s Agribusiness & Food Innovation director and an assistant professor of management. He noted that the College of Business currently offers a minor in agribusiness and food innovation, which can be coupled with any major on campus. It will launch its first agribusiness major in the fall of 2021.
“We are excited about this program as it has various tracks within agribusiness the students can choose to focus on,” Bowyer said. “This is developing rather quickly, especially for higher education.”
While the university has always had related courses and graduates that went on to work in AFNR-related industries, it has only recently added majors and minors dedicated to AFNR careers. More are on the way.
“Starting this fall of 2021, MSU will have nine undergraduate majors related to AFNR, as well as an environmental sciences master’s program and certificate degrees in environmental geology, renewable energy, geographic information sciences, and global solutions in engineering,” Bowyer said.
Those programs can’t come soon enough. Bowyer cites a recent USDA report that projects annual job opportunities for AFNR graduates with bachelor’s degrees or higher will average almost 60,000 openings for each of the next five years; 42 percent of those jobs will be in management and business. At this pace, employer demand will far exceed available graduates.
This trend is reflected in the increasing number of AFNR companies that come to MSU to recruit qualified candidates.
“In the past few years, there have been more than 160 AFNR-related companies recruiting both on campus and through our career development center,” Bowyer said. “Because our institution is located in the heart of an agricultural region, there will be abundant opportunities for our graduates right out our back door.”
To meet growing demand, MSU will continue to up its ante in the AFNR game. Plans for developing a new College of Applied Agriculture and Food are in the works.
“This will be the front door, attracting students and developing partnerships within the region to bring big ideas to the growing agriculture and food industry,” Bowyer said.
Mankato Area Public Schools
Phone: (507) 387-1868
South Central College
Mankato Campus: (507) 389-7200
Faribault Campus: (507) 332-5800 Web: southcentral.edu
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Phone: (507) 389-1866
Published in May 2021