Riverland to add 6 agriculture programs

Published 2:57 pm Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Hormel Foundation grant helps launch Center for Agriculture and Food Science in Austin

AUSTIN — Riverland Community College is positioning itself to be a Midwest leader for training students for agricultural jobs.

The Hormel Foundation announced a $263,200 grant to Riverland Wednesday morning to help launch the Center for Agriculture and Food Science, an agriculture technology “center of excellence” at the college’s Austin campus.

“We can develop one of the biggest agriculture and food science two-year schools in the Midwest,” Hormel Foundation Chairman Gary Ray said during a press conference in the Town Center building. “We sit right here in the farm belt of some of the richest farmland and have some of the best agriculture in America right here in our county. And why not have a better opportunity to form a partnership with Riverland to enable kids who are interested in agriculture to be able to secure a degree and possibly go on to a four-year degree.”

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Riverland will debut six new ag-based programs at its Austin campus this fall, including precision agriculture, food science, food science technology, agricultural sciences, biotechnology and agribusiness. These programs join Riverland’s established farm business management program, one of the college’s most popular programs, according to school leaders.

After years of discussion, Riverland President Adenuga Atewologun was excited to see the plan come to fruition.

“I jumped up, I was very happy,” Atewologun said. “This is something that’s been in the making for about two years and to see it happen so quickly in the last one or two weeks, we just cannot thank the foundation enough.”

Along with Riverland’s associate degrees, the programs will include opportunities for students to continue on to earn four-year degrees through a partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato for food science technology, biotechnology and agricultural science programs. A similar pathway for agronomy has been established with Southwest Minnesota State University and a pathway in agriculture teacher education is under development.

The expanded ag program follows a path set by Riverland’s 2013 strategic plan, dubbed “The Blueprint for Excellence,” which identified agriculture as a top priority over the years ahead and identified Austin campus as the anchor site for the programs that will serve students across the region.

Atewologun said Riverland’s new programs aim to prepare today and tomorrow’s farmers and producers for the changing landscape of agriculture.

“We really think this is exciting,” he said.

Atewologun referenced changes to technology in the ag industry, which he said has exploded since the green revolution of the 1990s with things like drones, computerized combines, GPS, robotics for milking cows and much more.

“We are definitely in a different kind of revolution now,” Atewologun said. “And how we interplay technology and agriculture is today and is tomorrow.”

The foundation’s involvement was important, as Atewologun said public schools can’t launch programs like this alone with only public dollars.

“We need these public-private partnerships more than ever,” Atewologun said. “This public-private partnership enables us to do a lot more, go much farther than we could have if we only depended on the state and public funding, so we are definitely happy for this.”

The foundation’s funding will support scholarships, equipment, program development and outreach to realize the college’s vision to create a global center for agriculture and food science innovation in Austin.

Ray said the foundation has watched how ag programs have grown at local high schools, and Riverland’s programs will help give those students a next step in their education. Ray referenced nearby job opportunities for students at Hormel Foods Corp., a company that continues to look for food science workers. Atewlogun referenced potential internships through The Hormel Institute and Hormel Foods, along with utilizing the expertise of workers at both sites.

The Hormel Foundation and Riverland have collaborated in the past and conducted two ag summits in 2014 and 2015 to discuss possibilities with local business leaders, producers and educators.

Ray hinted at future involvement from the Hormel Foundation, as he said it will continue to be a partner to help Riverland meet its goals for the ag program. Ray said more than 60,000 jobs go unfilled in the ag sector each year and helping people secure degrees in Ausin, Ray said it will help students fill those jobs and fulfill their dreams.

“It’s a vision for the future,��� Ray said. “This is just a start to give them some seed money.”

Riverland hired Uchenna Chukwu as the college’s new director of the Center for Agricultural and Food Science Technology, and she is excited to help launch the program.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “You are creating and building something from scratch and hopefully putting in something that’s going be around for a while and will serve the needs of the students.”

Chukwu wants students to know this program will be different, as she’ll be one of the few teachers who tells students to bring their smart phones to class in order to look up solutions and answers to problems. She said she wants students to take a leadership role in forming their education path, and she praised Riverland’s education model for letting students chose their path with several opportunities to move from an associate’s degree to a four-year degree.

Though the program is getting started a bit late in terms of this fall’s semester, Riverland already has students lined up and interested. Along with Chukwu, Riverland also hired another instructor.

“I think we are all set,” Atewologun said. “We have the faculty at hand, we have the director and we have deans that are all working together.”

Atewlogun comes from an ag engineering background, so he said he feels right at home with this new program.

“I’m very happy to be in my comfort zone,” he said.

Minnesota State College and Universities System Chancellor Steven Rosenstone thanked the Hormel Foundation for its support and recognized the importance Agriculture plays in the state’s economy.

“We are together addressing the needs of the Austin area and beyond,” Rosenstone said in a press release. “This partnership will drive innovation in agriculture across the state of Minnesota and will give Riverland’s students real world expertise to lead that innovation.”