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New sustainable agriculture program at MSC Southeast will aim to give students ‘dirt cred’

September 25, 2018

Minnesota State College Southeast is on track to launch a new degree program in sustainable agriculture for the 2019-20 school year.

When Liz Micheel, professor of biology at Minnesota State College Southeast, presented her proposal for a brand-new degree program to administrators, she thought there would be at least a little resistance.

“I had an argument for every reason why we needed to do sustainable agriculture here,” she said, including her personal motivations for handing students the skills to farm with the environment in mind as well as the unique topography that makes the Winona area ripe for this type of work.

But as it turned out, she didn’t need any of her arguments. The proposal was OK’d almost immediately.

“I think it just makes sense,” said Micheel, who owns a hobby farm and has watched her neighbors farm conventionally for years.

The large machinery the farmers in western parts of Minnesota use regularly doesn’t work as well in the Driftless region, she explained. And beyond that, her biology background allows her to see common practices in agriculture that might not be producing the effects that are wanted.

“It’s a horrible idea to put 20,000 turkeys in a building together,” she gave as an example. “Biologically, they’re all going to get sick and you’ve set it up perfectly for disease. There’s got to be a better way.”

The program is poised to launch in fall 2019, but students who are interested have the option to take an introduction to agroecology course taught by Winona State University professor Bruno Borsari this spring. It’s built largely around classes that already exist, including some in the business field and a roundup of farm machinery skills, but a handful of agriculture core courses — like soil science, crop science and farm safety — will be new.

The agriculture courses will focus on the “triple bottom line” of economical, social and environmental factors that make up a successful farm, while the machinery skills classes will give students hands-on skills. They’ll have the opportunity to earn their diesel maintenance certification, as well as a Class B commercial driver’s license.

“I want these guys to come out of here … with the goal that they can take a piece of dirt, manage it and make an actual farm out of it that’s economically and environmentally sustainable,” Micheel said. “I want these students to come out with dirt cred.”

The focus on dirt cred, of course, means students will need some time with the dirt. Micheel said both Southeast’s Winona and Red Wing sites have the space to plant directly on campus ground, but she’s also reaching out to local farmers who might offer up their farms for the students to get some experience.

One of those farmers is Erik Harris, president of the Driftless chapter of Minnesota’s Sustainable Farming Association.

Though Harris said he’d welcome students to his farm, where he grows organically, the primary goal of involving the SFA is to make those connections with local farmers, like the Winona Farm, and to promote the methods that go along with farming sustainably.

“It’s not necessarily the organics, it’s the people that have shown capabilities in creative ways of doing things that we’d want to pursue and provide that education to the students,” he said.

Like Micheel’s dirt cred, the SFA provides beginning farmer classes to teach hands-on skills like sheep shearing, fence building and greasing tillage equipment, Harris said.

Although the program hasn’t received its official green light yet, it’s on track to begin next year. Micheel presented her proposal to the college’s Academic Affairs and Standards Committee last Thursday and said that, overall, it’s garnered lots of support. She’s aiming for final approval in November.

As for why it’s an important program to offer students at MSC Southeast, Harris pointed to the focus of many land-grant and large research universities on “feeding the plant” — maximizing crop yield, reducing risks and exploring GMO usage. A degree in sustainable agriculture can reignite the responsibility of the farmer to be a steward of the land and be cautious with how their practices affect the earth and the world around them, he said.

“When we’re considering our impact as farmers on our community, our water, our soil, then it’s something of value,” Harris said. “I’m just really honored to be a part of it.”

“I want these guys to come out of here … with the goal that they can take a piece of dirt, manage it and make an actual farm out of it that’s economically and environmentally sustainable.” Liz Micheel, professor of biology at Minnesota State College Southeast

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