North Dakota and South Dakota tech schools offer hands-on ag training that leads to jobs
Hundreds of students who enrolled in agriculture programs of two-year technical colleges across North Dakota and South Dakota have landed jobs in the agricultural industry after, and in some cases, before, they graduated.
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on two-year agriculture programs in the region. This week's story focuses on North Dakota and South Dakota colleges. Next week's installment will focus on programs in Minnesota and Montana.
Michael Bischoff had a path to a career mapped out — until he learned about Lake Region State College’s precision agriculture program, and the road took a different turn.
Bischoff planned to get an associates degree in science at Lake Region in Devils Lake, North Dakota, then transfer to a four-year university and, eventually, apply to medical school. However, while he was taking classes at LRSC, conversations that he had with friends who were in the agriculture program convinced him to change course.
Bischoff, now the owner of AgTech, a Devils Lake business that provides on-farm technological support, credits the two-year school with opening up a path to a niche career in agriculture that hadn't been on his radar.
Bischoff is one of hundreds of students across North Dakota and South Dakota whose enrollment in agriculture programs in two-year technical colleges helped them land a job in the agricultural industry after and, in some cases, before, they graduated from college.
“We’re a very good foundation — we got into a lot of the aspects of agriculture and, so I think there are an unbelievable amount of career opportunities,” said Preston Sundeen, Lake Region assistant professor and precision agriculture program director. “Our students, a lot of them return to the family farm and bring what they learn here back to the farm. Some of them return to the farm, and they start an entrepreneurial type of business like soil sampling on the side, or write prescription maps.”
Precision agriculture program graduates who work in the agricultural industry have jobs that include crop consulting, seed and equipment salespeople and providing technical support for agricultural equipment, Sundeen said.
“I like to think we give a really good foundation in agriculture, and precision agriculture is entwined into it all, and then, from there, our students get a good start on agricultural careers.
The two-year degree that students earn from technical college agricultural programs is a “perfect complement to those who want to be out in the agricultural industry,” said Mike Butts, dean of academics at Lakes Area Technical College in Watertown, South Dakota.
“It fills a niche for those who are not ready or willing or interested in pursuing a four-year college degree,” Butts said.
Meanwhile, agricultural companies know that students who graduate from Lakes Area Technical College have the skills they need to do their jobs, he said. In 2020, graduates of LATC landed jobs in agricultural companies in not only South Dakota, but also Minnesota and Iowa, he said.
The job opportunities are one of the selling points of technical colleges agricultural programs, said Jenna Reis, Mitchell (South Dakota) Technical College admissions director.
“The demand is there. The jobs are there,” Reis said. “The nice thing about the agricultural industry is that you can do the same thing with a two-year degree, versus a four-year degree.
“We try to stay as close to the industry as we can," Reis said. "Everything we teach on campus is applicable to the industry."
About two-thirds of the graduates of Mitchell Technical College students pursue a career in the agricultural industry, and the other third go back to their family farms, she said.
The aim of Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is to give students enrolled in agriculture programs the essential skills to help them be successful, whether that means going back to the family farm or working in the industry, said Craig Peters, STC dean of curriculum and instruction.
Students who enrolled in Southeast Technical College's agricultural program learn those skills in two years instead of four, which saves them money, he said. Meanwhile, they enter the workforce two years earlier than they would if they attended a four-year college, which means they are making money sooner, Peters said.
Southeast Technical College’s agricultural program, similar to other technical colleges in South Dakota and North Dakota, has facilities where students can work to get hands-on experience.
For example, students in the agricultural diesel program have a shop equipped with machinery, including tractors that students can tear down and put back together, Peters said.
Students in the agriculture program at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton have access to hands-on learning at the Kosel Family Family Land Lab, a 90-acre farm about two miles from the campus, said Craig Zimprich, NDSCS agriculture department chair.
At Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, agricultural program students get hands-on experience at the brand new Hofstad Agriculture Center , which has precision agriculture equipment, machinery for students to work on and classrooms in which to hear lectures. Outside of the center, students get experience using agricultural equipment in a 40-acre field adjacent to it, which, this year, is planted with corn.
In addition to receiving in-class learning and hands-on experience on campus, students at Lake Region State College also have educational opportunities from agricultural business representatives who come and teach them about the latest agricultural technologies, Sundeen said.
Students also have additional opportunities through internships, which North Dakota State College of Science helps students at that school find, Zimprich said
Those skills NDSCS students learn in their classes, from industry representatives and in their internships increase their marketability when they are ready to pursue careers, he said.
“Almost every year, we have almost 100% placement of students in their career fields,” Zimprich said.
Bischoff’s internship at Leading Edge Equipment in Devils Lake, while he attended Lake Region State College, is what solidified his decision to work in the agricultural industry.
He enjoyed being “on the front lines '' and working with customers. After graduation from Lake Region in 2015 with associate degrees in science and precision agriculture, Bischoff worked for Leading Edge in Michigan, North Dakota, for several years. A few months ago he left Leading Edge to launch AgTech, and he is constructing a building east of Devils Lake to house his business.
“We do farm technology and support. We focus on upgrading equipment to technological standards,” Bischoff said.
He credits his education for giving him the variety of skills he needs to start a business.
“Lake Region definitely helped me prepare for getting out in the real world. It really helped getting me a basic knowledge of the agricultural side of things,” Bischoff said. “I got to learn a little of everything.”
Meanwhile, Bischoff, like many other agricultural students at North Dakota and South Dakota technical colleges, is glad that he could attend college and work in a career in his hometown of Devils Lake. Most students at technical colleges grew up within at least a 200-radius of where they grew up.
For example, the majority of students enrolled in agriculture programs at Dakota College at Bottineau, North Dakota, are from north-central North Dakota or southern Canada, and many of them live within an hour’s drive of the campus, said Linda Burbidge, agriculture instructor. This year, many of the students in the agriculture program plan to work in the agricultural industry, such as for an agronomy center, after graduation.
Students who enroll in the agriculture business program often return to the family farm, she said.
“A lot of them want to go back home and work on the farm, and want management (skills) for that,” Burbidge said.
Most students enrolled in the agricultural program at Lake Region are within 75 miles of their hometowns, and will return there to “live, make a home and raise a family,” Sundeen said.
“My long-term goal is to stay in the area,” Bischoff said. "I like the hunting and fishing side of things and the ag side of things.”