Madison College focusing on farm business management

December 10, 2013

From thecountrytoday.com: “New direction: Madison College focusing on farm business management” — REEDSBURG — Madison College officials are revamping a nearly dormant agriculture program to focus on farm-business-management skills for beginning and established farmers.

John Alt, north region administrator for Madison College, formerly known as Madison Area Technical College, said college officials are making the transition from a combination farm-business and production-management program to focus strictly on farm-business management.

Randy Zogbaum, most recently the agriculture education director for the Wisconsin Technical College System, has been hired as the program’s instructor and coordinator.

Madison College had offered a diploma program with courses in soils, crop and livestock management, livestock nutrition, and farm records and business analysis. Alt said they heard loud and clear from farmers and advisers that what farmers really need is a program designed to help them with their business-management skills.

Zogbaum had been helping the college shape the new direction while working in his WTCS role, so when he expressed an interest in the Madison College position, Alt said Zogbaum was a perfect fit.

“(Zogbaum) has tremendous knowledge of what goes on statewide and nationally,” Alt said. “In all fairness, we recruited him. We’d be crazy not to look at a person who was this close to the whole process of developing the program. I’m looking at Randy to grow this program.”

The program has been slow to gain traction out of the gate — only three students signed up for a limited number of classes that started in November — but officials hope to build interest in sign-ups for another round of classes in January and have full classes in the fall of 2014.

The 2014 classes will start in mid-January and run for about six weeks each. A second group will start in late February and run until early April. All classes will meet for two hours, once per week.

A similar schedule will take shape again in the fall of 2014.

Classes will be held at the Green Technology Training and Enterprise Center in Plain. Alt said he is hopeful that as interest in the program grows, similar classes will be held at other locations within the 12-county Madison College district.

Madison College officials solicited the advice of farmers and financial institution representatives in shaping their new curriculum.

“We all know that farms don’t fail because farmers aren’t working hard, they fail because they’re not good at managing a business,” Zogbaum said. “From the education side it’s not a favorite topic all the time. But our goal is to help them be the best business people they can be.”

The courses offered by Madison College will lead students down the path of developing a business plan for their farm business. Students will then learn methods for using the plan to evaluate their farm’s financial viability and assist in decision making.

Alt said students can take each course sequentially or individual courses depending on their experience and knowledge of operating a farm business.

“Farming is a complicated business,” Zogbaum said. “If you don’t know your cost of production all the way through you really can’t tell if you’re making money. That’s the goal of the courses we set up — to work through it in a way that makes sense for the farmer.”

Alt said farmers have told them they don’t need a diploma or a certificate but instead need just-in-time training to help them manage their farms. Farmers or people interested in starting a farming operation can take the courses they need to help their individual situations.

“The nice thing is it’s easily customizable,” Alt said. “The courses we’re developing are applicable to all sorts of things. This is a new direction for the college.”

Zogbaum will also be developing a fee-for-service program that will allow farmers to receive one-on-one instruction.

Zogbaum said within the structure of the old farm-business and production-management program, if a student needed just one course and left the program, that hurt the statistics that kept the program viable.

“In the new program, if you choose to come in and get a business plan in the business planning course and we never see you again, that would be unfortunate, because we’d like to have you back, but you still get a good value out of that class,” Zogbaum said. “Either way, it doesn’t hurt the program and it helps the student.”

Zogbaum was born and raised in Madison but grew up working on a dairy farm in Richland County and a beef and pork farm in Rock County. His father’s family is from the Lone Rock area, so he said his “heart and soul are right here in this area.”

“I was real excited to have the opportunity to get back in the classroom,” he said. “I had some great colleagues in the system office and I’ll miss each and every one of them. But this opportunity is just too good to pass up.”

Zogbaum worked at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection as a soil and water quality specialist and as a Columbia County Extension agriculture agent before taking the WTCS agriculture director position in 2008.

Each six-week course will cost about $240, and in many cases, scholarship or grant funds are available to cover some of the costs, Alt said.

Zogbaum said he could envision a farmer taking a course every year to help build a strong financial base.

“It would be a great opportunity to sit down with 15 or 20 other farmers and an instructor and look at your balance sheet year after year,” he said. “Why not use the class as a time to close out your books for the year?”

The last full-time employee in Madison College’s old agriculture program retired this year, so Alt said it was important to maintain the position and head the program in a viable direction.

“It’s going to appeal to a lot of people,” he said of the revamped program. “We have lease space at the Green Technology Center in Plain, so that’s where we’re starting, but I can see it spreading very quickly to other parts of the district. I think it has huge potential.”

 

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