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Erik Burgess, Published November 17 2012

MSCTC suspends sustainable food program

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – Twenty-six-year-old Noelle Harden has three degrees: one from the University of Wisconsin, one from the University of Minnesota, and one from a much smaller community college here that she says gave her the biggest boost of all.

When considering all she’s learned across her years of education, Harden says her one-year degree from the sustainable food production program at Minnesota State Community and Technical College helped her most when she decided to follow her dream and start her own farm.

“I really can’t say enough about what the program has done for me, for both of us,” Harden said of her and husband, also a graduate of the program, who now run a small poultry farm north of Brainerd.

But it seems future students won’t be given the same opportunity.

Citing low admission and graduates of the program not getting jobs, administrators at M-State have suspended the sustainable food program.

A college spokeswoman said some, but not all, of the classes will be assimilated into other departments within the college, but the professor who created the program just two years ago said her brainchild, which she believes was playing a crucial role in the community, has probably seen its last days.

“The suspension will kill the program because all the momentum that we built will go away,” Sue Wika said.

One of a kind

The sustainable food program at M-State was unique but poorly attended.

The program had about 11 full-time students in its first year in 2010. That number had fallen to six this year. Those six will be allowed to finish and attain their degree before the suspension is official next fall.

Students in the program take two full semesters of classes followed by 180 hours of an internship, usually on a local farm. The program works hand-in-hand with regional organic farmers and college instructors to help students learn not only how to farm organically, but how to make it into a small business.

“The bottom line is we don’t have anything like it in any of our universities. NDSU doesn’t specialize in organic or sustainable agriculture,” said Abby Gold, a professor and extension specialist at North Dakota State University.

Despite low admission numbers, proponents of the program argue the courses were teaching an extremely marketable skill in the Upper Midwest – how to be a small farmer.

“In this area, we lack food producers. We lack farmers,” Gold said. “And that was really one program that was going to help grow those producers.”

Ryan Pesch, an adjunct professor who teaches one course in the program, has been a local farmer for 10 years. He said he’s seen a great resurgence of organic farming, with more and more schools, hospitals and nursing homes asking for locally grown food.

“It’s kind of lonely being in this region, being a sustainable aggie type,” said Pesch, who also works full time at the University of Minnesota extension in Moorhead. “A lot of us are more or less tapped out on what we can do. There’s a pretty big untapped market.”

No jobs for grads

College officials said graduates of the sustainable food program just aren’t getting jobs.

“From a regional perspective, the market isn’t demanding these types of graduates,” said Mary Devine, director of communications and marketing at M-State. “We need to do in order to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of the region.”

But Wika said her students weren’t being fairly assessed after they graduated because they aren’t necessarily finding traditional desk jobs.

“Many of them are already taking over family farms,” she said. “We are dumbfounded that that isn’t being celebrated, and it’s actually being held against us.”

An intangible benefit of the program, some argued, is also that the community at large was becoming more aware of why it’s important to grow more food locally. Students were constantly engaged with local growers, Pesch said, and it opened up this important dialogue.

“I think it’s safe to say the accounting program isn’t having the same communitywide impact,” Pesch said.

Keeping farming local has many benefits, Gold and Harden said, not the least of which is keeping a community’s food source unaffected by national or global factors like the price of fuel to truck food in from other sources.

But it’s not just about keeping a community well-fed.

“It keeps our dollars that people spend on food inside the state and inside the community, which should be a huge priority for a community college,” Harden said.

A petition has been circling the school, Wika said, being signed by students and community members who want to keep the program.

From the college’s standpoint, the suspension is a done deal.

But Wika said the feedback was humbling nonetheless, to know that her program had such an effect on the community.

“Farmers, ranchers, local small businesspeople have been emailing and writing, ‘What?! We need these people. We need these graduates,’ ” she said.

Only suspended

Devine said the program has only been suspended and could come back in the future. Meanwhile, classes will be offered in other ways through other departments.

“It doesn’t just disappear off of the books,” Devine said.

But Harden said the university was just trying to save face.

“It’s my understanding that this is essentially a way to gut the program but without having to deal with some of those negative PR things that M-State is now anticipating.”

The program could’ve been a draw for the school once it got going, Harden said, but it was never given the chance.

“It’s true there was low enrollment in the program. That’s undeniable,” she said. “But cutting it immediately into this third year might be a bit premature.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518