In a rural area south of Ames, Iowa, the first student-run farm in the United States is celebrating its 60th anniversary. This model program has provided an opportunity for thousands of young people to learn agricultural management skills and try innovations in a practical setting.
A dog barking at the front gate, red-painted barns and big, diesel-powered tractors, it looks like any other farm anywhere in the American Midwest. But this 480-hectare spread is managed and operated by students from Iowa State University. The farm is known as the AG450, a name derived from the course number assigned by the Iowa State University's Agriculture Department.
Each semester, 100 students in their fourth and final year, who are enrolled in the course, come here to manage the farm and make critical decisions about such matters as financing, marketing and the application of new technology.
Greg Vogel, the full-time manager who works with the students on practical operational matters, says he enjoys talking with the students and listening to their ideas.
"Young people are the ones that like to innovate," he said. "They are the ones with all the newest and greatest ideas, at least, I know they like to think so. But they will blend it in with the tried and true things [tested practices] that they have learned over time. I guess what it gets down to is that agriculture is a really changing field, and it changes so fast that you either get on the bandwagon [follow the program], or it runs you over and goes by."
Most of the students who come and go each semester are already knowledgeable about basic farm operations, because most of them grew up on farms. But few of them have had to deal with the management issues that face modern-day farmers, and that is what they must do here, according to their academic supervisor, Iowa State agriculture professor Larry Trede.
"The idea here is not to show them how to do it," said Larry Trade. "The idea is to give them the experience of managing the unit. So, they make all of the decisions relative to the production aspects of the farm, the marketing, the financial management and all of the issues that go into managing a farm, and not just operating a farm."
The students who come to manage the AG450 farm each semester try out various types of seeds, fertilizers and chemicals as part of their experience. There is a corn field with markers every few meters, showing the variety of corn seeds used. Students can then check the results at harvest time, and pass on such information to the next batch of managers who enroll in the class. While the farm does have fields of corn and soybeans, the main focus is on swine production.
The pigs occupy one of the galvanized iron buildings near the edge of the fields. Students provide them with feed, measure their growth, maintain their health and prepare them for market.
Professor Trede says this is a profitable activity, and it also provides the opportunity to show how a farm can be efficient, both ecologically and financially.
"The corn is feed for the hog program, but more importantly, the manure, the swine waste from the hog program, goes back onto the land as fertilizer," he said. "It saves us a lot of money on nitrogen. So, we try to look at the whole thing as a system where we can utilize what we produce, turn around, and try to add some value to the crop, take what is produced in the hog enterprise and put it back into the land, in forms of trying to save fertilizer."
The AG450 farm currently has around 1,200 head of livestock in the swine program. Professor Trede says cows and chickens were part of the program at one time, but that swine production has proved to be the more profitable enterprise.
The student-run farm at Iowa State University was the first of its kind when economics professor William Murray started it in 1943. The original farm consisted of about 75 hectares, just south of the city of Ames. Since that time it has expanded through acquisitions and leases. But the most important legacy of the farm can be found all around the country on farms owned and operated by former enrollees in the AG450 class.