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Published March 03, 2014, 09:45 AM

Ag program graduates value experience and education

With the wealth of quality agricultural education in the Northern Plains, the graduates of such programs tend to be prepared for the big leap into the tides of the industry. Many find success early on, and others wade through challenges to eventually meet the life-long career goals they had longed to achieve.

By: Bianca Bina, Agweek

With the wealth of quality agricultural education in the Northern Plains, the graduates of such programs tend to be prepared for the big leap into the tides of the industry. Many find success early on, and others wade through challenges to eventually meet the life-long career goals they had longed to achieve. Though their careers vary, one thing each successful graduate can agree upon is that the education they received, coupled with experience and a passion for ag, helped prepare them for the careers they hold today.

Early success

Bronya Renfrow is a senior at Montana State University, studying agriculture education. Growing up in Iowa, the eldest of three girls, Renfrow’s parents kept the family busy competing in rodeos and even starting a summer tradition of visiting family friends in Montana, learning how to brand livestock.

“I was seven years old (the first time we visited), and I was hooked,” she says. “Since then, my dream was to move to Montana and live on a ranch.”

In high school, she served as an officer in her local FFA chapter, competing and winning state and national contests in parliamentary procedure.

Years later, a family friend suggested she look into attending MSU after high school. Her parents took her for a campus tour where she learned of the highly regarded academic programs the scenic campus had to offer. Immediately, she applied, was accepted, and moved to Bozeman, Mont., the following August.

“Through my home life, branding in Montana and ag classes, I developed a passion for agriculture,” Renfrow says. “When I graduated high school, I wanted to go to college and get a job that (would allow me to) travel the country and promote agriculture.”

An undecided major her first semester at MSU, she attended a symposium for future ag industry students that offered some guidance for students who weren’t quite sure what road to choose. After the discussion, Renfrow knew she wanted to pursue agriculture education and jumped into numerous clubs and activities, which then led to an internship with Central Montana Co-op after visiting a campus career fair.

“I was an agronomy intern for the summer, and though I knew I probably was not going to be an agronomist, the internship was a great opportunity for me to get my foot in the door,” she says. “I had an opportunity to scout fields, ride in the spreader, deliver chemicals, talk with customers and many other things.”

Networking with company employees and offering a hand when the opportunity arose, Renfrow made a name for herself and was invited to speak with the general manager of the co-op, who asked her to join. In a more permanent position, she will be traveling throughout central Montana, selling feed for the co-op after graduation in June.

“I have been blessed with the opportunities that have been presented to me,” Renfrow says. “My advice to others is to take as many internships as possible. Internships let you dabble in different things and learn what you do and do not like about an industry and company before you fully commit.”

A year under the belt

Danny Pratt is a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Roundup, Mont., who took every opportunity to learn and grow in the industry by interning with NRCS each summer after his freshman year of school at MSU. “When the opportunity arose, I jumped on it,” he says.

His mother and father were both in the agricultural industry — his mother was an ag teacher, his father also an employee of NRCS — in Miles City, Mont., which paved the way for Pratt and gave him the basic knowledge and interest to pursue an agricultural career.

Pratt worked with his team and local producers to design stock water systems and formed blueprints with farmers for conservation planning to get the most out of what the land had to offer.

After spending his summers interning, job shadowing and joining state groups, Pratt was offered permanent placement with his team at NRCS. He then joined the Montana Civil Rights Advisory Committee, where he presently holds the position of chairman.

Though he had learned much on his uncle's ranch, his internships taught him how to apply his basic knowledge and communicate with farmers about their specific needs. “There are a lot of internships where you don’t get to see how companies impact people,” Pratt says. “It is beneficial and rewarding to get to work with individuals and be a part of handling some of the planning, like taking care of the burden of specifics in calculating cattle space, allowing the landowner to get their kids to a basketball game.”

Like Renfrow, Pratt has seen the ultimate benefits that hard work and ambition has provided. “Get involved in professional societies like the Society for Range Management,” he recommends. “Find the career path you are looking for as soon as possible. It looks good when a candidate can pinpoint relative activities and experience on a resume.”

Instilling ag into youthful minds

Growing up on a cash crop farm south of Benson, Minn., Natasha Mortenson never realized the importance of agriculture until ninth grade. “Finally, I felt at home,” she says. “Like I belonged and could be proud of my agriculture background.”

A member of FFA and 4-H through her younger years, Mortenson decided to pursue agriculture and instill the enthusiasm she had for the industry to middle- and high-schoolers. She attended the University of Minnesota and made some critical connections with faculty members who would shape her into the teacher she is today.

“Through the program, we were able to get some early experiences observing teachers both in the metro area and in rural areas for short periods of time,” she says. “The student teaching experience was the single most helpful thing that I did through my college education. I was able to get real life experience…”

Preparing for a first job is not an easy task, Mortenson says. But after 13 years in the school system, she has her 8th to 12th grade classes down to a science, with just as much enthusiasm as she held her first day of teaching.

“We do it because we love the students,” she says. “We love to see them learn about agriculture, we love to see them succeed and know that we were able to provide the experiences to connect them to agriculture.”

And while she is constantly immersed in agriculture in her classroom teaching food chemistry, agriculture communication and employability, introduction to ag, greenhouse management and agriculture processing — just to name a few — she spends the little amount of time left in the day taking care of her farm with her husband and children, running half-marathons and holding her position as president of the Minnesota Association of Agriculture.

While the busy schedule and minimal personal time might not appeal to the masses, the return on investment is certainly worth the struggle.

“More than ever we need people that care about agriculture and want to share that love with students,” Mortensen says. “Teachers may not make the most money, but they do make a difference in the lives of students, communities and the future of agriculture. It is an eye-opening experience that will actually make your love for agriculture grow and make you hungry to always learn more.”

Success in the family

A fourth-generation farmer, Lyle Perman has felt a bit of pressure to keep the family tradition of ranching alive. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint any of my family. Somebody’s got to carry on the tradition,” he says.

Perman owns Rock Hills Ranch in Lowry, S.D., a grass, wildlife and Angus cattle producer, with his son Luke and daughter-in-law Naomi. Though Perman no longer lives at the farm and rents the land to his family, he continues to watch over the ranch he created .

After graduating in 1977 from South Dakota State University, Perman and his wife, Garnet, used their experience and agricultural education to continue the generational career. Alhough it took some time to jumpstart the business, eventually, the farm started giving back in the 1980s, when Perman also decided to start his own insurance firm for added revenue.

Though he admits his excitement for having his own ranch and the continuous experience he has gained working on the ranch has been more educational than any class could ever be, Perman also believes his education at SDSU has shaped him and his family to become the farmers they are today.

“SDSU played a huge role in where we’re at and who we are today,” Perman says. “We’re all graduates of SDSU, and we’re thankful of (its) contribution in where we are.”

Years after creating a vision in Swan Creek Valley, Perman can look at his riches and nod in appreciation. “It was a lifelong dream,” Perman says. “It was what I wanted to do, and I’m living my dream.”

And now that dream will continue to be passed from generation to generation. “Luke is learning to run the ranch, and if something happens to me, I don’t worry at all,” Perman says. “The transition will be seamless.”

He notes that farming is a lifelong process and getting to the point of achieving goals isn’t easy, but can be attained by following in the footsteps of those who are established and have obvious success in their lives.

“Try and find someone who needs some help and work with someone who has the ability to get you started,” he says.

But when all else fails, continue to be true to your goals and dreams. “I always try and challenge myself with the kind of portrait I’m painting for others to see,” he says. “It’s how I care for the land and how I communicate with people I come in contact with.”