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Published June 01, 2009, 04:00 AM

Ag At-Large: Seeding education

FARGO, N.D. — I recently spent time with Bob Majkrzak, president and chief executive officer of Red River Commodities, as he talked about his company’s role in a confection sunflower industry that has turned summersaults to remain competitive in the past 20 years.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — I recently spent time with Bob Majkrzak, president and chief executive officer of Red River Commodities, as he talked about his company’s role in a confection sunflower industry that has turned summersaults to remain competitive in the past 20 years.

As I listened, I was amazed at how this company, which handles row crops indigenous to the Upper Great Plains, has continually and dramatically reinvented and improved itself to meet changing world demand and cheap foreign competitors.

I thought about how Bob himself, a Polish farm kid from St. Thomas, N.D., and a civil engineering graduate from North Dakota State University, has had to reinvent himself to lead this kind of business.

I remembered a speech I heard Majkrzak give a decade ago on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart — education of the region’s youth. I remember Majkrzak saying how — as surprising as it seems — there is no real higher education that young people can receive in this region to prepare them to become an operator inside of an agricultural processing business.

“What I think is very disappointing is that we have excellent four-year degrees — six-, eight-year degrees — for very, very specific disciplines in agriculture, things like plant breeding,” Majkrzak says. “What they don’t’ teach is how you handle a product after a farmer has created it.

“Not everybody wants to become an agricultural economist. Not everyone wants to be a plant breeder, or in weed sciences. There are people who would like to work in feed mills and seed processing plants.”

Majkrzak envisions a one- or two-year degree that might bring the student up to date on equipment and new technologies that have been developed.

“It would be a combination of being trained in industrial supervisory roles and the ability to understand the uniqueness of handling food or handling grains,” he says. “It’s disappointing when I realize the only people that will ever learn how to run facilities such as this (Red River Commodities) have to all be self-trained by the company. Its difficult to find someone who has gotten some additional schooling to help them along.”

Job markets

Majkrzak says there should be markets for people with one-, two- and four-year degrees. There are jobs in the industry at all of those levels.

“I’d like to be able to see students, interested in employment out of high school to get a one-year associate degree, a two-year associate or a four-year bachelor’s program that would allow them to build off of their education,” he says.

A curriculum would include the handling and storage of bulk commodities, basic conditioning and prepping of these commodities, and perhaps information about machine lathes, metal fabrication, cutting and abrasion tools.

“Then, to fill in the last couple of years on managerial skills you could build that in and have it all culminate in a bachelor of science degree in food processing, grain processing and grain handling,” Majkrzak says. “Look around at the companies that need this type of skill.”

Majkrzak says the region is seeing a knowledge drain among the equipment savvy people in the plant operations area of grain and food handling. Large farm equipment manufacturers and retailers have jumped into programs that cultivate tomorrow’s machinery technicians. Now processors may have to do the same.

“What would be wrong with farmers telling their sons or daughters there is great potential in your career in agriculture?” Majkrzak says. “The knowledge drain over the next 15 years is going to be so significant that we really stand to jeopardize our leadership in the world.”

Parents, are you listening?