Distance Learning for Farmers

University programs offer online education for new and beginning farmers.

By Deborah Huso | Photos By Christopher Ferting

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To learn more about the above programs, see:

University of Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers

Cornell Small Farms Program For Aspiring, New & Experienced Farmers,

Dalhousie University Extended Learning Program

While agricultural programs abound at universities around the country, not all producers have the wherewithal, the time or even the proximity to benefit from them. That’s why an increasing number of schools offer distance and online learning options for farmers (or would-be farmers) that provide access to some of the most critical aspects of ag education, like how to find and apply for loans, and how to manage farm finances.

Four years ago, dairy farmer Kyle Serwe of Campbellsport, Wis., took advantage of the University of Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers’ “short course,” which offers online education through distance learning labs at up to 18 sites around the state. “I liked that there were six or seven different areas of study and open discussion about each one,” Serwe says. “If you had a question, there was always someone else who could help you out.”

Plenty of schools offer opportunities for online education.

Plenty of schools offer opportunities for online education.

According to Richard Cates, Ph.D., director of the university’s Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems in Madison, students can take the distance learning class for 15 weeks, seeing lectures in real time. Those attending classes at one of the distance labs can benefit from the help of an on-site facilitator, asking questions and starting discussions. The university also offers a CD-ROM course that students anywhere in the country can purchase for at-home education.

In addition to lectures by Cates, farmers will receive classroom instruction from loan officers and successful producers (who have often gone through the program themselves) with expertise in everything from how to set up a grazing system to how to develop a business plan for presentation to a lender. Every student who goes through the course, whether at the main campus in Madison, at a distance learning lab or via the CD-ROM, has the opportunity to write a business plan with the expectation that he or she will be able to use it in applying for a loan from a bank or through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

The short course is affordable too—only $300 per student. Cates says some 500 students have taken the course in the past 20 years, and about 75% of those are actively farming or have started their own ag-related businesses. “Our main job,” says Cates, “is to keep [students] from making big mistakes that will crush them.”

Plenty of other schools offer similar opportunities for online education, including Cornell University in New York and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Erica Frenay, online course manager for the Cornell Small Farms Program, says the school realized it needed online training for students who were far away from educational facilities. Launched in 2007, the program offers 14 different courses ranging from how to maintain soil health to how to plan for a business that stays in business.

Frenay says about 75% of students taking the online courses are from the northeastern United States, but it’s open to anyone, and she’s even had international students. About 400 students go through the online program each year. “All courses are instructor-led, and we have real-time webinars once a week where students can ask questions,” Frenay notes.

“Most of our demand is from people with no agricultural background,” Frenay remarks. “We emphasize how to farm for profit.”