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M-State suspends Fergus Falls based sustainable ag program

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 02/05/2013 4:17 PM

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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Fergus Falls' M-State campus administrators are suspending the college's sustainable food production program.

Students currently enrolled in the one-year, 31-credit program will complete the course and receive their sustainable food production degrees in the spring, but the program will not be offered to new students next fall.

The college's action has drawn the ire of local producers, area citizens and program students and alumni. They are sending e-mails and letters expressing their displeasure and concerns toM-State President Peggy Kennedy. They also have launched an on-line petition calling for the program's reinstatement. So far, the petition has 430 signatures.

M-State administrators say enrollment was just one consideration in its decision. The program had 11 students enrolled during each of its first two years and six students enrolled this year. The college would like to have 15 to 18 students enrolled in a program.

Sue Wika, M-State sociology professor and director of the sustainable ag program, learned of its demise in a telephone call from a college administrator in late October. She requested and was granted a meeting later with college officials where she asked for more time to increase enrollment. Wika has received phone calls from prospective students interested in the sustainable ag program and believes she could have increased enrollment numbers, she said.

Administrators denied her request.

"We were afforded no due process," Wika said. "Historically, when there have been programs with a low enrollment, the administration would call you in and talk about the student numbers and where those numbers should be. Then there would be discussions on what would need to be done on the marketing side. In the past there has been a civil conversation. That never happened here."

Program alumnus Andy Hayner promoted the program at several events while an M-State student.

The program has had low enrollment numbers because "people will move on and start their own farms," said Mary Devine, director of marketing and communications at M-State.

Students don't need a degree to learn farming skills and the knowledge can be gained in other ways, she said.

"Since enrollment was continuing to decline, we have to be diligent and make sure we are offering the programs that people need," Devine said.

She added that the college loves the philosophy of the program, but the charge of the community college is to prepare students for the workforce.

Local growers argue that the program educates students about farming practices. The course offers a systems approach and includes farm planning, record keeping, horticulture and livestock production. While some classes are on campus, students also get hands-on on-the-farm experience utilizing their skills first-hand.

Local growers say the college doesn't understand demand is growing for local food production and how its sustainable food program helps fill that need.

Dave Evert, who works with the non-profit State Trade and Export Production program in Wadena, said there won't be enough farmers to feed the local population in 25 years. The cost of importing food from around the world will be unaffordable, he said.

"This is precisely the time to be training and developing the next generation of food producers and we need to concentrate on sustainability," he said. "The program at the Fergus Falls campus is truly ahead of its time, but that is precisely why it is critical it be encouraged and built upon. This is exactly the wrong time to think about reducing or cutting it. What program do we have in this region that holds more promise for an improved next generation of food producers?"

Robert and Arlene Jones, who operate The Farm on St. Mathias near Brainerd, agree.

"We are farmers," they wrote in their email to Kennedy. "We grow local foods and local relationships. We also employ a very qualified graduate from M-State's Sustainable Food Production Program."

The program is a practical program where students learn about farming, said adjunct instructor Mark Boen. Boen operates Bluebird Gardens CSA and has employed the program's students. Students learned about high tunnel vegetable production with a detailed look at the start and finish of the year's production.

While he understands the college's concerns over enrollment numbers, Boen also sees the need for educated farmers working within the sustainable food production system.

Many of the program's graduates have gone on to develop their own enterprises. Some focus on vegetable production while others raise livestock. One graduate planned to become self-sufficient and raise and process their own food while another took over the family dairy farm.

For Hayner and his wife, Noelle, the program offered a good background for their future. After they graduated, the two moved to Wisconsin. Hayner worked as a manager for an area farm and set up a mobile chicken processing operation. Their M-State sustainable food production degree was a stepping stone for their work with sustainable food programs. Noelle is now working as a community foods educator near Moorhead. Hayner continues to build clients for his processing business.

The make up of the program's students is diverse. Many are non-traditional students who are considering a new job and are interested in farming. Some have a farm background and others do not.