At one time Madison Area Technical College had two agriculture instructors working in far-flung areas of the district, which covers areas of Dane, Sauk, Columbia and Marquette counties.
With retirements of those instructors the program has gone through a redesign under the school's new agriculture instructor Randy Zogbaum.
"Agriculture is a gigantic part of this district," he said. An economic analysis of agriculture in the district showed $2.2 billion in sales.
That revitalized recognition of agriculture as an industry and helped spur the redesign of the school's ag programs. "Farming is the foundation of that agriculture segment of our industry and what we decided was that business training was a missing piece for farmers."
The school — which leaders now call Madison College — is one of several in the state that offers farm business and production management and Zogbaum says that the program had struggled to find its place in a "technical" college program.
"Technical programs are designed to give people skills to go to work but the trouble is that farmers are farming — they have a job."
For farmers who have been part of the old program, and for those he hopes will enroll in the new program, the emphasis isn't on getting a degree. "You don't need the wrong tool for the job — a degree isn't what's important to these students."
The old program was designed to give farmers an opportunity to network, come together and learn from an instructor but they didn't need to "sit through three-credit courses," he added.
As he considered the retirement of Dan Sandwick, the last instructor who ran farm programs in the technical college district, Zogbaum and other leaders at the college embarked on the re-design of the program.
They enlisted the help of Dick Cates, who heads the School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as bankers and farmers on an advisory committee. Specialists from the Farm Center at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection also helped.
It was modeled partly after a three-year program offered to farmers in Pennsylvania that focuses on business management.
That program, he said, focuses on new and beginning farmers and has had enrollment in the hundreds during the course of the four years the program has been offered there.
"Farmers don't fail because they're not working hard. These skills put business in the right place for the farm to succeed.
"This isn't a job with 40 hours per week. It's a lifetime commitment and farmers have a goal to live out that commitment as best they can."
Bolstered by the idea that a farm business planning course of study could be popular with the farming community, Madison College decided it would design a set of courses on farm business management called "Operating the Farm Business." They are set to roll out in November at the Portage and Reedsburg campuses.
Eventually they will be offered at other campuses in the district.
The courses will lead students down the path to developing a business plan for their farm. Students will learn methods for using the plan to evaluate their farms' financial viability to help them make decisions.
The courses are each six weeks in length and they build on each other. "There's value in going all the way through," Zogbaum said.
The first is called Understanding the Farm Business and is intended for those who are new to farm management. It will introduce farmers to public and private resources that are available to help them — from crop and nutrient management planning to veterinary services to developing feed rations.
The introductory course is also designed to teach students the value of a sound business plan and to get them started on creating one.
Part of this process involves writing a mission statement, putting down goals — personal, family, farm and others — and listing the things their farm business has and what it needs. It will also include an introduction to the financial components of a business plan.
Zogbaum said that many times under the old MATC farm programs, farmers would need to get into financial and business planning courses because it was a requirement of their guaranteed loans. The problem was that often the course would already be running and they missed the time frame to get into it.
Sometimes that course didn't come around again for years.
The new course of study is designed to be split into "smaller, more digestible" fragments, he said, which will make it more helpful to farmers who are in those Farm Service Agency loan programs.
The courses include one to help students develop a farm business plan and one to help them use it. They'll learn to use a balance sheet, accrual income statements and a statement of cash flow.
That course is designed to teach students how to understand their farm's financial position through various financial measures — liquidity, solvency and profitability.
Courses that build on the first two will involve how to use the newly developed business plan to understand what's going on with the farm business and how to grow it. Students will use their plan and financial records to evaluate their current financial position by calculating and using financial ratios.
They will also see how their plan can be used to understand risk management, develop a market strategy, create short-term goals and long-term projections and growth strategies for their farm business.
Later courses are aimed at farm business analysis and decision making, marketing, and long-term farm budgeting and management.
Zogbaum said he wants to cap enrollment in the classes at 24 students because what they will be working on will be "pretty intensive" and because they want each student to have time to work with their specific farm's information.
The courses will meet for six weeks with four hours of classroom work each time.
"You don't have to commit your life to this."
The college tried to set up the new program to run some of the classes this spring, but the timing didn't line up, he said.
Zogbaum formerly worked in the UW Soils Department, the Soil and Water Quality division at DATCP and was Columbia County's UW-Extension Agriculture Agent prior to going to work at the Technical College System.
Now he's back into doing what he loves — working directly with, and teaching farmers.