WILLMAR — Bryce Thompson makes no bones about being a bonafide city kid.

“I don’t come from a traditional farm family,” said Thompson, who grew up “in the heart of downtown Buffalo.”

Other than occasional trips to his late grandfather’s small farm on the outskirts of Albertville, Thompson said he had no real exposure to agriculture.

But after going to his first FFA meeting as a junior in high school, Thompson fell in love with agriculture.

“I really enjoyed what they (FFA) had to offer,” he said. “I found my niche and just took off.”

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Thompson enrolled in the ag program at Ridgewater College in the fall of 2019. He graduates this spring with a double major in ag business – with an emphasis in crops – and GPS/GIS technology. That's the latest in Global Positioning System and Geographic Information Systems technology.

Using photography skills he honed at Ridgewater, the city kid spent last fall capturing the local harvest in photos.

Attracting students without a farm background is becoming more common for Ridgewater’s Ag Department, said Tammy Howe, who was hired late last year to fill a newly created position as coordinator for the ag department at Ridgewater College.

In the past, the ag department typically drew students with a strong farm background. But Howe said there is a growing number of students who didn’t grow up on farms, don’t have the skill-sets acquired with that background and yet want a career in agriculture.

There’s “great potential talent” in students who didn’t grow up on a farm and may not have the basic knowledge of farm life, yet love agriculture and want an ag-based career.

“That’s the student we want to look at,” said Howe.

That means redesigning curriculum and developing innovative programs to provide those skills to students so they can fill jobs for industries that are “craving” well-trained ag students.

“I’m excited to take a look at the programs we’re offering here and see how we can expand them,” said Howe.

Howe said, for example, a combine simulator is now part of the program’s teaching tools to let students have hands-on experience with operating new harvest technology in a safe environment, she said.

“We’re always looking into innovations and new programs for our students,” said Howe, including giving students who didn’t grow up on a farm the classes and hands-on opportunities they need to acquire the type of skills that may come second-nature to farm kids.

Morgan Mandel fits that bill.

The graduate of Annandale High School didn’t grow up on a farm and didn’t know the lingo when she began taking classes in Ridgewater’s ag department in the fall of 2019.

“I didn’t know what a bushel was,” said Mandel. And “anything involving a tractor” was like a foreign language. “I was completely lost in shop class.”

But Mandel, who’d helped a family member on their dairy farm when she was a kid and decided she wanted a hands-on career in agriculture, enrolled in the ag department at Ridgewater.

“I made it clear to all my teachers I didn’t come from a farm, but it was my interest as a career,” said Mandel.

She said the teachers were available for private help and made accommodations for projects – like assignments that involved a student using information from their own family farms – for her and other non-farm students.

“I absolutely loved it,” said Mandel of Ridgewater’s Ag Program.

Mandel graduates this fall with degrees in dairy management and ag business.

With internships at a dairy farm and artificial insemination co-op under her belt, Mandel said her goal is to stay in the Willmar area and work at a large dairy, possibly managing a calf barn.

Recruitment and partnerships

Besides working to tailor ag classes to meet students where they are at, the Ridgewater College Agriculture Department is also putting a new focus on recruiting students and building relationships with ag industry partners.

As coordinator for the department, Howe will also help organize ag department events and develop innovative programs to meet the changing needs of students and the ag business community.

Howe comes to the job with a long career history in ag communications and marketing and a strong personal background in boots-on-the-ground agriculture.

She grew up on a dairy farm near Willmar and she and her husband currently operate a dairy operation near Hutchinson, where they milk registered Holsteins.

She’ll use her experiences as a farmer and an ag business communicator to fill out the responsibilities of the new job, which she said will continue to evolve as more needs are identified in the department.

Some of the initial responsibilities include recruiting students and organizing events hosted by the ag department, such as the regional high school FFA skills competition and the annual ag business fair that provides opportunities for students to explore ag education and ag careers.

Ag careers

Howe said the value of a two-year ag education continues to be strong, whether it’s a degree in hands-on farm operations that prepares students to go back to the family farm, or an ag business degree that equips students for a wide range of jobs, like agronomy, precision agriculture and ag sales.

“There are so many opportunities and so many careers out there,” she said.

Despite COVID-19’s impact on education, Howe said Ridgewater’s ag department is strong, with high student interest and a demand from ag businesses looking for trained employees.

Howe said COVID-19 caused a “slight decline” in student enrollment but the numbers are on par with what other colleges are experiencing. The vet tech program, which is also part of the ag department, is seeing robust enrollment with students on a wait list, she said.

Thompson has high praise for Ridgewater, the education he’s getting and his internship with a seed company.

“Ridgewater’s ag program is great,” said Thompson. “Our teachers are just flawless.”

Using his ag business education — and desire to be an entrepreneur — Thompson said he plans to open a nutrition club business after he graduates but he hasn’t ruled out a future career in seed sales. With an eye for the art of agriculture, Thompson said he’ll also continue taking photos of farm families at work.