Technical college sustainable agriculture course helps new farmers succeed

Dan Hansen
Organic garden vegetables sold at farmers' markets can provide valuable income for beginning sustainable farmers.

GREEN BAY – People within and outside the farming community feel American agriculture is at a crossroads. Many believe the choice is to either get big or get out.

Valerie Dantoin Adamski, an organic-sustainable agriculture and food educator at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) believes there’s another, better, choice.

“While many farmers are getting bigger and bigger, producing more commodities at smaller margins, we have a new generation entering farming or coming back to it who are operating a diversified smaller farm,” she said.

Adamski also has considerable experience as a farm and local foods leader, and has a bachelor’s in microbiology and a master’s in agronomy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

She and her husband, Rick, own Full Circle Farm near Seymour, where they sustainably grazed a 75-cow dairy herd for 20 years. They have been honored by UW-Madison for their outstanding contributions to agriculture. 

Adamski is also the author of numerous articles and presentations on slow food, backyard gardening, urban poultry ordinances, and ways individuals can take control of their healthy food supply.

Diverse students 

To help this new generation of diversified farmers succeed, Adamski teaches a unique course of study NWTC. “It’s a two-year associate degree program in sustainable food and ag systems,” she explained.

“At any one time we’ll have more than 20 people in our program,” she said. “Over the last three years we’ve graduated about 10 students per year.”

Adamski says there are generally three types of people who enroll in the course. There are people right out of high school, who are encountering their first college experience. 

“I also have people who are making a mid-career change,” she related. “Many have worked in a retail store or restaurant business, but they really want to farm. They want to work the land and really feel called to be farmers and become involved in food production.”

There are also people coming later in life who often have land in the family. “They may have been involved in farming or have an off-farm job. And they want to get their farm more diversified and more profitable,” she explained.

Course variety

The classes in the sustainable food and ag systems program are as varied as the students.

There are classes in basic livestock management, along with a small farm machinery equipment course, and farm implement and tractor safety.

“We do have some fun courses like beekeeping, cheesemaking and fermentation, and we have classes designed to help students grow herbs,” she noted.

An entire course is based on adding value to dairy, meat and vegetable products. "We show our students how they can take their farm products and do something with them to add value so they can sell them at a more profitable price,” Adamski stressed.

An important course involves soils, and focuses on organics, adding nutrients and composting. 

“I’ve been able to teach that both in person and online. Those participating in the national dairy grazing apprenticeship program, also have been able to take the soils class online,” she said. “This is very practical for farmers because they just don’t have a lot of time to get involved with too much theory.”

Most classes in the program are skills based, according to Adamski. “This is a big difference between a tech college and a 4-year college, here we try to have the students do more hands-on learning,” she emphasized.

Beyond the classroom

“We spend an entire course on managed grazing,” Adamski said. “We visit farms who’ve been successful with managed grazing, talk to the farmers, and learn what they did before and how managed grazing has changed their operation.”

“Managed grazing was a real key to the success of our farm, and I think can be a real key to success for a lot of farmers who are just getting started,” she stressed.

She cited studies comprising more than 10 years of data that show the most efficient dairy farms are grazing based, returning 25 cents profit on every dollar spent.

In another class students write their business plan. “This makes sure they understand that this is not all fun and games, and that it’s not going to be easy, but these people are passionate,” she said.

“It’s a very small business plan, but students are able to take it to lenders and seek financial backing for their farm enterprise,” Adamski said.

About one-third of the graduates start their own farming operation, according to Adamski. “These are generally very small farms. They know it’s going to take them awhile to get up to profitability, so they usually have off-farm jobs while they’re building their farming operation,” she said.