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NCTA: Why graduate with just a sheepskin, when you could have 100 cows?
by Gene O. Morris
Upon arrival at the University of Nebraska's College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis in 2006, Dr. Weldon Sleight realized the farms, ranches and rural communities of America's heartland were facing a troubling future.
"I had watched my hometown, Paris, Idaho, plunge into oblivion," Dr.
Sleight said. "I vowed that, if at all possible, I would not let the same thing happen to Curtis and the other communities of rural Nebraska."
The statistics were depressing, causing many to give up hope on a treasured, but threatened, way of rural living. On a downhill drift since the Dirty '30s, 75 of Nebraska's 93 counties had lost population, with some left with fewer than 1,000 residents in counties containing more than 500,000 acres.
Immediately after taking over as Dean of the Curtis-based Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, the long-time education administrator started searching for solutions.
Solutions for rural Nebraska.
"Soon after arriving in Curtis, it became apparent to me that we, as the staff and administration of the College of Technical Agriculture, were part of the problem,” Dr. Sleight said. “We weren't producing farmers and ranchers for the future. We were turning out hired hands."
The problem was not the teaching. The NCTA students were learning valuable lessons. They just weren't being shown how to use that knowledge to succeed in the multi-million dollar world of modern agriculture.
Dr. Sleight was determined to change that. Encouraged by his boss, Dr. John Owens of the University of Nebraska College of Agriculture, the new NCTA Dean began developing programs designed to get students ready for the demands of 21st Century production agriculture.
His vision could revolutionize agricultural education in America. The new, practical approach has already pumped new blood into the college at Curtis, helping boost enrollment by an amazing 49 percent in one year's time. In a dramatic turnaround, student numbers at NCTA grew from 285 in 2007-2008 to 425 in 2008-2009.
Teaching the business of agriculture.
Inspiring the huge enrollment upsurge — unprecedented in American higher education — are four exciting initiatives developed by Dr. Sleight with the assistance of the 52 faculty and staff members at NCTA.
The programs are:
- The 100-Beef Cow Ownership Advantage Program
- The 100-Acre Production Agriculture Ownership Program
- The NCTA Business Builder Program, and
- The NCTA Outreach Program, offered at schools all across Nebraska. Among the Outreach courses is the Technical Agriculture Class, offered this semester at 27 high schools in the state.
First in Dr. Sleight’s crusade to revolutionize ag education was the 100 beef cow ownership program. Dr. Sleight's intent with the program was to prepare students to be farm and ranch owners instead of perpetual hired hands by helping them graduate with a 100-cow herd of their own. Soon, the focus was expanded, with the same opportunity for building a cow herd while getting an education was offered to working adults.
To accomplish the cow herd goal, Dr. Sleight put together a program to give the participants a head start in the essential task of building net worth and business knowledge. For the on-campus students, much of the instruction is face-to-face, with NCTA instructors pounding home the importance of business planning, record-keeping and sound financial principles. For the adults — mostly hired hands — who take part in the 100-beef cow ownership program, there's a different approach, but the central focus is the same:
A herd within a herd.
The first step is to negotiate a contractual arrangement with an established cow herd owner — be it a father, grandfather or unrelated person — to trade the student's labor and management for the right to place 100 of the student's cows with the rancher's larger herd.
The second step is just as essential. Students must obtain a low-interest loan to purchase the cattle through the USDA's Beginning Farmer-Rancher Program, with interest rates as low as 2 to 3 percent through the Farm Service Agency.
For the off-campus adults in the program, there are other requirements to ensure that the ranch workers learn as well as earn. To accomplish that, the NCTA 100 beef cow program mandates that the adults:
- Take a Farm and Ranch Management class, taught through a telephone conference hook-up between NCTA faculty members and the 100-beef cow students
- Enroll and arrange times to participate in the Cow-Calf College course at NCTA
- Schedule time for on-ranch adult student training at the 13,000-acre University of Nebraska's Gudmunsen Ranch near Whitman
- Participate in the Nebraska EDGE Program, thereby gaining essential training in business management.
Bold action required.
"We have to take bold action," Dr. Sleight said. "The future of rural Nebraska is at stake." The problem, in the past, was that many students found themselves relegated to entry-level jobs after finishing their technical ag training.
"Many ended up, ten years later, working as hired hands, driving a used pickup and living in a house provided by their ranch boss," the NCTA Dean said.
To break that cycle, the 100 Beef Cow program offers students a chance to start building cash flow and collateral. "The original 100 cows, in ten years, can grow into a herd of 300 cows, worth upwards of $300,000. That will give the young ranchers the leverage needed to acquire the million-dollar plus operations standard in agriculture today," Dr. Sleight said.
The same approach — building net worth and business knowledge — is also being applied to crop production, through the 100-Acre Program, and small town business ownership, through the Business Builder Program.
NCTA also has students not necessarily working toward agriculture production. According to Dr. Sleight, “The NCTA Business Builder program works much like the 100 Cow and 100 Acre program, bringing students together with small businesses in need of successors. Students complete their degrees in Agribusiness Management or Horticulture and return home with an arrangement to eventually take over the partner's business.”
Other students are planning to earn their Associate of Science degree from NCTA and transfer to a four-year institution. Dr. Sleight said students transferring to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln take with them nine of the ten general education courses required for a four year degree at the university.
“NCTA's small class sizes appeal to students who prefer a rural setting and benefit from academic rigor and lower tuition and fees,” Dr. Sleight said.
Is rural America beyond saving? "I think there's hope. Lots of hope," Dr. Sleight said. "The students inspire me. The ones on campus and off campus are rising to the challenge. With the help of the NCTA faculty and staff, they are preparing to be pioneers, leading a new generation of Americans to preserve a precious way of life."
Many are hoping Dr. Sleight’s ambitious plan will succeed in helping stem the tide of rural population loss and give young people a hand up to help them revive rural America. The Great Plains of America, stretching from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast of Texas, have lost more population in the last half century than any section of America, including the Appalachian Mountain region.
Can NCTA turn it around, 100 cows and 100 acres at a time? It’s too early to tell for sure, but all across rural America people are cheering Dr. Sleight on and hoping for the best.
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