Not many students choose a college where they can get their hands dirty. But that’s exactly why Harper Keehn, from suburban Poughkeepsie, NY, picked Deep Springs College, Big Pine, CA. He wanted to work and learn on its alfalfa, beef cattle and dairy farm.

“The labor program was the major draw for me, and I’m using it to help me determine the career I want to pursue,” says Keehn, who’s especially interested in mechanics.

Deep Springs is a two-year, all-male, liberal-arts college first built on ranch land in 1917. Its 27 students are required to focus equally on academics and labor.

“By working on the farm, students learn enormously useful lessons about the practical limits and applications of what they study in classrooms,” says David Welle, vice president for operations. “They get a deep and personal immersion in the effort it takes to create food and care for the land.”

Giving students hands-on experience with forage and dairy production is the goal of Northcentral Technical College’s (NTC) new 110-acre Agriculture Center of Excellence in Marathon County, WI, near Wausau.

“When the students in our two-year dairy science program graduate, we want to ensure they have a good foundation of farming experiences to enter the workforce with,” says Scott Mickelsen, dean of agriculture and community services.

A few years ago, local farmers and ag business leaders approached NTC about partnering to train future ag business entrepreneurs. Marathon County donated $1 million to buy land and build facilities, says Mickelsen.

This year’s 45 dairy science students have harvested 20 acres of corn silage and 40 acres of alfalfa baleage and hay to be used at the center. They’ll work at its 50-cow dairy when it’s running in mid-December.

Students will also gain pasture-management skills when cows rotationally graze 32 acres of irrigated alfalfa-grass mixtures starting next spring and through early fall.

“Realizing a profit from the new dairy is a long-term goal at this point,” says Mickelsen. “The primary goal … is education. We are focused on training the next generation of dairy professionals, while instilling in them sound management practices.”

About half of the students either worked on or are from farms. The rest had no exposure to agriculture. “It’s just something they’re very interested in,” he says.
Two graduates of last year’s program now work as farm managers. The farm is also fortunate to use new planting, harvesting and handling equipment each year from Case IH and Service Motor Company.

At Deep Springs College, farm manager and alumnus Mark Dunn and mechanically inclined students work to keep their machinery working. One tractor was made in the 1990s, but most of the equipment is 1970s or earlier vintage.

Dunn divides students into crews that move irrigation lines, milk cows, rotate cattle from low to high ground, etc. “There are five to six students on each team for four months. Then they rotate. Over the course of two years, most students will have a chance to work on each crew.”

One crew cuts, rakes and bales 150 acres of alfalfa and alfalfa-grass mixtures. Most hay is fed to the farm’s 270 head of beef and dairy cattle and 16 horses. Any surplus is sold.

The farm provides almost 10% of the college’s annual operating budget and helps mold some students’ careers.

“During Deep Springs College’s first 65 years, few graduates went into agriculture. But, in the past 25 years, the numbers have been going up,” says Welle. “Several alumni who didn’t grow up on farms have developed careers in agriculture, including vegetable and seed production and dairying.”

Other alumni have gone on to build Fortune 500 companies, serve in the U.S. Congress, or as U.S. ambassadors.

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