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Where the farm is the classroom

By Staff | Mar 2, 2012

Ben Metcalf, who grew up on a grain and beef cattle farm near Albion, N.Y., is broadening his livestock production skills at the Ag 450 farm’s swine operation.




Farm News staff writer

AMES – While Iowa State University’s Ag 450 farm has been around for nearly 70 years and has served several generations of students, this isn’t your grandfather’s farm.

Matt Reed, an ag studies major from Dougherty, serves on the Ag 450 farm’s finance committee. He helped lead a recent meeting to keep the students updated on the farm’s finances.

“The Ag 450 Farm is the only completely student-managed farm at a U.S. land-grant university,” said Kody Trampel, 22, an ISU senior from Belmond who is majoring in ag studies. “It gives us the chance to put everything we’ve learned in our college courses into practice.”

The farm, which includes a swine operation and approximately 2,200 acres of crop land, has been providing ISU students with hands-on experience and practical farm management skills since 1943.

Located south of Ames, the farm is an integral component of ISU’s Agricultural education and studies 450 – farm management and operation, which is a required course for all students majoring in the agricultural studies curriculum.

“Students must not only develop skills to operate a real working farm, but must also develop and implement management skills through teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making,” said Dr. Thomas Paulsen, director of the Ag 450 Farm and Experiential Program.

“They must actually decide what to do, when to do it and how to get it done utilizing the resources available to them.”

MEMBERS OF THE AG 450 farm’s Machinery Committee have been preparing the farm’s equipment, including this John Deere planter, for the upcoming spring season.

The Ag 450 farm is the legacy of Dr. William Murray, a renowned professor of economics at Iowa State who also founded Living History Farms.

Murray was convinced that students needed the experience of managing an actual farm so they’d be better prepared to enter farming or other related occupations. Murray’s dream became reality when a 187-acre farm near Ames was purchased for $150 per acre in 1942, and the first crop was planted in the spring of 1943.

The first Ag 450 class (now known as AgEdS450) was offered in the winter quarter of 1943, with Murray as the instructor.

In the early years, the farm featured a crop and livestock operation that included several bred gilts, a team of mules and chickens.

Through the decades, the farm grew to include more land, a full line of machinery, and a swine enterprise, where 4,000 hogs are finished each year.

“It gives us the chance to put everything we’ve learned in our college courses into practice.” —Kody Trampel ISU senior ag student

One thing that hasn’t changed is the Ag 450 farm’s mission to provide a practical educational resource for the university by demonstrating sustainable production practices on a self-supporting basis.

“Through the AGEDS 450 course and the opportunities and challenges presented by the limited resources of an authentic operating farm, students are given the chance to make real decisions that have real consequences,” Paulsen said.

During the spring 2012 semester, the 48 students enrolled in AGEDS 450, who run the farm, serve on various committees, including buildings and grounds, crops, finance, grain marketing and customs – which manages the hog buildings and the custom farming operation – machinery and public relations.

“I like getting my hands dirty,” said Jordan Picht, 22, an ag studies major from Iowa Falls who serves on the machinery committee. “I can also relate what I’m learning to what we do at home.”

Class members attend a weekly business meeting from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Meetings follow parliamentary procedure, and the class is led by a president, vice president and secretary, much like an FFA chapter or university club.

The students also work and study at the Ag 450 farm each Thursday afternoon. In addition, the students present a “state of the farm” report and strategic issue report each semester to discuss short-term and long-term goals.

“I like the chance to manage a business,” said Matt Reed, 22, an ag studies major from Dougherty, Iowa, who serves on the Ag 450 farm’s finance committee. “We’re finding out what it takes to run a profitable farm on a day-by day basis.”

Learning to work together

The farm receives no funding from the state or the university, although the farm’s loans are managed through the university. Students quickly discover that they must collaborate with every committee to make the farm a success.

For all bills over $100, for example, the entire class has to vote on the purchase. When it’s time to market grain, class members have to decide when to pull the trigger and where to sell the corn and soybeans, whether it’s the local co-op or other potential markets, such as the ethanol plant in Nevada. They are also evaluating whether it makes sense to acquire a semi truck so they can haul grain farther.

Class members aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions, Paulsen said. “Each semester, students must convince 40 to 50 of their classmates that their ideas for the use of the farm’s limited resources are best. It is not uncommon for class members to send their peers back to the drawing board when a proposal is lacking information critical for making an appropriate decision. These types of experiences are not found in many other curricula across the country.”

For students who plan to return to the family farm after graduation, this type of collaboration also helps prepare themto work more successfully with family members and/or employees. “I like the aspect of working together, because it promotes teamwork,” said Jaymes Maciejewski, 25, a senior ag studies major from Princeton, Ill.

Because the AGEDS 450 course is offered during the fall, spring and summer, students are available to help with the farm work year-round. “I like how you can learn by doing, rather than just sitting in a classroom and regurgitating facts on a test,” said Ben Metcalf, 23, an ag education major who grew up on a grain and beef cattle farm near Albion, N.Y., and is broadening his livestock production skills at the Ag 450 farm’s swine operation.

Metcalf’s father, Michael,who farms in western New York, worked at the Ag 450 farm during his senior year at ISU in the fall of 1973. He’s glad that Ben, who would like to run a dairy farm someday, is being exposed to many different facets of agriculture. “When I was at ISU, every student in the class had a little bit different area of expertise, from grain marketing to livestock production. There were some really sharp kids in my class, and I learned a lot from them.”

It’s not uncommon for up to 60 percent of the students who work at the Ag 450 farm to pursue careers in production agriculture, said Greg Vogel, 57, an ISU agricultural specialist who has been the farm’s manager since 1992. “The students are the CEOs of this farm, and we encourage them to get as much input as they need to make decisions that are in the farm’s best long-term interests. We want them to learn how to gather reliable information, make the best decisions they can and be prepared to live with the results.”

This accountability is one of the most valuable learning opportunities provided by the Ag 450 farm. Experiential education doesn’t come cheap, however, added Vogel, who noted that the Ag 450’s operating budget ranges up to $800,000 a year. “ISU had thought about going with computer simulation in the early 1990s instead of a real farm to help save money, but I’m glad they didn’t, because there is no accountability with a simulated system.”

Focusing on the future

In addition to working on the farm, students also complete a variety of assignments, including online discussions, that increase their ag knowledge and sharpen their communication skills. After ISU Ag Economist Mike Duffy spoke to the class about land values recently, the students were assigned to write about three different aspects of Duffy’s presentation that are relevant to their own family’s farms, said Dusty Perry, 25, a graduate student in ag education who works students at the Ag 450 farm. “This is the implementation stage of the students’ education, and they are enthusiastic about the opportunity.”

To help share their enthusiasm for ag, the Ag 450 farm’s public relations committee hosts farm tours, works with members of the news media, writes a blog and posts updates on Facebook and Twitter to help educate the public about modern agriculture. “This is a one-of-a-kind environment, because we’re not just sitting in a classroom, and we’re not interns,” Wes Strohbehn, 21, an ISU senior from Gladbrook who is majoring in ag studies and serves on the public relations committee. “We are making a lot of decisions and are getting real-world experience.”

As more students enroll in agricultural majors at ISU, enrollment in the AGEDS 450 course has also been increasing. Efforts are being made to structure the course so that more students from several majors at ISU will be able to enroll in the course, Paulsen said. “This will bring a broader range of ideas and experiences to the management table, and these opportunities should lead to an exciting future for Ag 450.”

To learn more about ISU’s Ag 450 Farm, log onto HYPERLINK ““http://www.ag450farm.iastate.edu/home.html”>www.ag450farm.iastate.edu/home.html“http://www.ag450farm.iastate.edu/home.html”>www.ag450farm.iastate.edu/home.html.

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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