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Ivy Tech program responds to growth

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Agriculture has evolved into something more than plows, cows and sows.

With a new building and an enrollment that has quadrupled since 2008, Ivy Tech Community College’s agriculture program is working to meet its needs.

A recent $60,000 donation from Farm Credit Mid-America — $10,000 of which will go toward the Columbus campus — will help the program expand.

Lori Tennell did not know there was an agriculture program at Ivy Tech until her twin sons took a field trip to the Columbus campus in high school.

“I feel very strongly about education,” she said.

“I really wanted them to go to college, but it seemed the more I pushed, the more they resisted.”

But that changed when they saw what students were doing at Ivy Tech.

They saw the mud on the floor of the building, indicating learning was taking place in and out of the classroom.

Tennell visited Ivy Tech with her sons for registration and began talking with Matt John, chairman of the agriculture program at the Columbus campus.

John talked about all the things he would do with the agriculture program if he had the funding.

Then Tennell realized Farm Credit, where she is a regional vice president, could help.

“I knew this was kind of a perfect blend for the kinds of things we like to do as a company,” she said. “Our community giving program is about education, about youth, about connecting the dots between agriculture and consumers and trying to be an ambassador to agriculture.”

John said the gift would likely be used toward precision agriculture technology, which incorporates advancements such as GPS to automate farming and harvesting processes.

An open house Thursday will celebrate Farm Credit’s donation and the ag program’s new building.

Education needs growth

As agriculture becomes more advanced, the need for higher education grows.

“It’s not just plowing and feeding animals anymore,” Tennell said. “There’s tremendous technology that goes into precision planning and computers. There’s chemistry with chemical application, pesticides and herbicides. You have to have people skills to negotiate with landowners and seed dealers. It takes a wide range of skills to do well.”

Enrollment statistics show students are coming to Ivy Tech to learn those skills.

The agriculture program at the Columbus campus had 16 students in 2008, but had grown to 66 in 2013.

John said classes are already being taught in Greensburg and Seymour, and offerings could be expanded to the Scottsburg and Madison campuses in the near future.

He hopes the expanded agriculture program through the region could increase enrollment to 300.

“I think we’re going to hit that goal very quickly once we get support from that part of the state,” John said.

The program is also a pilot for a new partnership with Purdue University that will address a shortage of high school agriculture teachers.

Students can attend the program at Ivy Tech for two years and then transfer to Purdue’s agriculture education program for half-price tuition, with the understanding they will commit to teaching at the high school level for at least three years.

A new community

The Agriculture Ambassadors club was launched in 2010 but has recently taken off under the leadership of student Jon Kiefner and the excitement surrounding the future of the agriculture program.

There are now 29 members devoted to getting students more involved and representing agriculture throughout the community.

The club goes on field trips — there are upcoming treks to a meat locker and a small-scale aquaponics operation — and participates in community events including the Farm Olympics at the fairgrounds.

“The problem with two-year programs is students move slow their first semester,” John said. “But once they get confident and get involved, it’s like all the sudden they’re gone.”

But Kiefner has made an effort to include students early.

“I spent eight years in the military. I understand the importance of camaraderie and fellowship,” he said.

The group meets once a month and has purchased a ping-pong table to use between classes. There are study tables for each class and a locker with inexpensive snacks. Members have raised money for a three-credit scholarship to award each year.

“People are more involved and talking, and they’re proud,” he said. “Even though we’re not a residential campus yet, they feel like they’re invested ... It really feels like a community.”

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