BLACKSBURG (AP) — The eyes, and then the wide, bony head of the Charolais cow moved to follow five Virginia Tech students as they walked past her stall at the university’s Beef Center on the first day of fall semester classes.
The 1,500-pound cow stepped forward slightly, signaling that nobody should consider messing with the small, bright white calf snuggled in the hay behind her.
But the students paid the hulking mother no mind. They had all grown up around cows, and at least three of them plan to go home after graduation to work in their family cattle operations.
These students are just starting their second year at Tech, but if all goes as planned, they will graduate in May with a two-year degree in agricultural technology, Virginia Tech’s only associate degree program.
If averages hold, those students all will be employed soon after commencement at an average $31,000 starting salary — about the same, administrators say, as their four-year counterparts.
Since its inception in the 1980s, the program has graduated more than 1,000 students. One of them is Chad Joines, now agricultural supervisor at the Beef Center.
“I grew up on a farm and always wanted to go home,” said Joines, a 1993 graduate.
Joines said he developed a love for cattle breeding and genetics during his course work, and he wanted to stay in Virginia. He got a job as a herdsman at Tech right out of school and worked his way up.
Today, he helps with the breeding of Tech’s beef research and teaching herd, and the teaching of some of the animal science labs — after spending half as much time and half as much money as a four-year graduate.
Joines said he “definitely got the bang for my buck.”
Established in 1987 with help from the Virginia Farm Bureau and Virginia Agribusiness Council, Tech’s Agricultural Technology Program is one of fewer than a dozen such two-year degrees offered at land-grant universities across the United States, director Pavli Mykerezi said.
Students may earn one of two diplomas in applied agriculture management or landscape-turf grass management. Graduates go on to run farms and businesses and work in agriculture and sports field management.
The program comprises 61 credit hours of classroom instruction and extensive hands-on learning meant to produce entrepreneurial graduates for the agricultural and turf grass industries. Students also must complete a 10-week internship, for a total of 64 credit hours.
Four-year graduates, in contrast, must complete 120 credit hours, including liberal arts and math and science courses not required by the AgTech program.
The program’s mission harks back to the very beginnings of the university in the 1870s, when it was called Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. VAMC drew students from around the region with the promise that higher education could boost the productivity and profitability of the state’s families and farms.
Today the AgTech program is “very, very close to the original intent and the clientele of the original land-grant institution,” said Jim McKenna, professor emeritus of agronomy and an instructor in the program.
McKenna has been involved with AgTech since discussions about its formation began in the mid-1980s.
“I could see then we were beginning to develop a gap between students coming from smaller, rural schools” and those from urban and suburban areas, McKenna said.
It was becoming harder for rural students to gain admission to Tech and even to afford a four-year degree. A two-year program seemed a good way to bring more of these students into the land-grant system and prepare them for the work force, McKenna said.
While community colleges fill work force needs and allow more higher education access, “no community college could possibly have the resources we have to teach applied agriculture,” McKenna said.
Today a dedicated core of eight full- and part-time instructors are assigned to the program, and 10 affiliated faculty also pitch in. The students do intensive hands-on work, and are exposed to the latest in research, Mykerezi said.
To be admitted, students are required to have a high school diploma or equivalent and a 2.5 grade point average.
Students with lower GPAs may be accepted if they show a strong connection to the agriculture or turf grass industries and a high level of motivation, Mykerezi said.
Students who complete the two-year program are automatically accepted into an agriculture bachelor’s degree program. That path requires five years of course work, however.
This semester, the students enrolled in AgTech instructor Rachel Kohl’s beef and sheep management class will spend a lot of time with Joines and the beef center cows.
In the field and in the classroom, they’ll learn about herd health, reproduction and nutrition, as well as farm management, said Kohl, a Tech graduate with a master’s degree in animal reproductive physiology and a small herd of cattle of her own at home in Catawba.
Anybody can learn how to give a farm animal an injection, Kohl said. The purpose of the AgTech program “is teaching them why they need to give the injection, teaching them the science behind it.”
The AgTech program also emphasizes a business and marketing curriculum meant to prepare students to run farms and companies, or to start their own.
They learn labor management, financial management and risk management, Kohl said.
That aspect of the program has been particularly helpful to Mitchell Stinespring, 20, who grew up on a beef farm in Bath County.
When he graduates, Stinespring said he hopes to go back and help expand his family farm from about 80 head of beef cattle to 150. To do that, Stinespring said, he needs the business classes offered in the AgTech program. He didn’t need English and some of the other classes required for a four-year degree.
“I thought, why not learn about something I want to do, instead of something I wasn’t going to pay attention to?” he said.
Up to 40 percent of the program’s graduates go home to take over their family farms, serving the state’s need to replace its aging farmers, Mykerezi said.
The program is also serving communities outside the U.S.
Over the past four years, Mykerezi said, the program has been working to establish hands-on agricultural education programs in South Sudan and other developing countries.
There, 30 years of civil unrest has kept people off the land and eroded the country’s capacity to grow its own food.
“These countries really need this kind of education,” Pavli said.
In addition to serving agricultural needs, the AgTech program serves nontraditional students interested in careers outside of traditional agriculture.
David Callahand was 25 years old in 2005 when he had finally figured out what career he wanted: golf course superintendent. He was working at a course and studying widely to learn all he could about the job.
When a superintendent position came open, Callahand said, he was passed over for the job. His boss said he’d be stuck on the crew until he got a degree.
Callahand’s grades and SAT scores had not been high enough to enroll in Tech’s four-year program, however. Furthermore, he said he didn’t want to be 30 years old and just finishing college.
Then a co-worker told him about the AgTech program. After his first year of course work, Callahand did an internship at a nationally recognized golf course in Richmond. That experience and his access to instructors and the turf grass research center helped him understand the job at the highest levels, Callahand said.
Before he graduated he already had received job offers in New York and Washington. He went to D.C. for a couple of years, then decided to move back to Roanoke. Today he’s assistant golf course superintendent at Hidden Valley Country Club.
If not for the AgTech program, Callahand said, “I don’t know if I would have gone to college at all.”