In 2009, the Marathon County Board voted to give NTC $1 million to help start the center, a farm-based learning laboratory in the town of Maine. NTC’s initial investment was $164,338, according to NTC marketing & public relations director Katie Felch.
Two years later, students started using the facility, with 31 signing up for one of the two available associate degree programs: dairy science and agribusiness.
In the 2013-14 academic year, 107 students were enrolled in an expanded selection of four programs taught at the center. Veterinary science, an associate degree program, and agriculture equipment technician, which offers a technical diploma, recently were added to the course offerings.
In 2013, 12 students graduated from the dairy science program, according to figures provided by the college. Of those, 11 responded to a follow-up survey, with two listing “farm owner” or “family farm owner” as their occupations.
That means the program isn’t churning out graduates who take over or start their own family farms, but NTC leaders said the students being educated at the academy are contributing to central Wisconsin’s farming economy in myriad other ways.
By the numbers
From a budgetary standpoint, the Agriculture Center is split into two components; the instructional budget, which includes expenses such as instructional pay, supplies, printing costs and minor equipment; and the farm operations budget, which includes revenue from crops, milk, calves and cows and expenses including seed, fertilizer, livestock, fuel and repairs.
The instructional budget is a fixed cost for the college, but the farm operations spending plan can be affected by a variety of factors, including weather and milk prices, said NTC president Lori Weyers.
The farm has been operating in the red since it opened, losing about $24,000 in fiscal year 2013 and with losses projected to be about $5,000 in the current fiscal year, according to figures provided by the college.
While that might not be ideal, Weyers said it’s not unexpected.
“We said we had a five-year budget plan we were working toward to get to be cost-neutral,” Weyers said. “But it is very dependent on milk prices and how we do with the crops, if we have a good growing season, because then we don’t have to buy as much feed for the cows.”
Weyers said learning to cope with weather’s whims and fluctuating milk prices is a good lesson for students preparing for lives as farmers.
“We’re dependent on the weather, we’re dependent on milk prices, so our students need to understand this — that if they go into this field they’re going to be very much dependent on what happens with their crops and what happens with their milk prices,” she said. “It’s real life, it’s real-world living, and so that was our goal.”
The center lost about $85,000 in fiscal year 2012, but Felch said that figure doesn’t reflect a fully operational year; its herd still was growing and the center had yet to secure the annual milk-purchase contract it now has with Mullins Cheese.
The herd took time to build, said Vicky Pietz, NTC dean of agricultural sciences.
“We have over 100 animals now; we can have up to 110 on the property for the zoning,” Pietz said. “We started off with a smaller herd so it takes time for your cows to come up through the milking lines.”
Ag Center graduates
Of the 12 students who graduated from the dairy science program in 2013, 11 responded to a six-month follow-up survey from the college. Two of them reported owning farms — one a family farm — and others held jobs such as property manager, farm technician and farm hand.
Weyers said the industry is trending toward large farm operations and away from smaller family farms, so it’s not atypical for those entering the ag business to get jobs as farm managers instead of farm owners.
“The research says that larger farms are coming in and the smaller dairy farms of the ’60s and ’70s is no longer going to be the case,” Weyers said. “It’s tough to make a living when you’re talking about 40 or 60 cows, you’re going to have to have an outside job. … So either the wife works outside the home or somebody does.
“But then you’re seeing these 2,000-herd farms, the large operations, and they need a lot — they need a herdsman, they need somebody in charge of the crops, and that’s where our graduates are going.”
Brian Brendemuehl of Merrill, who graduated in May from the dairy science program, said he and his classmates got both a degree and real-world experience at the academy — a valuable combination when it comes to landing a job.
“It gives you credentials going into somebody’s farm; credentials that you were on a working farm with animals,” Brendemuehl said. “A lot of people will hire upon experience and you also have a degree, so if you have both, you have a leg up on the competition.”
The 30-year-old said the best part of the program was the hands-on learning.
“It gives you a perspective with the cow being there, it’s not all done by simulators,” Brendemuehl said. “You actually can see how things act and how the cows react to what the students are doing with the cows, so it gives you something to expect out in the real world and some perspective of how it’s going to happen.”
Growing a farm
The center, which sits on 110 acres on Highway K in the town of Maine, was developed in partnership with the Dairyland State Academy, a consortium of agribusiness advocates that helped raise money to make the facility a reality. In March 2009, the Marathon County Board voted 29-7 to spend $1 million to develop the center.
Then-county board chairman Keith Langenhahn was one of the yes votes.
“When we took the vote, the flavor of the (county) board was that agriculture is very important in Marathon County and with the average age of the producer at 57 or 58 at that time, we thought it was important to have young people trained to take over the industry and retain the agriculture base in Marathon County,” Langenhahn said.
The center includes a cow barn, calf and heifer barn, robotic milker, parlor and a “green” classroom that has the capacity to seat 32 students. The calf and heifer barn has the capacity to house 40 to 50 animals and the freestall barn has 50 stalls. The main building is equipped with a milking parlor and a Lely robotic milking machine.
The farm includes 83 acres of tillable land planted in a variety of crops — peas, oats, alfalfa, red clover, grass and corn. Through an agreement with Case IH, students are able to use the latest agricultural equipment and precision farming technology.
A farm operations manager oversees the center and is helped by two assistant managers, Pietz said. Two full-time instructors and some adjuncts round out the staffing.
Selling the center
The center is marketed in a variety of ways, Felch said, from career coaches promoting it in the high schools, to getting the word out at events such as the state fair, this month’s dairy breakfasts and organizations such as the FFA.
Felch said farm staffers also give frequent tours and hold high school-geared events where students can see the farm firsthand.
“That’s really what sells them,” Felch said. “That’s the great thing about the Ag Center of Excellence is that it’s that learning laboratory, you have that hands-on opportunity, you’re not just learning in the classroom, you’re actually seeing first hand all those experiences.”
In addition to its efforts to present the center in a good light, Pietz said the college wants to put a good face forward for the agriculture industry.
“We work really hard to make sure the place looks nice, looks clean, stays looking new, so that when folks do come in and tour they leave feeling great,” Pietz said. “They’ve had a good tour, they’ve had a good experience.”