MARSHALL - Plenty of people sighed a breath of relief after hearing that the newly-developing Agronomy program at Southwest Minnesota State University wasn't going to be a victim of budget cuts a year ago, but none perhaps more than Tony Hansen, an SMSU Agronomy major who will graduate this May.
"I was so close," Hansen said. "I was about a year out then and everybody I talked to said it was just stupid. Ag is such a huge part of the community and rural Minnesota. I couldn't see what justification there was for cutting the program."
Hansen said SMSU Agronomy professor Grace Armah-Agyeman encouraged him to reach out to agricultural businesses in the area, so he did.
"I laid out what was going on, got our side of the story out there and asked the businesses if they thought we should keep the Agronomy program," he said. "About two dozen of them sent a letter on our behalf."
Backed by community support, SMSU administrators took steps to enhance the agricultural curriculum instead of eliminating part of it, giving the Agronomy program, which deals with the science of crop production, a chance to take off.
"It's a good program," said Hansen, who will be the second SMSU student to graduate with an Agronomy degree since the 4-year program began in 2009. "It's going to grow so much larger than they expected. And, it's a good place to have it, too. There are so many ag businesses in the area."
Ron Wood, SMSU interim President, realized SMSU's potential in preserving its one-of-a-kind program. SMSU is the only university within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system with an Agronomy program.
"It always takes time to get a good product on the market," Wood said. "But I feel very confident about it."
Wood officially began interim duties in July, in the midst of challenging times for higher education institutions, which saw massive budget cuts and decreased funding projected for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Wood quickly rallied behind SMSU, helping to identify key areas for potential collaboration with other institutions.
SMSU is currently developing additional curriculum that will allow students from Ridgewater College, Minnesota West and South Central, who have completed one- and two-year ag programs, to get a Bachelor of Applied Science in Agriculture.
"We already have Agribusiness and Agronomy, but now we're working toward adding more components, to either start in the spring or fall of 2013," Wood said. "It gives students an opportunity to stay in the region and get the education they want."
Hansen, a Truman native, always knew he wanted to work with his hands, and though he considered other professions such as welding, the fond memories of helping out on his grandfather's farm kept coming back to him. After attending South Central College in North Mankato for agribusiness, Hansen did an internship in the summer of 2005.
"That kind of solidified what I wanted to do," he said. "I worked with an agronomist at Crystal Valley Coop. I liked everything he did, and I liked meeting the farmers."
After completing a two-year tour of duty to Iraq with the National Guard, Hansen transferred to SMSU.
"I checked out SMSU and SDSU (South Dakota State University), too," Hansen said. "I visited both colleges and talked to teachers at both. The deciding factor, besides tuition, was that South Central and SMSU were both in MNSCU, so my credits transferred."
Wood's leadership and vision to create a School of Agriculture and Natural Resources has led to countless opportunities for students and future employers. A spring 2011 National Association of College and Employers study found that 100 percent of SMSU's Ag Business graduates found job, with an average $36,271 salary.
SMSU seems to have provided Hansen the opportunity for a successful future. He's already accepted a position at Genesis Growing Solutions in Morristown.
"I'll be doing Agronomy sales, selling fertilizer, seed and chemicals," he said. "I'll be helping farmers if they have any problems with their fields."
Besides Agronomy, Wood said that Agribusiness, a second agriculture track at SMSU, includes people who might work at Ralco, at various coops or on family farms.
"It's about being able to manage and understand the ag industry work, on the land, in the coop or where we're actually producing food," he said.
A third track, yet to be officially named, looks at contemporary issues in agriculture.
"It has to do with contemporary solutions in the ag world," Wood said. "It's a program that looks at some of the very specific issues the ag sector is facing, from a regional and global perspective."
Wood envisioned SMSU as a regional focal point for many ag-related venues. In February, nearly 300 college students from across state attended the 2012 Minnesota Post-Secondary Agriculture Students state conference.
"We just approved scholarships for three different students in Agronomy," Wood said. "It's been going well and we're still moving forward."
On Wednesday, SMSU hosted the 28th annual Farm Outlook Seminar, which raises scholarship dollars for the school's agriculture programs.
"We're always developing new partnerships with businesses and companies within the region," Wood said.
SMSU is also a fiscal agent for Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL), a leadership program that develops the skills of Minnesota agriculture and rural leaders in the hopes that they'll maximize the impact and effectiveness on local, state, national and international levels.
"It's not part of the SMSU ag program," said Dan Hoffman, executive director of MARL. "We're a separate leadership program, but we tie into SMSU and the resources there."
Since beginning executive director duties in January, Hoffman said things have been going really well.
"I've got great support at SMSU," he said. "They've been very supportive because they realize that agriculture is really important for everybody, but especially in this region."