Northeast’s Agricultural Programs Serve Critical Workforce Training Need

Published on: January 2, 2020

NORFOLK, NE – The role Nebraska agriculture plays in the global economy goes without saying.

The state leads the nation in beef and beef product exports, commercial red meat production and popcorn production; second in all cattle and calves and hay production; and third in corn for grain production, corn exports and cash receipts from all livestock. There are several additional categories that put Nebraska fifth in overall agriculture production in the United States; the very reason why Northeast Community College places a heavy emphasis on the industry.

The twelve areas that make up the agriculture department at Northeast have been designed to educate the next generation of farmers and producers while instilling the value of sustainability, conservation of energy, water conservation and other natural resources while preparing students for workforce opportunities in agriculture and related fields.

“At Northeast, we are so proud to have one of the premier collegiate ag programs in the nation,” said Mary Honke, co-interim president.  

This region has one of the largest concentrations of diversified farms, meat processing facilities and agribusinesses found anywhere in the country. This is evident by the many employment opportunities Northeast ag graduates have taken advantage of – from adjusters and data specialists to soil conservationists and veterinary technicians.

Corinne Morris, dean of agriculture, math and science, said Northeast Community College has a program for any student who has a desire to get into an agriculture-related field.

“One in two jobs in northeast Nebraska is related to agriculture while it’s one in four in the state. And according to our Career Services Office, we have several students who transfer on to continue their education, but most of our students go right into the workforce,” she said. “If you look at where our graduates live and work, many are staying in Nebraska. That’s why Nebraska is on the top ten lists of several commodities that the state produces.”

Northeast’s ag program traces its roots back to 1972, when the late Chuck Pohlman started the agriculture department as he taught farm and ranch management to three students at the then-Northeastern Nebraska College. Under his leadership, Northeast was the first community college in Nebraska to add an ag curriculum. 

Approximately 350 students are now enrolled in agriculture and ag-related classes at Northeast, double the number of students 20 years ago. They are taught by 14 full-time faculty members and several adjunct instructors.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Northeast Community College awards more associate degrees in agricultural programs than any other two-year college in Nebraska and presently awards the eighth highest number of associate degrees in agriculture in the country. A new agriculture degree, associate of science in natural resource management, began this fall, bringing to 12 the total number of agricultural programs at Northeast.

Other programs include Agriculture College Transfer, Agribusiness, Agronomy, Animal Science, Dairy Technician, Diversified Agriculture, Horticulture, Mechanized Agriculture, Precision Agriculture, Pre-Veterinary Medicine, and Veterinary Technology.

Chance Lambrecht, a precision agriculture instructor at Northeast Community College, explains the function of a “SpeedTube” on a mobile high-speed planter demonstration unit to his students. Precision agriculture is one of 12 ag programs at the College. (Courtesy Northeast Community College)

The department’s curriculum reflects four tenets established by the Legislature nearly 50 years ago – applied technology and occupational education; transfer education, public service, continuing education, economic and community development, business and industry training and personal development; and applied research.

Morris said according to a postsecondary statewide plan, the applied research piece is designed to enhance instruction and faculty professional development which has allowed the Northeast ag department to become more “robust” over the years. Much of this work has taken place through research that has been conducted on-site.

“We take empirical research conducted at any university or through industry research and identify best practices. We then try to implement some of those best practices that have been found through research on our College farm or we show students where it has been implemented – perhaps in someone else’s production operation,” she said. “This allows us to teach our students to think like scientists so when they go to their own family farm operations or they go to a work for an agriculture-related company, they can be thinking about return on investment or conserving resources or saving the environment!”

Honke said the legislative tenet of applied research is not designed to step in on someone else’s work.

“The research at Northeast definitely complements the research that you may see at four-year institutions. The work our faculty has conducted is critical work for our constituents that we serve. We have just made applied research more of a focus than we have previously.”

Northeast’s present ag facilities include a farm with many programs operating out of a 100-plus year-old former Norfolk Regional Center dairy building east of the main campus, which also serves as the clinic and lab for the veterinary technology program. The farm has no outbuildings large enough to house modern agricultural machinery or other equipment, and no feed shed to serve the onsite feedlot that feeds out the calves from the college’s 55-cow herd.

Additional classes are held back on the main campus, which means students literally have to commute to their labs at the farm or at the Chuck M. Pohlman Agriculture Complex, located at the intersection of E. Benjamin Ave. and Highway 35, approximately one-mile east of campus.

In addition, the College has a 500-acre contiguous farm with four center pivot irrigation systems, including a Valley VRI-IS system that is one of only nine in North America.

As Northeast considers additional programming, it is working on plans for expansion of the area around the Pohlman ag complex site, as well as the development of state of the art facilities and relocation of the farm operations at that location.

College officials stress that an efficiently designed farm site will allow space for students to observe farm operations and livestock handling, and also provide hands-on opportunities with facilities and equipment similar to what they will encounter on the job or on their own farm operations.

The new site development features the first phase of the Agriculture & Water Center of Excellence at Northeast, a project that has been designed to invest in future facilities and equipment to enhance ag programming opportunities.

Initial construction planned for the Agriculture & Water Center of Excellence includes a new farm site with a large animal handling facility and a farm office and storage. In addition, the plan calls for a veterinary technology building that will include a clinic and classrooms. It will be located west of the ag complex, while the farm operations and large animal handling facilities will be north of the current complex.

In approving program statements for the new facilities in early December, the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education indicated that, “This project would replace obsolete existing facilities to meet the needs of the students at (Northeast’s) Norfolk Campus.” Following the commission’s action, the Northeast Board of Governors unanimously approved final plans of Phase One in order to submit for construction bids. Ground is scheduled to be broken this spring.

Morris said the new facilities and additional program growth opportunities will allow Northeast Community College to continue to train the next generation of an ag industry-related workforce. This is reflected in the College’s most recent Graduate Report which states 85-percent of Northeast ag graduates have stayed in Nebraska; 57-percent in Northeast’s 20-county service area.

“If you think about the land that our students touch and their impact on agriculture, it’s pretty significant,” Morris said. “Our students touch so much land and so many animals and so much food as part of agriculture production that we need to continue to do every one of these programs so that we are the leading producer in the nation and in the world.”