Photo of webcam

Check out the farm cam for live, real-time previews of the agriculture programs
(credit: NTC).

Wisconsin leads the nation in dairy production, so naturally agriculture remains one of the many important areas of study offered around our 16 technical colleges. Advancing technology and global competition make a hands-on, real-world technical college education that much more vital to success in the agriculture industry.

You can go to any of our colleges’ websites to learn about their agriculture programs, and there are some very unique ones among them, but Northcentral Technical College, through their Agriculture Center of Excellence and with the help of several community partners, delivers a particularly interesting way to learn about their programs. NTC’s website offers live camera footage of their farm facilities to demonstrate the kind of hands-on training and education that goes on there. Featuring their programs in Dairy Science (unique to the college), Agri-Business, Agriculture Equipment Technician and Veterinary Science, potential students can view first-hand the technology, the environment, the facilities and more through the live-feed multi-view Farm Cams.

You won’t watch grass grow if you look at the Farm Cams, but you are likely to see the calves being bottle fed, perhaps a robotic milking machine at work, a view of the calf feeder and grazing areas, and much more. Peek into the Farm Cam and you may soon find you’ve piqued a new career interest!

NTC also offers certificates in agriculture-related programs for a path to a career in less time.


“What did the buffalo say to his son when he left for college? Bison.”

The sign for Northcentral Technical College in...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From “Baldwin tours Western, talks jobs, economy” — Sen. Tammy Baldwin toured Western Technical College on Friday to talk jobs and learn about the school’s efforts to bolster the Coulee Region’s workforce.

During her first visit to the La Crosse tech college as a United States senator, Baldwin said she was also reaching out to similar institutions to learn about their partnerships with local businesses, and how those collaborations can spur the economy.

“At this point in our economic recovery, that is just one of the keys,” Baldwin said.

The La Crosse area showed the best yearly job increases in 2012 since the recession, including growth in the health care and leisure industries, according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Nearly 93 percent of Western’s 2010-11 school year graduates were able to find jobs, including 85 percent who found jobs in Wisconsin, according to a survey by the college.

Western officials tailor the school’s offerings to what local employers need, but the college also provides training programs for local businesses.

Shelley Ellingson, training coordinator for Northern Engraving, toured campus with Baldwin.

Her company used state grant funding to bring in Western and train staff. Western’s training programs helped improve the relationship between management and workers, and increased efficiency, Ellingson said.

“I think it’s helped our supervisors apply some soft skills when working with employers on the floor,” Ellingson said.

Baldwin mentioned her work on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee and credited tech colleges for being an alternative option for high school graduates who don’t have the time or money for a four-year university degree.

“Some are going to try to fit into a career as soon as possible,” Baldwin said.

Western’s successful $80 million referendum last year will help the college to update and expand school buildings and crank out more students. New spaces also mean improved training for a future workforce, Western President Lee Rasch said.

“It’s just going to be better for students,” Rasch said.

Baldwin toured Western’s facilities, including the current heating and ventilation training center, which will eventually move to the new $32.6 million applied technology center.

Baldwin called Western a school on the “eve of transformation,” after seeing a computer image rendering of the new technology center. Instead of dim, cramped corners of the old HVAC space, the images showed a building filled with windows and natural light.

“Look at how different that is from what we walked through,” Baldwin said, evoking laughs from a small audience of Western officials and representatives from local businesses. “This is really exciting for me.”

Baldwin also lamented Congress’ inability to find timely solution to a looming rate hike in federal student loans. Rates on Stafford loans might double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent unless lawmakers can agree on a fix.

Lawmakers took until the 11th hour crafting a bipartisan solution to the same problem last year, and that could be the case again this year, Baldwin said.

Meanwhile, college students are “struggling with enormous debts,” Baldwin said. “It’s such a critical issue.”


From “Older NTC graduates reflect on economy, need for lifelong education” — More than half of Saturday’s Northcentral Technical College graduates were age 25 or older, telling a compelling story of the impact of a ragged economy and the need for lifelong education.

About 430 students — out of a total of 754 who graduated from NTC this spring — participated in the college’s commencement ceremony in the field house of Wausau West High School. Of the total number of graduates, 55 percent were 25 years old or older. About 43 percent were ages 16 to 24, according to college statistics, with 2 percent unknown to the school. Almost 10 percent of the graduates were 50 and older.

One of those people was Susan Thiel of Elcho, who at age 54 received a medical coding degree from NTC’s Antigo campus. She returned to school after 35 years because she was downsized from a job in the manufacturing industry. It wasn’t easy for Thiel to get back in the academic swing of things; math was particularly difficult, she said, but she was happy Saturday morning.

Future job prospects were bright, she said, and in the long run, losing her job and struggling through school was “positive, very positive,” Thiel said. “I’m confident that I can do it.”

Saturday’s ceremony is not the endpoint for education, NTC President Lori Weyers told the graduates.

“Learning is a lifetime commitment,” she said.

And as technology, the world and “your interests change, you’ll find yourself seeking more education,” Weyers said.

Carolyn Xiong, 30, of Rothschild, wasn’t financially able to attend college after she graduated from high school in 2000. Instead, she went from job to job in fields such as fast food and customer service. It wasn’t until she was laid off from a collections and customer service position, and qualified for financial aid for displaced workers, that she was able to attend college.

She graduated with an associate degree in business management, and she already has made plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business or international business, through either the University of Wisconsin-Stout or Upper Iowa University.

Xiong was wearing a gold cord and yellow sash around her neck, the cord signifying that she earned a 3.5 or higher grade point average. The sash meant she was a member of Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society for two-year colleges.

“I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that great of a student in high school,” Xiong said. “But here, I tried harder. I was 1,000 percent motivated.”

From “Tours highlight economic value of creative cluster” — With institutions such as Discovery World and the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and arts groups such as Milwaukee Film, Milwaukee’s creative industries cluster has been a rising force in the growth of the region’s economy, according to the cultural leaders of Creative Alliance Milwaukee (CAM).

“A recent trend has been that cities, regions and states have been recognizing that there’s something called the creative cluster – the creative industries cluster – and it’s different in various cities, what comprises it, but what is the same in every area is it is a true economic driver,” said Maggie Jacobus, president and executive director of CAM.

To highlight Milwaukee’s creative industries and their broader economic impact, the nonprofit membership organization has developed what it likes to call “Creative Milwaukee Experience” tours.

The tours, geared toward area industry professionals and corporate executives, were initially designed four years ago as a talent recruitment and retention tool for the city. They aim to demonstrate Milwaukee’s vibrant creative community to both new members of the region’s workforce and business leaders considering planting the headquarters of their company in or near Milwaukee.

“The perceived creative culture of Milwaukee has a tremendous impact on the region’s capacity to attract a high-quality workforce,” said Gail Towers-MacAskill, sector manager at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and a CAM board member. “The best and brightest need to have documented evidence for why Milwaukee is the priority place to ‘set the flag’ of their career aspirations. Locally-based companies need to rely on that message to attract the creative (and) design innovation staff that they seek.”

Within greater Milwaukee, the creative industries cluster represents the fourth largest sector, behind manufacturing, finance and insurance, and construction. It also employs 4.2 percent of the regional workforce through more than 4,000 enterprises, according to CAM.

The nonprofit breaks the creative sector down into five distinct categories. Design accounts for 46 percent of the sector, media and film makes up 29 percent, the performing arts claims 12 percent, visual arts and crafts accounts for 11 percent, and the remaining two percent consists of culture and heritage.

A recent Creative Milwaukee Experience tour illustrated the power behind these numbers. With participants representing organizations like the WEDC and companies like Rockwell Automation Inc. and Xorbix Technologies Inc., the tour made stops at sites deeply invested in the city’s creative economy.

At the Betty Brinn Children’s museum, tour attendees learned how creativity is harvested at a very early age – a concept that CAM refers to as “from cradle to career” – and the importance of creative education to cultivate creative thinking and problem solving.

“You don’t just pop out of the other end of the pipeline suddenly creative,” Jacobus said. “Creative thinking and creating problem solving is something that is learned, that needs to be taught and that can be taught.”

At Milwaukee Area Technical College, attendees got a chance to see how students learn computer-generated animation in the School of Media and Creative Arts.

At Milwaukee Film, participants caught a glimpse of Milwaukee’s growing film community and the opportunities the organization is providing filmmakers to hone their art and film lovers to further appreciate it.

And at Discovery World, tour members took away the need for innovation within all disciplines – from brain science to engineering to water technology – by blending technical skills with an openness to artistry.

The variety of stops on the tour and the variety of demographics each caters to reinforces CAM’s conviction that creativity touches all sectors and is an essential element of success in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace.

“There’s nary a business that doesn’t use some sort of creative talent,” Jacobus said.

While a national standard regarding the parameters of the creative industries is still being laid out, Milwaukee sets its creative industries apart from those of other cities in the role they played in the city’s founding.

“Our creative economy is who we are,” Jacobus said. “It’s from whence we come.”

While outside cities’ creative industries clusters have largely emerged within the last few decades, Milwaukee’s cluster stems back to the city’s roots as brewers, cheese makers, old world craftsmen, architects and manufacturers built up the region and its economy.

“That basis of creative economy has been here for over 100 years, and so I think that’s one of the things that is unique about Milwaukee…We’re just calling it a creative economy now, but it’s always existed,” Jacobus said.

As CAM continues to lead tours of Milwaukee’s creative scene, Jacobus hopes to inspire participants to add their voice to the mix of those advocating the cultural vibrancy and economic vitality of Milwaukee’s creative industries cluster.

“It’s amazing the creative resources and opportunities that are in this region,” Jacobus said “We’re so blessed.”

From “Farmland prices booming across region” —Agricultural land prices are booming in the Coulee Region and across the nation, prompting some experts to worry that farm expansion could be creating an agricultural bubble.

West-central Wisconsin sold more agricultural acreage than any other part of the state in 2012, for an average of $3,246 an acre. Most land was purchased for continued farm use.

Crop prices are driving up land prices, said Dennis Deitelhoff, a farm business production management instructor with Western Technical College.

Some farmers are expanding, trying to make the most of crop prices while the getting is good.

But if crop prices sputter and farmland loan rates rise, farmers could find themselves in the midst of a bust similar to the housing collapse.

“I think that land values will correct,” Deitelhoff said. “That’s just natural economics.”

Nationally, farmer-held debt is expected to reach $277.4 billion this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — more than $60 billion more than 2007.

For farmers looking to cash out, current land prices have them in line for some sweet deals. But the high values carry risk for expanding farmers looking down the road.

Locally, Deitelhoff believes that expansion has been managed well.

“Most of the people making these land purchases are making them because they can,” he said. “The lion’s share are being made by those who have the wherewithal to do it.”

More than 20,000 acres of farmland in the west-central region, which includes La Crosse, Jackson, Trempealeau, and Buffalo counties, were sold for continued agricultural purposes in 2011, according to Department of Agriculture statistics.

That’s almost double the amount sold for the same purpose in 2009.

Purchasing escalated despite rising prices. Since 2007, average prices per acre have jumped $500. In addition to crop prices, sand mining and development demand have continued to buoy land values.

Farmers looking to cash out are in line to reap the profits of high values. However, current prices can make it difficult for aspiring land owners to break into farming.

Perhaps it makes sense that some new landowners have more interest in finances than farming; investors are buying land and then renting it to farmers, using rent to reap profits.

In November, a division of the Swiss bank UBS purchased 9,800 acres in Grant County for $68 million dollars.

While international players haven’t entered the La Crosse area, local investors have begun to take an interest in farmland.

Teresa Gutenberger, a senior appraiser with Badgerland Financial in Sparta, said that such owners, while uncommon, have begun to snap up area farmland.

Prices vary across state, nation

While the west-central region sold the most agricultural acreage in the state, its prices ranked in the middle of the pack. The state average for 2012 was $3,602 per acre.

“Location is an important determinant of value,” the report said.

The east-central region, which includes Fox Cities and Green Bay, had the highest average land prices at $5,228 per acre. The north-central region, stretching north from Clark and Marathon counties, had the lowest average prices, only $2,176 per acre.

The report cited increased competition for land use as the major factor influencing values.

Dairy farmers haven’t benefited from the increase, Dietelhoff said. Their prices haven’t kept pace with crops.

Cropland value jumped 7.1 percent in the state from 2011 to 2012, while pasture land value inched up 1.9 percent, according to USDA statistics.

Wisconsin’s growth lags behind the nation and rest of the Midwest.

Farm real estate value, which projects the value of a farm’s land and buildings, rose 7.4 percent, below the national average of 10.4 percent.

Minnesota saw a 20.9 percent jump; Iowa’s was even steeper, at 22.8 percent.


Western referendum passes

November 7, 2012

From “Western, North Side school referendums ride high on local support” — Voters appeared to back Western Technical College’s plan to add students and update facilities with a strong showing of support Tuesday for the school’s $79.8 million referendum.

By early this morning, 53.4 percent had voted “yes” with 202 of 211 precincts reporting.

The money will fund six building projects, including remodeling of the college’s technology building and the Coleman and Kumm centers. The extra learning space will allow Western to serve an additional 1,000 students by 2020. It will also benefit the region’s economy, Western President Lee Rasch said.

“There is a skilled worker shortage, and it’s in manufacturing and information technology,” Rasch said. “Those are really key areas for us.”

Property taxes will increase by about $39 a year on homes worth $100,000.

The referendum covers:

  • $32.6 million for an addition to the technology building to combine the school’s mechanical and tech programs.
  • $26.5 million remodel of Coleman Center to update the 89-year-old space with more efficient, flexible learning areas.
  • $10.1 million remodel of the Kumm Center, for new health and science facilities.
  • $4.9 million for a parking ramp
  • $4.1 million expansion of Western’s diesel training facilities.
  • $1.6 million for a greenhouse near Seventh and Vine street

Western’s growth will have a $97 million impact on the regional economy by 2034, according to an economic report by NorthStar Consulting Group. Construction alone will have an estimated economic impact of $112 million by 2016.

“It’s going to make a difference,” Rasch said.

West Salem resident Bob Severson, 59, said he supported the referendum because the changes will help people learn valuable workplace skills.

“I went there myself and I think that’s going to be the crux of getting the right training,” Severson said.

Western will borrow the money for the building projects, adding to existing debt of about $58 million.

Wisconsin technical colleges can’t use referendum dollars for operating costs – unlike school districts — so they are less frequent. Western’s last referendum was more than 15 years ago, when 64 percent of voters agreed to pay for a $3 million chunk of the city’s Health Science Center.

A wave of support at the polls Tuesday also appears to have pushed through La Crosse School District’s $15.7 million referendum for a new North Side elementary school.

Voters in the La Crosse School District approved a building referendum. Final numbers show 21,494 yes votes to 10,424 no votes.

A new school will house teachers and students currently split between two aging facilities. Officials plan to build the new facility at 1611 Kane St., where the old Franklin Elementary School building stands.

“It’s going to mean a lot for our community, not just for the North Side,” Superintendent Randy Nelson said.

Taxpayers in the district could pay about $25 more on a home worth $100,000.

The prospect of higher taxes inspired 75-year-old La Crosse resident and retiree Kay Weldy to vote against the referendum.

“The taxes are too high as they are,” she said.

Franklin combined with Roosevelt about three years ago, and both run under the same administration, with grade levels divided between the two buildings.

Roosevelt, built in 1923, is the oldest school building in the district. Builders used clay tiles in the 1955 construction of Franklin, which has led to continual structural problems for the school.

Both buildings were slated for about $6 million of work, including about $2 million already bonded for heating and ventilation upgrades. Officials agreed to opt out of the bonded funds if voters passed today’s referendum.

The new building saves the district about $200,000 in operating costs each year.

Shelby resident David Loeffler, 63, said he voted “yes” on the referendum because he to ensure a quality education for future generations.

“I have a grandson and I want to make sure he gets everything he can,” Loeffler said.

Similar referendums in 2004 and 2008 failed to pass muster with voters, but this is a different time — when the community appears be favoring neighborhood revitalization in the wake of recent economic struggles, Nelson said.

“Things have changed,” he said.

From “She’s seeing a bright future” — By James E. Causey – Frenchie Randolph listens to her portable radio and with precision clamps a hose to a pressure unit that will go on a snowblower for a Briggs & Stratton engine.

She uses her foot to bring down the metal fastener and feels around with her hands for a final inspection before dropping the finished product down a tube that empties into a plastic bin. She repeats this step quickly and efficiently.

It seems like tedious work, until you consider that Randolph is blind.

Randolph told me that blind people can do many of the same types of tasks as sighted people if accommodations are made by the employer. But finding work is challenging for people with disabilities, and the recession has made it all the more discouraging. While the unemployment rate nationally is 7.8%, the unemployment rate for people who are visually impaired is 70%.

When I visited Beyond Vision this week, workers were fulfilling contracts for Harley-Davidson Inc., General Electric, Ladish Co., the Department of Defense and others. Beyond Vision is a nonprofit group that provides sustainable employment to individuals who are visually impaired.

All 100 employees have vision problems, from the people who take your calls at the call center to employees such as Randolph who may have made the device that will get your snowblower started one of these upcoming cold winter mornings.

There are a lot of stereotypes associated with people who are sight impaired.

Randolph, 47, who will be honored Oct. 27 in Baltimore, Md., as the employee of the year for the National Industries for the Blind, said some people still assume that if you can’t see, you can’t hear.

“What hurts the most is when people act like blindness is a disease they can catch,” Randolph said.

Some people assume that blind people are unmotivated to work, that they are lazy or dumb.

James Kerlin, president and CEO, of Beyond Vision, said the work that the nonprofit performs is real work and that every worker has his or her own unique story of how to overcome the odds.

Kerlin remembers how diabetes took his father’s sight during the last 20 years of his life. When his mother remarried, his stepfather was blind. He was blinded during World War II when he was hit by a sniper’s bullet.

“My stepfather was more active than me. He would cut the grass using a cane, he used the snowblower, and at night when I was sleeping I heard this scraping outside, I looked out and he was edging the grass,” he said.

Randolph asked me if I ever knew anyone who lost their sight, and I told her that my uncle lost his eyesight after a car accident. Although he regained some of his sight, he’s never quite been the same.

She could relate. Randolph started losing her eyesight at 18. She suffered from glaucoma but her condition was made worse by lead poisoning.

By 22, most of her vision was gone, leaving her only with light and color perception.

“I initially enrolled in college at Alverno, but I withdrew to file for a program that worked for me,” she said.

She attended Milwaukee Area Technical College and the Vision Forward Association for the Blind in order to obtain the skills she needed to succeed.

While in school, she gained custody of her cousins’ three daughters because as she put it her cousin “could not be a mother anymore.”

She didn’t have time for a pity party because she was busy setting an example for them. She became a mother herself, raising her own three children, and earning a certificate in medical transcription in 2004 from the Milwaukee Area Technical College. She could not find a job so she re-enrolled in school and earned her associate’s degree in teaching in last May.

“I really want to work with children with special needs because I can be an inspiration for them. But I want to go back to school next year,” she said.

She is already an inspiration to those around her. She told me she doesn’t really know what she’s going to say when she’s honored later this month.

“I’m still working on that. But it will probably say something to the fact that don’t let anything hold you back because nobody is going to feel sorry for you if you feel sorry for yourself,” she said.

And that’s good advice for anybody.

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