Jordan Reeder had life figured out—at least, she thought so.
“I always thought I’d be a state trooper,” said Reeder. “But after I started studying criminal justice, I realized how much I missed working on our farm.”
When she shared her career switch plans with her family, they had one condition.
“My granddad said, ‘Ok, but you need to get an ag degree first.’”
As the rural Monmouth, IL native researched ag programs, she read about SCC’s agricultural law class. Intrigued, she followed her granddad’s advice and enrolled in 2019.
“I learned that I really like the policy and legislative side of agriculture.”
Now, with her SCC ag degree in hand, she’s working on her bachelor’s degree at Upper Iowa University in agriculture business with an end goal of working for the USDA.
Reeder’s story isn’t unique. It’s by design.
When agriculture professors Adam Raub and Sabrina Pidgeon started revamping SCC’s agriculture, modern food production and the environment program in 2014, they agreed that hands-on learning and exposure to the broader industry would be key to its success.
“It’s been a multi-year process because it is important that we prepare students to meet the needs of modern agriculture, yet leave enough room to explore their interests,” Pidgeon said.
Students take a core agriculture curriculum and then choose specializations in agribusiness, agronomy, animal science, and conservation.
Reeder appreciated all the hands-on learning.
“They could have just shown videos, but we’d walk out to the college’s farmland and see actual examples of what we were studying,” Reeder explained. “It was a whole different learning experience.”
Thanks to a $10,000 grant from Iowa Farm Bureau and $2,000 from local county Farm Bureau boards, SCC created a living wetland lab on nine acres of its farmland in West Burlington. Students are now a short walk away from year-round learning opportunities for soil and water conservation and wetland management.
“Few other community colleges have their own wetland,” said Pidgeon. “That makes this a unique opportunity to learn how to operate the same type of system used at water containment facilities, farms, and natural habitats.”
Students must also complete an internship at an ag-related business or agency. Many are reluctant to spend it doing something different from what they already know but quickly embrace the experience.
“Once they’re in it for a week, they’re thrilled that they had the chance to learn something they never thought they’d do,” Pidgeon explained.
In addition to farming and commercial agriculture, local natural resource agencies and organizations provide opportunities to learn about conservation.
Des Moines County Conservation executive director Chris Lee invites students to help conduct prescribed burns on county land every year. To him, service learning isn’t just good for students, it’s good for the community.
“Conservation is a tight-knit world,” Lee said. “Students need this exposure to understand its importance. We’re playing the long game by developing future leaders with an interest in this sort of work.”
In 2019, SCC partnered with Ducks Unlimited and KPI Concepts to develop a wood duck box program. Students build wood duck boxes with kits made from scrap wood. They then work with Ducks Unlimited reps and county conservation staff to place and maintain wood duck boxes on private and public lands free of charge.
The wood duck box project was one of ag student Lauren Mohr’s favorite projects. After making 125 boxes, she says there was definitely a learning curve to overcome.
“We learned a lot about how to not make them, that’s for sure,” Mohr joked.
A less visible project with an equally important impact is a fish habitat project.
Students worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Geode State Park to build more than 100 fish habitat structures that now sit at the bottom of its recently restored lake. They were tasked with finding and securing materials, including plastic buckets, discarded strips of conduit, and concrete. They then built the structures and placed them in strategic locations on the dry lake bed.
The DNR was impressed.
“They liked what we did so much that they asked to continue the project and even provided a special boat we can use to place more structures around the lake as it fills,” Pidgeon explained.
The last component of the program includes providing students networking opportunities with industry professionals. Pidgeon and Raub leverage their own networks to benefit their students.
“The more people the students know, and the more people know them, the better,” said Pidgeon. “The exposure they have to different aspects of the industry and the connections they make usually lead to jobs, which ultimately builds more ambassadors for our program.”
Savvy students realize the benefits and jump at the chance to get involved.
“I told Sabrina I’d take advantage of every opportunity she gave me,” said Reeder. “That opened the door for me to join Iowa Corn Growers as a member of the collegiate advisory team and spend time in Des Moines.”
About one third of program graduates continue on to earn a bachelor’s degree, one third return to their family farm operation, and one third start their careers in the industry.
“There are really good ag jobs all across the Midwest and our grads are a hot commodity,” Pidgeon said. “At any given time, we’ve got 5-10 job openings for every student in the program.”
For more information about the program, visit scciowa.edu.