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How MnSCU, U of M could help close critical gaps in continuing ed for farmers

Minnesota can’t afford an education gap on the farm any more than in our state’s other great industries. 

Minnesota farmers and communities throughout the state depend on a state-of-the-art ag economy.
REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

There’s a lot of conversation this political season about job creation. In Minnesota, much of the discussion is around the “education gap” — the notion that some of our brightest and fastest-growing industries are being hampered by a lack of workers with the knowledge and skills these industries need.

Brad Finstad

A recent study by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) on continuing education for the state’s farmers is worth reading with the education gap in mind. It’s not that Minnesota farmers are lacking in expertise. Rather, they are challenged by an industry — agriculture — that is becoming increasingly complex and high tech. Farmers want cutting edge information and resources that give them the competitive edge in a global market.

Yet, the study found critical gaps in the education programs available to farmers. In particular, about eight of 10 Minnesota farmers are not participating in education programs because of time constraints or schedule conflicts, according to the research. And nearly a third — 30.5 percent — are simply unaware of the availability of college or university programs.

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The survey revealed that when it comes to agricultural education, farmers turn to three primary sources: MnSCU, the University of Minnesota Extension Service and businesses that partner with farmers. The two findings mentioned above, time constraints and simple awareness, should show our educators that there’s a definite opportunity out there to reach farmers. The task is to figure out how to close the gap and make sure farmers have the information resources they need to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

One-third of Greater MN economy tied to agriculture

Minnesota farmers and communities throughout the state depend on a state-of-the-art ag economy. One-third of Greater Minnesota’s economy is tied to agriculture, and more than 340,000 jobs are tied directly or indirectly to farming. Technology, global market competition, and government laws and regulations are affecting agriculture in ways that are every bit as profound as what is occurring in other industries. It’s critical to the success of Minnesota farmers and to the state’s economy that farmers have access to the latest information.

Some other key findings of the study include:

  • The most popular providers of education are suppliers (for example, credit, seed or equipment vendors) and the University of Minnesota Extension Services. MnSCU was identified by only 12 percent of the respondents as the expected source of education.
  • Owners and operators of farms generating less than $100,000 in annual sales often are most interested in learning more about tax and estate planning strategies to preserve their assets. As sales increase, farmers are more interested in learning new marketing strategies and better understanding of commodity markets. 
  • Only 10 percent of farmers were interested in learning more about food safety, even as the issue grows in importance for consumers and regulators. 
  • The cost of current programs is not a huge barrier. Only 16 percent said the cost of programs was keeping them from participating.
  • Farmers are active learners. They prefer hands-on training, demonstrations and one-on-one training over other techniques. And while 72 percent use the Internet (and 62 percent have access to high-speed connections), printed materials are preferred over information provided online.

Three recommendations

At the Center for Rural Policy and Development, our job is to provide Minnesota’s decision-makers with an unbiased evaluation of issues from a rural perspective. This study is a great example of applying research to practical uses. The findings in this study underscore the need for action by the state’s higher education systems. Three recommendations rise to the top of the list:

  • First, we recommend that MnSCU and the U of M Extension Service use the study’s findings to assess their programs and make sure they are meeting farmers’ needs.
  • Second, it’s clear that farmers have great confidence in their suppliers, and Minnesota is fortunate to have so many outstanding ag-related businesses. We recommend that our state’s education community work with these suppliers to create new programs and to ensure that farmers are receiving education that is objective and state of the art.
  • Third, everyone in Minnesota has a stake in keeping our ag producers at the cutting edge of technology. We need aggressive outreach to farmers to make certain they are aware of the programs being offered, that the right programs are available and that they are available in the right places at the right times.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development is committed to working with Minnesota’s colleges and ag businesses to promote new approaches to farm education. In a time of drastic change in all industries, Minnesotans need to continue their strong commitment to agriculture so our farmers can succeed in the 21st century.

Minnesota can’t afford an education gap on the farm any more than in our state’s other great industries.  

Brad Finstad is the president and CEO of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit policy research organization dedicated to benefiting Minnesota by providing policy makers with an unbiased evaluation of issues from a rural perspective. 


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