Hawkeye Ag Program Gives Students Hands-on Experience

By: Matthew Wilde, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
Date Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012

WATERLOO, Iowa — On most farms last week, finishing up harvest was the only goal.

At Hawkeye Community College’s Laboratory Farm, faculty and students combined corn and did a little planting, as well. Not corn and soybean seed, but knowledge.

Students took turns harvesting the drought-ravaged crop. Budding young farmers and agribusiness professionals spent class-time in fields, learning how to maximize production and squeeze every last dollar from the high-priced commodity.

On Saturday, Hawkeye hosted an open house at its farm at 5503 Hammond Ave. Families had the opportunity to see, touch and learn about livestock and modern farm equipment. Teachers and students also hosted several kiddie tours during the week to provide 3- to 5-year-olds, what is sometimes, their first experience on a working farm.

For more than 40 years, Hawkeye has been turning out the next generation of farmers and agribusiness employees. At the same time, the college has been teaching the community about agriculture.

Last week, the dual role may never have been more evident. It’s a responsibility the college embraces, officials said.

“Students are our main focus, but we have to support agriculture to all populations. (Everyone) has a big impact on agriculture,” said Dresden Petty-Wulf, an Hawkeye animal science professor.

Saturday’s tour gave the public a chance to see and handle baby chicks, pigs, cows, sheep; go on a hayride with a tractor that utilized satellite signals to steer itself; and participate in a scavenger hunt.

Hawkeye officials say it’s important to help adults and kids — often a generation or two removed from production agriculture — learn where their food comes from. And how important agriculture is to the local and state economy.

Iowa leads the nation in corn, soybean, pork and egg production. Ag statistics show $23 billion in farm commodities were produced in Iowa in 2010, second nationwide. Production agriculture and ag-related industries directly or indirectly employ one out of six Iowans, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.

Jodi Balk, 19, an animal science student with aspirations of becoming a veterinary technician and joining her family’s dairy operation near Protovin, especially loves giving tours to pre-schoolers. About 500 to 1,000 youngsters tour the farm every year, officials said.

Balk said kids are her future customers and eventually will regulate the industry. Making a good impression early is important, she said.

“We need to educate kids where food comes from,” Balk added.

Hawkeye agriculture students also learned an important lesson this year: Mother Nature isn’t always going to be kind to farmers.

Signs of the worst drought in decades were evident as students harvested the school’s corn crop last week. The hopper on the massive Case-IH combine didn’t fill as fast as usual, and partially developed ears were found among shredded stalks.

For students who help parents milk or raise livestock, soaring feed costs are a constant worry. Profits are hard to come by or non-existent.

Yet, Hawkeye ag students — 130 are enrolled in ag business and animal science programs — are excited about the future. Whether it’s a career in farming, working as a large-animal veterinarian or a grain merchandiser at a cooperative.

Steven McGarvey, an ag business and animal science student, said he’s never wavered from wanting to take over the family grain and beef operation near Buckingham or starting his own. Students say Hawkeye’s agricultural program prepares them for success.

“I want to keep going,” McGarvey said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t after a year like this.”

Hawkeye’s Laboratory Farm is a working, self-sustaining farm. A full-time manager oversees the day-to-day grain and livestock operation, but students make it go. It provides hands-on, practical experience.

Four students serve as herdsmen, caring for daily needs of livestock. The farm has a small cow/calf herd and sells about 20 steers or heifers a year; a farrow-to-finish swine operation marketing about 300 hogs annually; and a ewe flock, which sells about 50 lambs a year.

All students work the land — 320 acres of row crops, pasture, hay and oats. About 85 percent of acres are dedicated to corn and soybeans.

The latest equipment is used, featuring precision planting and satellite guidance. Field-mapping technology is also taught in order to hone fertilizer and chemical application skills.

“We prepare students for tomorrow, not today,” said Brad Kinsinger, an ag business instructor.

Curriculum combines in-class study and hands-on, field experience. Animal science and ag business students may work more with livestock and crops, respectively, but students learn about all disciplines within agriculture.

Everything from grain marketing to how to properly give an animal a shot is covered.

Some students will graduate from the two-year program and enter the workforce. Others will continue their education at other institutions.

Kayla Stafford of rural Dunkerton, an animal science major, plans to transfer to Iowa State University next fall to become a large-animal veterinarian. She loves Hawkeye’s lab activity, like dissecting dead animals to determine the cause of death.

Even getting behind the wheel of a $350,000 combine for the first time this fall was useful, although the experience was admittedly scary at first, Stafford said.

“I’ll be more well-rounded,” she said. “I’ll have a better appreciation for what my customers do.”

Thumbnail photo by Matthew Putney, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.