By Michelle Ramirez-White
Wisconsin Farmers Union Policy Coordinator
The UW College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) recently made the decision to make major changes to the oldest agriculture course in the country. CALS is removing the on-campus aspect to the Farm & Industry Short Course (FISC) and moving to a non-credit version of the program.
Since 1886, the UW has been offering an in-person agricultural short course program geared towards future farmers. The course is 16 weeks long and timed during the non-growing season, giving people the opportunity to move away from home, come to the Madison campus, and have a college experience. For the last six years, the UW has given participants course credits and provided FISC students the opportunity to use their credits towards a bachelor's degree. In the fall of 2023, this is all set to change.
On March 22, 2022, representatives of CALS presented proposed changes to the Joint Agriculture Committee in the Wisconsin legislature. They point to dwindling enrollment numbers as the overarching reason for the university to make this switch. UW-Madison reported a loss of $200,000 from the FISC program in 2022, with only 32 students enrolled. This drop in enrollment the year after coming back from COVID left CALS with an opportunity to re-invent the original short-course.
The UW does not see this as the end to short-course, but as a way to make it “bigger and better,” according to Associate Dean for Extension and Outreach Douglas Reinemann. He feels the change to non-credit courses will give professors more flexibility on the type of classes that can be taught, as there are more requirements to meet and often slower progress in a for-credit model. Now teachers potentially could run week-long in-person classes on specialized topics with fewer students. Reinemann and outgoing CALS Dean & Director Kate VandenBosch testified it provides a better ability to work with UW Extension and Dairy Innovations Hub.
They are still looking at tactics to boost enrollment, such as a blended model of learning, in an effort to reach a wider audience with short-courses.
But what could be lost by straying away from the on-campus experience?
Representative Travis Tranel questioned how these changes could impact the quality of experience to short course students, “They [short-course students] enroll in this because one- it is UW Madison and two- because they want the college experience that comes with it.”
Farmers have raised concerns about how shifts in the program could discourage youth from participating and a future in farming.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation was invited to give testimony at the hearing. Chris Pollack, a member of the Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau, told his story of attending FISC on campus. Pollack always wanted to be a Badger, but the four-year commitment did not work with his farming schedule. Short course gave him the opportunity to be on campus, and have a coming of age college experience while living on his own.
Farm Bureau Government Relations Director Keith Rippp, went on to express “sincere disappointment” regarding the decision CALS has come to, and expressed a need for more collaboration with other stakeholders about the future of the FISC going forward. He stressed the value of “face-to-face learning,” and “the ripple effect in the agriculture and farming community for decades to come,” if this program is not properly supported.
As a UW-Madison alum, I would agree the value of on campus education cannot be dismissed, as well as the individual growth and freedom that comes with moving away from home. As a Farmers Union staff member, it saddens me to see a historic and unique program that works to provide farmers a way to experience “college life” -- while still respecting their lifestyle and providing working knowledge -- leaving our flagship land-grant University.
Wisconsin Farmers Union looks forward to being a part of the conversation on this important decision, and we encourage short-course alumni to share their thoughts on the future of this program, which has played a pivotal role in the agricultural community.
“It's hard to put a number on how valuable this program is,” Rep. Tranel expressed in his remarks.
My hope is the program works with stakeholders and FISC alumni to find a way to give students the valuable experiences the program is known for in this new blended teaching model. If you care about the future of the program, please consider joining a virtual listening session to gather ideas for the future of CALS educational programs from 1 to 2pm next Tuesday, April 12, 2022. The session will be co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF), Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) and CALS.
Doug Reinemann, associate dean for extension and outreach in CALS, and Jennifer Blazek, director of the Farm and Industry Short Course, will facilitate a conversation about educational needs within the agricultural industry. All are welcome to join via Zoom and no additional registration is necessary.
Meeting ID: 968 9014 5809
or dial by your location +1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)
Ramirez-White is a UW-Madison alum and the Policy Coordinator for Wisconsin Farmers Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.