Demand drives agricultural program investment

April 18th, 2017

By Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Northeast Indiana institutions of higher learning are investing in agricultural programs to help meet increasing demand for talent with that kind of academic background.

Agribusinesses operating in the region have shown “they’re pretty keen on the idea of having employees who have bachelor’s degrees,” said Raymond Porter, director of the Haupert Institute for Agricultural Studies at Huntington University in Huntington.

The university has helped the industry meet that demand since 2015, when it started the institute and its agricultural degree program. Last year, it added an agricultural education degree program. The programs have 22 enrolled students, he said.

A study by Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the industry’s workforce needs projected 58,000 jobs will open in agriculture, food and environmental science during the next five years, and universities will graduate only 35,000 students with degrees in those areas, Porter said.

“There’s definitely a shortage of people who are trained, compared with the number of jobs that are projected to open in the next five years,” he said. “It just makes a lot of sense for us to add to our ability to train graduates in agribusiness and ag education, which are our two majors.”

The university has scheduled an April 20 groundbreaking ceremony for a new Ware Plant Science Production Facility, which Porter said would provide more space for students in the programs to work with crop plants and learn how they grow.

The 2,000-square-foot, aluminum-frame facility next to the southeast side of the university’s Dowden Science Building will be split into zones for teaching as well as plant production and research. It will be available for use by a variety of science disciplines at the university.

A greenhouse environment achieved with clear insulated glass and a multiwall polycarbonate roof for heat retention and light diffusion will prove useful for hands-on learning and research opportunities with plant and soil sciences, and possibly with aquaponics, according to a description of the facility in a statement.

Information on the project’s cost and construction time line will be available after the university awards bids for it. The project was funded in large part by gifts from the Douglas Ware family in Chapel Hill, N.C., which were given in honor of his father, Dale Ware, an HU alum and long-time Huntington County educator.

A larger project of a similar nature previously scheduled for completion this summer or fall at Ivy Tech Community College – Northeast will take longer than expected, and probably will be completed “closer to the spring of 2018,” said Kelli Kreider, who chairs the agricultural program she started for it in 2013.

Ivy Tech’s agricultural program ended the fall semester with 60 students. The program expects to benefit from a 3,000-square-foot, $486,000 greenhouse project supported by contributions to Ivy Tech’s “Dream Big” capital campaign.

Agriculture majors will conduct soil and plant experiments in the greenhouse and become acquainted with highly efficient hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic food production systems. Culinary arts majors will incorporate produce grown there into classroom cooking assignments.

Kreider works with a variety of agribusinesses in northeast Indiana to determine their workforce needs and customizes some of the courses to help them address skill gaps.

Another part of her work involves helping farmers in the region adopt technologies that are gaining importance in the industry, such as farming analytics and detailed GPS field mapping with soil, seed, input and yield data for site-specific farming.

Kreider expects to see an increasing number of opportunities to collaborate with agribusinesses in the region on agricultural research projects at the greenhouse after it opens.

Grace College in Winona Lake plans to start an agribusiness degree program this fall. The program will offer an associate degree of applied science in agribusiness and a bachelor degree of science in agribusiness.

“For more than three years we have researched and developed the agribusiness program to best meet the needs of our region and current economy. We’ve long realized the importance and prominence of agriculture in our county and state; this degree program is our response,” Bill Katip, Grace president, said in a statement on the program last month.

“We want to prepare the next generation of farm CEOs, CFOs and independent farmers to amply feed of our state, nation and world from right here in Kosciusko County.”

Jeffrey Fawcett, business school dean for the college, led the development of the program. He said in the statement that several agricultural professionals in the area collaborated with the university to help it create a curriculum relevant to the industry.

The program will require its students to complete three integrated internships over the course of seven months to provide them with experience in all phases of the growing season.