NDSU brings reality into ag classrooms
by Luann Dart
As Vance Zacharias and Paul Rice step off the North Dakota State University (NDSU) campus in Fargo, the two young farmers will begin careers deeply rooted in tradition yet transformed by technology. This next generation of farmers will sow the seeds on their fa
|Vance Zacharias, left, and Paul Rice confer in the North Dakota State University Commodity Trading Room, where goth studied as part of thier agricultural economics degree curriculum.
mily farms in eastern North Dakota with innovative agricultural economics degrees, thanks to technology planted at NDSU during their tenure.
“North Dakota is an agricultural state. Even with the huge oil boom in the western part of the state, agriculture is the industry that drives our state’s economy,” says Jane Schuh, assistant dean for academic programs in the NDSU College of Agriculture, Food Systems and Natural Resources. “NDSU’s role in training the farmers and ranchers of North Dakota, the region and the world is hugely important and will increase in importance in the coming decades.”
As the state leads the nation in the production of 13 different commodities, North Dakota is vital to a global goal: food security for the 9 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050, Schuh points out.
“At the same time that the population is growing, resources of land and water that are available for agriculture are decreasing, and the number of farmers and ranchers is dwindling,” Schuh says. “To be more efficient in this endeavor, they will need to find new ways to use technology or build and invent enhancements that are not available today. To do that successfully, we will need a wide range of skills – from economists and business people to scientists and engineers.”
Zacharias, who graduated in December 2013 and returned to the family farm near Enderlin served by Cass County Electric Cooperative, and Rice, who will return to the family farm near Maddock, served by Northern Plains Electric Cooperative, after graduating in the spring, both grasp the challenges before them, but stand prepared.
“NDSU helped me get a sense of how to manage all the assets and everything that goes with farming. There’s a tremendous amount of money involved with it these days,” Rice shares.
“Ag economics is a great program for preparing me for my future. I knew I wanted to go back to the farm. It was easy for me to focus on what I was learning because as soon as I learned it, I strived to apply it to what I was doing in my operation,” Zacharias says. “We learned all the aspects of production agriculture.”
Not just textbooks
At NDSU, both Zacharias and Rice ventured into the Commodity Trading Room, a commodity marketing and financial lab where students learn how to access and use market information to sell commodities, as well as weigh costs and revenues to maximize production profits.
To help both university students and professionals understand the dynamics and tools available to them, the Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department at NDSU added the dedicated electronic Commodity Trading Room to its program in 2012 to serve both students and the milling, oilseeds crushing and biofuels energy sectors, according to NDSU. Students learn how to extract and analyze information, and then make decisions about risk and risk management.
Five agricultural economics courses and all commodity marketing and risk analysis courses use the Commodity Trading Room, which is the first of its kind at a land grant university where students apply concepts they learn in the classroom in a hands-on setting.
“The different classes gave us opportunities to apply what we were learning in a laboratory setting and the other half of the time we spent in lecture,” Zacharias describes. “That allowed us to build confidence in ourselves in what we were doing and what we were learning.”
“From the producer’s standpoint, it gives you an idea of how the elevators work and how to make a little more money by selling futures or buying and selling options and how the basis works and overall how the markets work,” Rice adds.
The brainchild of Dr. William Wilson, distinguished professor of the NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department, the high-tech lab includes live financial information feeds, plus commodity market information. The room has 32 seats, each with a PC station and dual monitors. Students have electronic access to information through Bloomberg, Data Transmission Network and X-Trader simulation software from Trading Technologies, a state-of-the-art tool for executing electronic trades. Along one wall, a stock market ticker scrolls information, giving the room a realistic vibe.
“We also can beam in live speakers so they can comment on what’s going on in the marketplace at that instant in time,” Wilson says.
In addition to students, the lab is also open to industry and foreign grain buyers, Wilson says. The Northern Crops Institute (NCI) was among the first groups to use the laboratory when it offered a soybean procurement course in October 2012 in Fargo.
Through the lab, Zacharias says he learned how to appropriately consider options and contracts and apply indicators to his decision-making process to maximize revenues.
“All students in the future will be expected to know how to work their way through these technologies and our course prepares them for this purpose,” Wilson says.
Farming for the future
“Education prepares you and teaches you how to learn so throughout the future you can continue to evolve your own processes and operation. Farming has become highly technical, so you need specific training and awareness as far as how to properly manage and prepare your operation,” Zacharias says.
“At NDSU, we do that,” Schuh says. “We train ag engineers, biotechnologists, breeders in both crops and livestock, ag systems management specialists and economists.” But the university also prepares young farmers and ranchers.
“I often talk to prospective students from North Dakota or western Minnesota who want to one day head back to the family farm to take over operations, but they realize that these days farming is big business. They benefit from the additional resources that the university can give them to be the best farmer or rancher they can be, as well as the global perspective of agriculture as a business and industry that is bigger than their operation. Their success is success for all of us,” Schuh adds.
Rice will be the fourth generation on the family farm near Maddock where he’ll continue to raise a variety of crops, including corn, soybeans, barley, wheat and black turtle beans.
“I have a great mentor in my father,” Rice says. “I have my whole family behind me to help expand the farm. I feel like I have the best support base; there’s no one better.”
Zacharias will eventually partner with two younger brothers in his family’s farm operation near Enderlin, where they raise primarily corn and soybeans.
“I grew up with it and I’ve always been in love with it,” he says. “It can be a gift or it can be a curse every day. I enjoy working with my family and working through the adversity and challenges that exist in agriculture. Every year is different with the weather and production challenges and I definitely like to be challenged.”
Both young men intend to rely on the network created at NDSU.
“It’s important to network and meet other young farmers and to get to know the professors. At NDSU, there are a lot of opportunities to meet others in the agriculture industry and get a broader picture,” Rice says.
Even though he has graduated, Zacharias continues his education by attending seminars and management programs, which he feels is vital.
“You have a lot of opportunities to attend conferences at no cost to you so you can continually grow for the future,” he says.
“I think in large part, we are filling the need for farmers and ranchers, but I think that there are also additional opportunities that we haven’t completely tapped,” Schuh says. “At a recent jobs fair at NDSU, I talked with a number of employers who were looking for hires with an understanding of agriculture to work in related areas – sales, for instance. I’ve talked to some students who want to work as crop consultants or some other ag-related position for a few years before taking over operations of the farm from their parents or to do that part time. In my opinion, this is both good for the student who will have those experiences and connections when they take over an operation, but also it’s good for the industry. Having highly educated professionals running the businesses that we count on for food production is good for all of us.”
Luann Dart is a freelance writer and editor who lives near Elgin.
To watch a video about NDSU’s Commodity Trading Room, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxkthZ0lZSk&list=PL4A6BEF3FD5D2C2BF&index=6.
PHOTOS COURTESY NDSU