UW–Platteville has been the fastest growing four-year campus in the UW System for the past several years.
Much of that growth is the result of growth in the School of Agriculture, whose enrollment has almost doubled since 1995.
The 100 years in which what now is UW–Platteville has offered agriculture courses has seen considerable ups and downs, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the farm crisis of the 1980s.
Today, though, agriculture is a growth field, so to speak. The Wisconsin Agricultural Education and Workforce Development Council projects more than 132,000 openings in agricultural-related fields in this state through 2020, one-third of which are estimated to be new positions.
In a state in which one in nine jobs are related to agriculture, and 12 percent of Wisconsin workers have jobs in an agriculture-related field, many of those jobs will be filled by School of Agriculture graduates.
“Our ag programs in general have been growing like crazy,” said Wayne Weber, dean of the UW–Platteville College of Business, Industry, Life Science and Agriculture. “We’ve over-doubled what we were in the last decade.”
“Employers believe our students hit the ground running and are very well prepared,” said Dr. Michael Compton, director of the School of Agriculture. “A major contributor to that is the amount of hands-on activity students experience. Students get so much in the classroom but there also needs to be some other high impact activity that students can get into a little more in-depth.”
One major reason for the popularity of UW–Platteville agriculture is the opportunity to learn agriculture by doing agriculture at UW–Platteville’s Pioneer Farm. A farm has been on or connected to campus ever since the ag program began in 1914.
Weber calls UWP a “very much a hands-on experiential learning campus, and the Pioneer Farm works right into that, because it’s a large living laboratory.”
In addition to its use by students and researchers, the Pioneer Farm is used to train staff for such state agencies as UW–Extension and the Department of Natural Resources, people who will work with farmers but don’t necessarily have a farm background.
The farm employs between 15 and 25 students. “They’re going to school here and they’re doing day-to-day activities on the farm,” said Charles Steiner, director of the Pioneer Farm.
The School of Agriculture offers six majors — animal science, agribusiness, agriculture education, ornamental horticulture, soil and crop science, and reclamation, environment and conservation.
“Students go back to the farm and make the family farm more profitable,” said Weber. “The other thing is that these students are highly valued in the industry,” including such businesses as agricultural finance companies.
“Now is the time to be in agriculture, and I think that’s reflected in our growth. We’re well positioned for growth in the industry.”
“Most of our students coming here did come off the farm and had good production-type background,” said Steiner. “Now we’re seeing students who didn’t grow up on the farm or are one generation off the farm.”
UW–Platteville’s Tri-State Initiative, which focuses on students from Illinois and Iowa, has helped grow the School of Agriculture as well, since ag in those areas is similar to ag in Southwest Wisconsin.
Weber credits the work of Compton and “outstanding faculty and staff. They help provide an outstanding education to outstanding students. They care about the industry, and they care about agriculture.”
The Pioneer Farm is not just a classroom for ag students. Research takes place at the farm as well. The farm also raises 40 to 50 Angus beef cattle and around 70 hogs, and milks 145 cows. Milk checks to Foremost Farms provide the largest amount of Pioneer Farm income.
“That’s what we really consider it — it’s a lab, even though it’s a farm,” said Steiner. “It’s got a way to connect both of those. It compliments a lot of our programs.”
Tours of the Pioneer Farm are available to the public by appointment.
Another area in which the School of Agriculture stands out is in the off-campus activities of its students. The UWP collegiate soils team has qualified for the National Collegiate Soils Contest for 41 consecutive years, the longest streak among U.S. universities. This spring’s national soil judging contest, at the University of Arkansas–Monticello April 19–24, will be a qualifying contest for the first international soils competition, which will be held in South Korea this summer.
Weber expects more growth “in some areas” in the School of Ag, beginning with the hiring of a new staff member focusing on crops.
“That’s a huge area, soils and agronomy,” said Weber. “The job market there, we can’t put enough people into those areas.”
A new major in dairy science is expected to be developed within a year. Weber said the program is “really going to allow us to get in all aspects of the dairy side of agriculture,” including livestock, maintaining stock, and animal management.
The Pioneer Farm’s beef center, which was built in the 1960s, will be upgraded depending on the receipt of an estate gift and fundraising, probably in the next three to five years, Steiner said.
The school is also looking to create a dairy products laboratory.
Alison Parkins of UW–Platteville contributed to this story.