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Farm & Industry Short Course finds new home on UW River Falls campus

John Oncken
Farm Short Course graduating class of 1924, nearly 100 years ago.

Over the many years of writing this weekly column I’ve often conjectured that if all the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course (FSC) attendees now owning or running dairy farms in Wisconsin quit milking cows for a week, our dairy industry would probably collapse.

It always amazes me to find out after interviewing a farm family just how many turn out to have attended Farm and Industry Short Course.  

Given time I could list hundreds of top farmers in Wisconsin who credit their days at the UW Farm and Industry  Short course for their success in the competitive world of farming and business.  

From the very beginning of “Short Course” 129 years ago, production agriculture has been the focus of the program and the 115 students who attended the last Session also have practical farming and establishing relationships within the agricultural world on their minds.  

A new home for the Farm and Industry Short Course.

The final six week session that ran from Nov. 3 through Dec. 12, 2021 offered 16 lecture and laboratory courses given at various locations on the UW-Madison ag campus - all within easy walking distance of the Jorns and Humphery short course dormitories Jorns Hall and Humphrey Hall, that were constructed in 1949, after being delayed due to wartime shortages. According to the UW website, most recently students resided in the Lowell Center on Langdon Street.

I recently sat in on a Agribusiness Communications class taught by Larry Olson, Evansville, a longtime friend and current General Manager of the internationally known “Red & White Dairy Cattle Association.“

My curiosity was ignited by a conversation with Olson a couple of years ago when he told me he was teaching at Short Course - I had known him for many years from his work with Semex, the Canada based A.I. organization.  

I also had long thought that Short Course classes were taught only by UW faculty members, so was a bit surprised to learn differently. “You are welcome to sit in on a class anytime,” Olson invited. So, I did.

The 59 class members were pretty much all in their seats in the classroom at Russell Labs (across the street from the Babcock Hall ice cream shop) by the 2:25 start time. The big change I noticed from my days in the classrooms at the UW-Madison was the huge back packs full of stuff that each student carried. I don’t remember what I carried things in but it wasn’t backpacks or many things.

The subject of the day was “making an oral presentation,“ something that Olson admits most people fear but is a must in farming and life. He used an outline projected on a big screen but spent much of the 55 minutes using examples gleaned from his long career in sales and marketing.  

After the class ended, Olson said this was an unusual class because normally he uses much more student involvement and participation as they prepare and present written and oral projects.    

This is Olson’s fourth year teaching in Farm Short Course - how he got started is a bit unusual. 

Some background

Olson, a UW Dairy Science graduate, operated Faunadale Farm Holsteins, a 50 cow registered herd at Evansville that was dispersed in 1987. “I wanted to see what else I could, do,” he says. 

What he did was enter dairy nutrition sales with two feed companies in Evansville and served as district manager with Wayne feeds in southern Wisconsin. In 1992, Olson joined Semex where he served as regional and senior sales manager and training director until 2011.

“I stopped at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) exhibit at the 2010 World Dairy Expo and commented to someone that I felt that they should consider offtering a sales course at CALS to better prepare students for the future,” Olson says. “I left a business card.

“In April, CALS expressed interest and we met: I made a presentation and we talked. A month or two later we again met; they wondered if I was interested in teaching such a course and would I prepare an outline as they had been thinking about such a course for some time that would be part of the FCS offerings and also be open to long course students."

Olson said he never did make the ouline but did get a call on Saturday, three days prior to the opening of the fall session of the 2011 Short Course. It turned out that there were too many students signed up for the one communications course and would he teach an extra session. 

Olson had left Semex on Oct. 31, 2011 and began teaching the communications course just three days after being asked and was still teaching in the final session in Madison.

“This is the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had," Olson says. “Most of the students plan to farm and are there to learn. I like to share my experiences in the business world to help them get a satisfying job or achieve success in farming.“

Olson says his sales course is an elective and will be offered in the spring session to students who have completed the ag communications course, he explained.  “I’ll have about 25 students.”

Dean W.A. Henry in 1880 was assigned by the University of Wisconsin President the task of establishing a College of Agriculture at the University. His first accomplishment was forming the Farm and Industry Short Course which held its first session in 1886.

Some history

It was in 1880 when UW Dean W.A. Henry was given the assignment of establishing a College of Agriculture as part of the University Of Wisconsin. Only five years later, the University Board of Regents accepted a report calling for a “shorter agricultural course for the winter months confined to the term of two years would be most popular and appropriate". The report was adopted and the Farm and Industry Short Course was mandated on Jan. 20, 1885.

 Over the 129 years since that original 12-week course with its four instructors teaching courses in agriculture, chemistry, botany and veterinary science and its 20 young male students began, it has proved an unparalleled success.

Unfortunately, four years ago, the UW-Madison made the decision to radically alter the format, direction and contents of the Farm and Industry Short Course and, in fact, cease its operations. This came with considerable upheaval from the agricultural community and a study of the issue was initiated. Thanks to that input and advocacy, the Short Course lives again.

After 190 years in Madison, UW River Falls will house the Farm and industry Short Course on its campus in western Wisconsin.

A welcome announcement

Earlier this year, UW-Madison announced that the Farm and Industry Short Course last offered on the Madison campus in the 2021-22 academic year would return for the 2023-24 academic year at its new home at UW-River Falls. UW officials stated that "Input was sought from farmers, alumni and other dairy industry representatives who confirmed the need for a training program that is hands-on, credit-bearing, taught by world-class faculty, and driven by the discoveries made by Wisconsin’s agricultural scientists.”

My guess is that The UW-Madison will ultimately regret losing the Farm & Industry Short Course. We'll see.

Contact John Oncken at