Students interested in ag connect with Minnesota businesses

WILLMAR, Minn. -- Josh Hilbrands had no intention of uprooting his family to take a new job away from his Clara City home. But two years ago during an agricultural career fair in the Ridgewater College gym, he was introduced to an agronomy cooper...

Take over the farm
Eric Johnson, left, from First District Association, talks with Tyler Weller, a Ridgewater College student from Belgrade, during a career fair Friday at Ridgewater College in Willmar. Weller’s family farm sells milk to First District, and he hopes to take over the farm one day. Photo by Carolyn Lange | West Central (Minn.) Tribune

WILLMAR, Minn. - Josh Hilbrands had no intention of uprooting his family to take a new job away from his Clara City home.

But two years ago during an agricultural career fair in the Ridgewater College gym, he was introduced to an agronomy cooperative called South Dakota Wheat Growers and was offered a job as a local manager.

Hilbrands was back at Ridgewater’s ag fair on Friday - the same day he was promoted as a regional manager - to recruit students for the company and to hand out a little sage advice. “I really like coming back and engaging with students and not only looking for potential employees, but passing on the word to help them understand that it’s all right to venture out and try something different before putting your roots down somewhere,” Hilbrands said.

He tells students that “getting a different perspective on life or even geography” could lead to new career opportunities without leaving the world of agriculture.

Letting students know about the wide variety of ag-based careers, matching students with potential employers or internship opportunities and providing information about on-farm services are some of the goals of the annual ag fair and technology showcase.


About 200 college students and 60 area high school students spent the day talking to 50 different ag-based businesses who had set up booths in the gym.

“It’s connections, that’s what they’re after,” said Wade Gustafson, the dairy management instructor at Ridgewater.

Employers are just as eager as the students to make those connections.

“There are more jobs in ag than we can fill,” Gustafson said. “The demand is so high, you will not be out of work.”

“If your student decides to pursue a career in agriculture, we can guarantee them a job,” said Kim Lippert, a Ridgewater ag instructor.

Amy Renneke, a recruiter for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, said with the current unemployment rate of 2.8 percent and about one-third of the workforce getting ready to retire in the next five to seven years, there are plenty of opportunities for students to graduate and obtain good-paying jobs in the ag production and ag manufacturing industries.

“We really value coming to places like Ridgewater and building these relationships with the students and the instructors because we have a more informed group of students who are able to find careers that we are going to have openings for in the near future,” said Renneke. “So it’s a win-win.”

Katherine Manz, a Ridgewater student from Buffalo, grew up on a farm with beef cattle, sheep and poultry and would like to operate a farm or have a farm-related job.


But even she was a little surprised that she was drawn to a booth by Christensen Farms, a large pork production company.

“I don’t know much about hogs, but I’d like to learn,” Manz said. “I definitely want a career in agriculture.”

“We’re interested in seeking talented individuals who are studying agriculture or animal production to join our organization,” said Jackie Bass, from Christensen Farms.

Having experience with animals isn’t necessary, she said. What’s more important is a “passion for working for a noble profession that’s designed to feed the world.”

Tyler Weller, a first-year Ridgewater College student from Belgrade, hopes to play a role in feeding the world with the goal of taking over the family’s dairy farm.

He was having an in-depth conversation with Eric Johnson from First District Association in Litchfield about dairy technology and how to produce more milk with fewer inputs.

“We’re a dairy cooperative with 1,000 farms, so we’re really interested to learn what the farmers are doing out there,” Johnson said.

The milk from Weller’s family farm is sold to First District. “It’s nice to hear his side of things of what’s going on, because I’m just learning,” said Weller, who’s confident the skills he is learning at Ridgewater will enhance the family operation. “I think there’s a lot I can bring back,” he said.


With 12 full-time instructors and about 200 students enrolled in the ag program, Gustafson said Ridgewater is the biggest two-year ag school in the seven-state area that prepares students for a wide variety of ag production and ag business careers.

“Whatever you want to do, there’s a job in ag for that job,” he said.

Ridgewater career fair
Ridgewater College agricultural students Turner Padrnos of Olivia, from left, Alex Schroepfer of Wabasso and Brett Fuhrman of Brownton visit Friday with T.J. Kleeberger, near right, and Butch Altmann of South Central Grain and Energy of Buffalo Lake during a career fair and techology showcase at the college. Ridgewater students and high school students could visit any of the nearly 50 exhibitors at the event. Photo by Rand Middleton | West Central (Minn.) Tribune

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