Nebraska agriculture college optimistic about future

Farm Forum

CURTIS, Neb. (AP) – The roads narrow on the 250-mile trip from Lincoln to Curtis, Neb., from four lanes to a narrow strip of asphalt without shoulders at the southwest Nebraska end of the trip.

That could be taken as a sign that the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture is the end of the road in the state’s higher education system.

But the Lincoln Journal Star reports there is plenty of evidence to the contrary as the school gets ready to mark its 100th anniversary in August in a town of just 800.

A new education center, a new addition to the veterinary technology building, and a new dormitory put the exclamation point on Tina Smith’s bold pronouncement about the future.

“We’ve been here 100 years,” said Smith, the school’s admissions director, as she addressed those gathered for Media Discovery Day on June 13. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re in it for the long haul.”

The school began as an agricultural high school in the early 1900s, a time when the education of many students raised on farms and ranches ended with the eighth grade.

The college was founded in 1965 after the Legislature determined that there was a serious shortage of qualified job candidates for production agriculture and agribusiness.

The high school disappeared with the last graduating class in 1968.

The college almost disappeared in the 1980s because of funding cuts and a University of Nebraska recommendation that it be closed.

Public pressure turned the tide. More than three decades later, cowboy boots and jeans are still the uniform of the day for students studying veterinary technology, agricultural production systems, horticulture and other career attractions.

Everybody is fluent in the language of agriculture even as agricultural illiteracy spreads like a noxious weed elsewhere.

“We’re not a community college,” Smith said. “We’re a two-year, hands-on, all agricultural school.”

Naming dormitories Aggie Central and Aggie West is just one clue to that commitment.

The school’s new dean, Ron Rosati, arrives in August from Southeast Missouri State to take over from Weldon Sleight, who set a standard for innovation that won’t be easily duplicated.

The 100-beef cow and 100-acre ownership advantage programs – meant to prod students to borrow money and acquire mentors and assets worth up to $300,000 ahead of graduation – are part of Sleight’s legacy and part of his antidote to shrinking rural population.

Another, “Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots,” reached out to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to capitalize on the rural roots of 45 percent of U.S. armed forces and an expected turnover rate on land ownership of 70 percent in the next 20 years.

Part of the Sleight solution to the problem of volunteer cedar trees crowding out pasture grass for Nebraska cows was to heat the campus with cedar chips.

Sleight is gone now, but Ricky Sue Barns, doctor of veterinary medicine, radiates the same kind of energy as she leads a tour of the Veterinary Technology Department.

Barns points out dogs, cats, parrots and the long and thick coils of Monty Python as residents and potential patients for students in their medical training.

There’s also a mock clinic with a lobby area, customer counter and treatment rooms to prepare students for careers centered on both livestock and pets.

“We’re really sure that our students can operate very well in large animal, small animal or mixed animal practices,” Barns said.

Elsewhere at the college, Brad Ramsdale and Doug Smith talk about reworking classes, including resurrecting ag mechanics, to produce more graduates suited to selling and repairing center-pivot irrigation units and farm machinery.

“There are four major irrigation manufacturers located in Nebraska,” Ramsdale said, “and they’re all looking for new people.”

Smith said about 15 graduates so far have taken on the 100-cow herd challenge, either by rejoining their ranching families or by connecting with a mentor approaching retirement age.

“We can’t guarantee a student a partner,” he said, “but we can help facilitate potential partners.”

Ramsdale pointed to a recent Curtis graduate from Kansas as an example of progress toward owning his own farm.

That student bought his own baler, hay swather and other equipment with borrowed money.

“Having those assets can make you more attractive to partner with,” he said.