In 1938, Dr. William Murray, an economics instructor at Iowa State University, developed an innovative curriculum. Murray was convinced that students needed the experience of managing a working farm to better prepare them for careers in agriculture.
A 187-acre farm was purchased in 1942 for $150 per acre, and Murray’s dream was realized when the first crop was planted in 1943.
Seventy years later, Iowa State’s Ag450 class continues to help students apply proven management practices and profitable marketing strategies in the “real world.” David Miller explains.
It’s been a typical fall at the William Murray Farm near Ames, Iowa. The harvest is bountiful. Grain is being hauled to the homestead for on-farm storage or delivery to nearby elevators and hogs are being checked before they are sent to the local packing plant.
On closer examination, however, you will discover this isn’t the William Murray Farm but a working classroom. And the diversified grain and livestock operation is overseen by 54 Iowa State University students.
Dr. Tom Paulsen, Iowa State University: "...It's not just another class where 'tell me what I need to tell you,' or 'tell me what you want me to know, I'll regurgitate it back on a test, I'll get my A, B or whatever it is and we'll move on.' They actually get excited about what they're learning and I think that is really what it's all about."
Dr. Tom Paulsen is part of a long line of professors who have acted as guides to the hands-on educational experience over the past 70 years. William Murray founded the class. It was his brainchild that came to fruition in the winter of 1943. Murray’s idea was to give agriculture students experience in managing a working farm before they returned home to family operations or entered other agricultural professions.
Dr. Tom Paulsen, Iowa State University: “It goes from walking in starry eyed saying 'this is going to be easy' to saying, 'whoa, there's a whole lot more to this' and being frustrated with the amount of information and trying to discover what it is they really need to do because we don't tell them everything they have to do. ... they have to decide.”
To work on this farm – the only one of its kind at a land grant university – you must take a course offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences called Agricultural Education and Studies 450, more commonly known as AG450. A major portion of what happens here is determined by the students. And to get approval for any project a student must convince a majority of the 53 other class members.
AG450 provides an opportunity for students to explore ideas and concepts in a “real world” environment. Many students operate complex farm machinery for the first time while others gain practical experience with projects deemed too expensive to experiment with on their family’s operations. Most of the students are enrolled in the College of Agriculture but only 30 to 50 percent will return to family farms.
Josh Faivre, DeKalb, Illinois: “I wanted to learn new things -- some technology, new equipment -- I might not have gotten a chance to run. So when I go back to the farm I can contribute some experiences and ideas....Eventually, I want to take over the farm. A lot of people do stuff in life for the money. I’m gonna farm just ‘cause I love it.”
Emily Ryherd, Haverhill, Iowa: “Call this meeting to order”
The class is split into eight committees covering everything from crops to machinery to public relations. Each group is responsible for keeping the farm operating properly.
The student farm managers also are required to spend one day per week at the AG450 farm located just south of campus. Because the on-farm classroom only holds 35 students, the class is split roughly in half. And students quickly discover one of the biggest hurdles to passing the course is finding ways to communicate effectively between the two sections.
The ultimate goal of every Ag450 class is to make the farm profitable three out of every five years. Utilizing a budget of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, this semester’s class begins where last semester’s finished. In the spring of 2013, 596 acres of corn and soybeans were planted on a combination of Ag 450 ground and other land owned by Iowa State University. An additional 800 acres were custom farmed for other University departments. And 3,500 head of hogs were finished on contract for a private Iowa company.
As the semester drew to a close, harvest began. A total of 71,480 bushels of corn were sold to local elevators at an average price of $4.81 per bushel. And all of the 5,174 bushels of soybeans harvested were sold at an average price of $12.60 per bushel.
According to early projections, the 2013 corn crop was 30 percent smaller than expected, but the students making predictions in the fall of 2012 couldn’t have predicted a second year of drought in Iowa and decline of nearly $3 in price. But favorable oilseed production – and prices — may have cushioned the blow. The soybean crop was 8 percent larger than expected and sold for 60 cents higher per bushel than projected in October of 2012.
The final accounting handled by the spring class of 2014 showed goals had been met and expenses covered.
Spearheading the plan for 2014 planting intentions was Sami Bissell of the crops committee. Her proposal for taking advantage of seed varieties with a higher yield potential was adopted by the six other committee members. Factored into their proposal were more expensive seed and the loss of 100 acres of rented land.
Also on Bisssell's mind was the thought of losing money. In 2010, the farm was a few bushels of corn short due to weather and yield estimates. And students from that class were forced to negotiate with the local grain elevator to satisfy the contract.
Dr. Tom Paulsen, Iowa State University: "...most of the time when you have 54 minds they come to a pretty good decision because they self-check. But sometimes we have to step back and say, 'why do you want to do that?' 'How come?'... But if we give them a situation where they can come to that decision on their own that's a lot better for them and it's a little harder for us but I think it's well worth it at the end of the day.”
After satisfying Paulsen's concerns, Bissell brought the proposal to the class for a vote.
Sammi Bissell, Haverhill, Iowa: “Total fixed variable cost per acre including rent, crop share, machinery and labor we spend $276,327.50 and we make $78,828. No discounts are included.”
Josh Faivre, DeKalb: "What did you use for prices?"
Sammi Bissell, Haverhill, Iowa: $4.20 for corn and $11 for beans. Our seed costs are on the high side but with multiple buyers and volume discounts. We are losing money in the short term but we are coming out positive.
Emily Ryherd, Class President, Haverhill, Iowa: "It has been moved and seconded to follow this plan. Vote by a raise of hands. The motion Passes."
The entire presentation and vote took less than five minutes to complete.
For Paulsen, those are the moments he lives for.
Dr. Tom Paulsen, Iowa State University: “... in education, no matter what level, you look for that a-ha moment and you can see it when students get it. ...But they realize real quickly that this is not their home farming operation, this is not another Iowa State University research farm, it's not another farm that maybe they worked at when they were growing up but it's different because it has a different set of challenges and a different situation. And once they get that, they see that and the a-ha moment happens, they start to make decisions that are based upon what is really here and not what somebody else wants them to make decisions about.”
Next semester, another class will take over the operation with hopes of making it profitable and keep William Murray's dream alive.
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.