Sprouting the next generation of agricultural leaders

A look at Dordt College

Imagine a relay race with no one to hand off the torch?  This is the daunting challenge we face with the future of agricultural education. Nationwide, fewer than one out of ten students are likely to consider agriculture as a career and among agricultural students, one out of ten will actually consider agricultural education as an option. More than 30 states have a shortage of agriculture teachers. 

Clearly, we are in a race to keep up with burgeoning global food demand. America needs to pay attention to both traditional soil-based agricultural production and, down the road, vertical farming, aquaculture, and a host of emerging agricultural sciences and technologies.

Located in Sioux Center, Iowa, Dordt College’s signature agricultural associates and bachelor’s programs bring together a confluence of faith, natural resource stewardship, and sustainable farming and food systems. With this background in mind, we learned the following from Dr. Joel Sikkema, Director of Professional-Technical Education:

“In agriculture, we’re tempted to choose between poles. Organic or conventional. Small-scale or large-scale. Free-range or caged. Knowledge-based or hands-on. At Dordt, our choices stem from a belief that God is sovereign over the entirety of creation and that we are his stewards here on earth. We can’t choose a pole. We want to see God’s glory revealed everywhere, so we need to both develop and care for all parts of creation and culture.”

“In 2005, our Agricultural enrollment was at 29 students” and “now it is 167,” noted Gary De Vries, the Dordt Agriculture Department Chair. This gives us cause for optimism. In response to increased enrollment demand, Dordt offers a diverse portfolio of seven emphases within the agriculture bachelor degree programs which include agriculture, agribusiness, agriculture education, animal science, ag missions, biotechnology, and plant science, as well as a two-year associate degree and a pre-veterinary program.

Dordt faculty and students are unified by its special reverence for saving the planet and its unique pedagogical philosophy for stewardship of people, animals, food systems, natural resources, and civic responsibility. This special mission is evident in the vision of the new Dordt Agriculture Stewardship Center. The new Center will play a key role in preparing students to work as professionals and servant-leaders in agriculture, where students are guided and encouraged as they evaluate agricultural technology and practices from a biblical, Reformed perspective. Students are also given fresh opportunities to practice ag-mechanics, maintenance, repair, safety training, and hands-on learning in sustainable farming.

Beyond traditional coursework, Dordt students participate in workshops, conferences, seminars, and symposia. These students and faculty actually monitor and evaluate crop productions and livestock management. Beyond these skills, students conduct research projects on topics such as field trials of insects, soybeans, rootworm resistance traits, animal feeding trials, water quality, and biofuel crop projects.

What is truly distinctive about Dordt’s aggie program is that it provides career pathways for students to find their faith, vocational and professional career passion. As a faith inspired academic program, Dordt provides a useful analytical framework for ethical decision-making. Dordt students are actively engaged in a dynamic exploration of faith and service learning – connecting the dots of agricultural education and the worlds of learning and earning.

One current Dordt student shared that the College “allows me access to a wide range of experts including a veterinarian, banker, seed representative, nutritionist and herd geneticist.  This enables me to see the big picture of how the dairy industry requires collaboration and that it takes more than a few employees to run a successful operation.”

We learned from a Dordt alumni that “the variety and quality of courses offered at Dordt provided solid preparation for continued education following graduation. At that time, higher education that offered a well-founded agricultural program integrated with a biblical worldview was very difficult to come by. Dordt continues to set a high standard for faith integrated agricultural program choices that are well-rounded and rigorous. Graduates can be confident that they will be fully prepared for the workplace or continued education with a degree from Dordt.”

At the employer level, Evan Wielenga, Agronomy Manager at Hull Co-Op Association, put it nicely this way:

“I respect and hire graduates from Dordt’s Agriculture program because it focuses on developing a whole person. It is not just learning animal science and plant science. Character development is a key part of the college experience. The value of caring for others guides this development. It is applied to thinking larger than yourself, being trustworthy, and wanting to be the best at whatever you do€”not for your own recognition, but because it is what God calls you to do. By being your best and caring for others you will have a positive impact.”

We learned Dordt has broadened its impact overseas through the agriculture and engineering scholarship programs between Dordt and Northrise University in Zambia. Dordt College’s Provost Dr. Eric Forseth shared this reflection:

“We are appreciative of Northrise University’s willingness to entrust to Dordt these highly qualified students from Zambia. Because we have high quality, longstanding programs in Engineering and Agriculture, we will look forward to mentoring these students in their content area and in all aspects of Christian leadership.”

At the end of our virtual campus visit, we more fully appreciate Dordt College’s unique approach to agricultural education – especially for creating a sustainable path forward for principled agricultural graduates who will inspire the next generation of agricultural leaders to pass the torch. 

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance


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