Farm and Industry Short Course changes draws mixed feedback
Concerned Wisconsin agricultural education supporters attended the UW Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC) online listening session on Tuesday, April 12, to voice their opinions on the future of the historic program.
Prior to the virtual meeting, many industry leaders have voiced their dismay over the proposed changes, which include switching from a for-credit, on-campus residential experience lasting 16 weeks, to a shorter more flexible, non-credit format.
Amy Penterman, President of Wisconsin's Dairy Business Association, expressed her concerns in a letter to lawmakers on the Assembly and Senate agriculture committees. "I was recently disappointed to learn of the UW CALS decision to make big changes to the Farm and Industry Short Course; changes that may alter the nature of, and purpose for, the Course itself," she wrote.
"The Short Course has deep roots and generational ties to the agriculture and farming communities. Then, I learned that this decision was made with little or no input from, or discussion with, the very farming community the Course was designed to be a benefit to. If there are concerns about the Course as it currently exists why wouldn’t the University seek feedback from the ag community and consider farmers’ input?"
Due to industry backlash, the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) decided to host a virtual listening session to gather ideas for future Farm and Industry Short Course educational programs.
The session was co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF), and Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) as both groups have expressed concerns over the lack of collaboration from UW-Madison regarding the changes.
Kevin Krentz, President of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) has been vocal about his frustrations about the lack of communication between ag-stakeholder groups and the university leading up to this announcement, as many of their members are alumni of the program. He claims they were never informed that the program was struggling, or that the university was looking to make changes.
After Doug Reinemann, Associate Dean for Extension and Outreach in CALS, and Jennifer Blazek, Director of Farm and Industry Short Course, welcomed meeting attendees, they invited Krentz and Shelly Mayer, Executive Director for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) to say a few words.
"I have expressed my personal disappointment due to the University's lack of engagement with stakeholders," Krentz said. "I think you're going to hear today that the next generation is very critical to Wisconsin's agricultural industry. The need for this program is extreme and the changes that are being presented are extreme. Today's discussion with stakeholders is so important and I appreciate everyone joining in on this call today. I look forward to discussing new ideas to improve the program. We are at a critical point to design a strong program moving forward."
Mayer added, "I'm glad to be a part of the meeting today, as we've been hearing input from our producers at PDPW voicing their thoughts and concerns about not having heard any information ahead of the announcement. Labor is a number one issue in the industry, and we want to make sure we're championing agriculture education to build the next generation of Wisconsin agriculture."
Following introductions, Reinemann displayed a graph showing the steady decline in FISC applicants and enrollment since 2010. As numbers continued to drop over the years, Reinemann says that the University engaged in various recruitment and strategic planning efforts in order to reverse the downward trend.
He pointed out that there was a larger dip in enrollment during the pandemic, and they were hopeful for a strong recovery after Covid restrictions were lifted. However, projected attendance for Farm and Industry Short Course this fall remains at approximately 20 students. Blazek explained that in order to run an economically successful program, enrollment needs to be around 100 students.
Reinemann wanted to clarify that FISC is not closing its doors, but rather modifying and modernizing the program. On campus, the administrative office is moving from Academic Affairs to the office of Extension and Outreach. He explained that UW's goal is to develop a structure and schedule that will appeal to a wider variety of students. Academic courses will transition from credit-bearing classes to certified learning experiences as part of the UW outreach program.
"We need to generate a higher enrollment, so we're looking for ideas to develop a program that will attract more students," Reinemann said. "Our philosophy is to keep the components of FISC that are highly-valued and maintain those experiences, while exploring other options.
Specifically, FISC staff wants to continue with a cohort experience, maintain connections with UW Madison and CALS faculty and provide hands-on learning opportunities. They are looking into possible collaborations with the Wisconsin technical college system, which has over 100 different certificates and diplomas involving production agriculture. Also, rather than two 8-week sessions they are considering shorter but more frequent in-person meeting times along with some online instruction where appropriate.
Facilitators also fielded a myriad of questions and concerns during the session touching on topics like housing, marketing of the program, scholarship changes and more.
Sandy Larson, a dairy producer from Evansville, Wis. said balancing the traditions of the short course program and profitability are key points to improving the Short Course.
"There are so many positive benefits of the program: university experience, networking and top-notch education to take back to the farm are just a few. My son is a two-year Short Course graduate and he feels so fortunate to have had the opportunity," she said. "There are many more just like him who also believe in this program as evident on this zoom meeting. Alumni and stakeholders would love to see the short course program succeed and could help by visiting their own local FFA chapters for example. We should have had that sort of effort five years ago, I hope it's not too late."
Disgruntled comments also flowed across the message board from parents of incoming students, Short Course alumni and agri-business professionals that rely on hiring FISC graduates to meet their labor needs.
Cheri Klussendorf, a Short Course graduate from Medford, Wis., has a son that is enrolled for the upcoming fall semester. She expressed disappointment and frustration over the changes and feel as if, "a rug has been pulled out from under them."
Her son attended the FISC Preview Day on February 11, where he received a campus tour and learned about various course options.
"Now, it seems as if there are no concrete plans in place for the upcoming semester and he is considering an entirely different career path because of it," Klussendorf said. "He wanted to live on the UW-Madison campus and learn from the best, and now that is not an option. He has no interest in online learning, as he already experienced that during the pandemic."
"While she understands the need for higher enrollment, Klussendorf says had stakeholders been informed of the challenges the program was facing, they may have done more to help.
Anyone with remaining questions or concerns to reach out by calling or emailing the FISC office. (608-263-3918, firstname.lastname@example.org) In addition, the staff plans to compile the list of questions into a frequently asked question page which can be found at go.wisc.edu/FISC.