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University of Minnesota Crookston launches ag comm major

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- In the the spring of 2016, Margot Rudstrom and Mark Huglen had a discussion in the hallway about the value of adding an agricultural communication major at the University of Minnesota Crookston, where they teach.

“We both saw a need for a program that builds on the strengths of the communications program as well as the agriculture here at UMC. We wanted to have a program that’s going to give our students a breadth of knowledge in agriculture, but also have the skills necessary to go a number of different ways on the communication side,” said Rudstrom, a lecturer in UMC’s agriculture and natural resources department.

One thing led to another-- and ultimately to UMC’s new ag comm major, which was introduced this fall.

“It’s exciting. We really think it’s going to benefits students,”  Rudstrom said.

The new major blends existing agriculture, communication and liberal education courses to prepare students for a wide variety of career choices, according to UMC.

Core courses in the new major include introduction to communication, persuasion, news and professional writing, organization communication, world ag food systems, introduction to animal science and soil science.

Electives include business writing, public relations, bio-fuels technology and crop production.

About 20 universities across the country, including schools in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, offer majors with at least some similarity to the new UMC ag comm degree, according to UMC officials

But the UMC program is unique, offering “more electives, more preferences and is more tailored to the individual student wants,” says Megan Bell, an assistant professor in the liberal arts and education department.

UMC students who graduate with an ag communication degree potentially could work in or for commodity groups, agribusinesses, extension, journalism or elected officials, among others. By personalizing their ag comm major, UMC students can better prepare themselves for employment for positions in which they’re particularly interested, UMC officials say.

Adding the new major didn’t require adding new courses or instructors, but rather involved how existing classes are packaged, says Huglen, a professor in the liberal arts and education department.

Traditionally, some UMC students, hoping to land a job in agricultural communications, obtain a major in communications and a minor in agriculture.  But job descriptions from ag employers sometimes are written in a way that favor applicants with a major in ag communications, rather than a major in communications and a minor in agriculture, UMC officials say.

And for some students, “an identity with agriculture is really important,” which an ag comm degree can help to provide, Bell says.

It’s too early to predict how many students will pursue an ag comm degree at UMC  The state Board of Regents formally approved the new major earlier this year after most 2018 high school graduates already had made their college plans, UMC officials say.

The fall of 2019 -- when UMC officials have been able to “recruit” 2019 high school graduates -- will allow a better analysis of the new major’s appeal, school officials say.

“It’s going to be fun in the year ahead to see the applications start coming in,” Bell says.

Two students

Current UMC students Amber Johnson and Jordan DeBoer already are planning to major in ag comm.

“I’ve always been interested in working in ag, but more the communications side of it. Ag communication gives me a way to do both,” says Johnson, who will graduate either in the spring or fall of 2019.

She could have majored in communications and minored in agriculture, but “having them all in one (an ag comm major) working together will be helpful,” Johnson says.

Johnson grew up on a beef cattle operation near Sebeka, Minn., and interned this past summer with Minnesota extension in east Otter Tail County. She’s especially interested in working for extension or a cattle breed organization after graduation.

Whatever her future holds, an ag comm degree will be helpful, she says.

“There’s definitely a trend that there are jobs in the communications side of agriculture,” she says.

DeBoer grew up in the Crookston area and has a grandfather and uncles who farm.

“So I had an interest in agriculture from that. And I was interested in broadcasting; Orion Samuelson (the legendary farm broadcaster) is one of my heroes,” DeBoer says.

DeBoer, who will graduate in the spring of 2020 and interned this past summer at the Red River Farm Network, says an ag comm major is a good fit for him. He also says there’s a strong and growing need for ag communicators.

“So many people today just don’t know much about agriculture. So it’s important we help people understand what we’re doing and what we’re all about,” he says.