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New degree comes with ‘dirt cred’

October 5, 2018

WINONA — 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.

The large machinery the farmers in western parts of Minnesota use regularly doesn’t work as well in the Driftless region in the southeast, 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 economic, 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.”

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