A Land-Grant Gem

The College’s Agricultural Institute celebrates 50 years as a defining part of the university’s mission — and the ‘perfect fit’ for thousands of students.

In 2001, when the Rick Smith Agricultural Institute Scholarship was created in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Rick Smith, Ag Institute alumnus, owner of the Independent Leaf Tobacco Co. and board member of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, offered a simple reason for his supporting the endowment to fund the scholarship. “I’m repaying a debt,” Smith said. “Everything I’ve accomplished in my life is because of the Agricultural Institute.” Smith’s gratitude to the program resonates with AGI graduates, including those named as its 2009 Outstanding Alumni — Brenda Penny and Brad West.

Penny, who graduated from AGI in general agriculture in 1979 and is now a research assistant in the CALS Department of Crop Science, said in AGI’s alumni newsletter that her AGI attendance was a culmination of her “early appreciation for research, extension and teaching” and that she really appreciates “the education I received from the Ag Institute.”

Meanwhile, West, who received his 1998 AGI associate’s degrees in agricultural business management, field crops technology and livestock management, is a business partner in his family’s West Family Farms. “The Agricultural Institute was the perfect fit for me,” West told the newsletter. “It provided me with the skills that I needed to go home and expand my family’s agribusiness.”

The Agricultural Institute (AGI) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State University offers nine academic programs leading to an associate of applied science degree, ranging from agribusiness management to landscape technology. Its programs are designed to prepare students for careers in agriculture and related industries, with a focus on hands-on technical training. In fact, AGI is now one of the United States’ largest associate-degree-granting programs at a four-year institution offering agriculture degrees.

And together, Smith, Penny and West represent the kind of possibilities for success that the creators of AGI had in mind in 1959 when the program was created.

A news article heralds the September 1960 launch of AGI.

“The way it came about was that a lot of young men in the late 1950s were finishing high school and planning to pursue careers in agriculture,” said the late Edmund Aycock, a 1936 CALS agriculture alumnus, in 2008 as he reminisced with AGI newsletter editor Martha Jennette about his service on the council that advised in the creation of the institute.
“Many planned to work on and/or manage their family farms, and others wanted to work in agricultural sales or service,” Aycock said. “They needed to learn more about agriculture, but they didn’t want to get the four-year degree: They wanted the basics, and a two-year ag program seemed to answer this need.”

The Agricultural Institute was thus formed in 1959 by an act of the state legislature in agreement with N.C. State University, as a two-year associate of applied science degree program. It was then and is now designed for students who want a focused curriculum and practical knowledge and have a desire to work in agriculture or a related industry, including the green industry.

And it’s a program that reflects the heart of the land-grant mission to assure the state’s citizens access to the knowledge derived at the university: The Agricultural Institute has an open enrollment policy, meaning that anyone who holds a high-school diploma or GED and applies may enroll.

Actually, it was as early as 1956 that Dr. Dean W. Colvard, CALS dean from 1953 to 1960, suggested the establishment of the two-year Agricultural Institute for students who preferred not to pursue four-year degrees, according to North Carolina State University: A Narrative History, by Alice E. Reagan. But it was not till 1959 that the state General Assembly acted to create the program at N.C. State University to begin operation in the fall of the following year.

The first class of Ag Institute students at N.C. State.

As Colvard and his co-author William L. Carpenter recall in their book Knowledge is Power, Dr. Homer Folks, the first head of the program, “visited a number of similar programs at other institutions … to incorporate into the new program the strengths observed in other states and to avoid any weaknesses found.”

Colvard and Carpenter say that “when thefirst class of 95 arrived on campus in the fall of 1960, there were five programs of instruction: farm equipment sales and service, general agriculture, livestock management and technology, poultry technology and pest control.”

And, as the authors note, enrollment climbed steadily.

Today, the enrollment number averages 400. Faculty members in 11 academic departments provide instruction to institute students. More than 150 degrees were awarded during the 2008-2009 academic year. Its graduates remain in great demand in the state and nation, with typically 95 percent employed in their fields of interest within six months of graduation.

And there are now more than 5,000 AGI alumni who can say they attended a program ranked No. 1 in the nation among two-year associate degree programs in agriculture and related sciences in 2006, according to Community College Week.

Dr. Jan Spears’ AGI class conducts crop science field work.

As Dr. Barbara Kirby, AGI director, puts it, “From a program organized to address the agricultural training needs for young men, we have grown to become a diversified, comprehensive program preparing young men and women not only for careers in plant and animal agriculture but also in agribusiness, pest management, horticulture and turfgrass management. Students experience hands-on learning, receiving instruction in cutting-edge technology in the most sophisticated facilities NCSU has to offer.”

In fact, a key part of the program’s mission is to provide its students access to the resources of a major land-grant institution as it prepares them to be productive leaders in society with the ability to adapt to an ever-changing agricultural sector.

Degree programs position AGI students for careers in agribusiness management,  agribusiness management-horticulture, agricultural pest management, urban pest management, field crops technology, general agriculture, livestock and poultry management, ornamentals and landscape technology and turfgrass management.

Among AGI students currently working toward such careers are Holt Willis, Vinquita Adams, Josh Essick and Stephen Shepard — each of whom, like West, found AGI to be a “perfect” educational fit.

Holt Willis, a May 2010 AGI graduate in ornamental landscape technology, says the program has positioned him to achieve his career goals.

Willis, who is from Ridgeway, is completing his second year in AGI and will graduate this May in the Institute’s ornamental landscape technology (OLT) program. His career goals include obtaining a roadside environmental job for the state Department of Transportation, as well as a possible self-business venture into the green industry with landscaping and lawn care. And he is grateful to AGI for positioning him to achieve those goals.

“I believe that the AGI OLT program is a perfect fit for me,” Willis says. “I chose AGI for a more hands-on approach to my education and a more personal feeling within the student-to-faculty relationship. … The hands-on learning approach is very helpful in all courses, by way of labs that actually get you involved in what you are learning.”

Among the highlights of his AGI coursework, Willis says, is the opportunity to work at the JC Raulston Arboretum, where he helped establish new annual beds and relocate select species of shrubs as part of an arboretum renovation. Another highlight is his involvement with the national honor society Delta Tau Alpha and its 2010 national convention in Huntsville, Texas.

“It has been a great experience coming to the AGI and being able to receive, in my opinion, what is the best education anyone can get that is interested in agriculture,” Willis says. “Overall I am very happy that I chose to come to N.C. State AGI to receive my education.”
Adams, a first-year AGI student from Charlotte, is an agricultural business management major who plans to graduate in 2011. A two-year degree track was “the right choice for me,” says Adams, who hopes to open up her own business within the next three years. “The [AGI] program is perfect,” she says. “It teaches you everything you need to know—and I’m learning!”

Josh Essick, a first-year AGI student in poultry and livestock management, chose AGI because “the knowledge you are able to obtain is the best there is.”

Essick, from Arcadia, is a first-year student in livestock and poultry management.
He chose AGI “because it is the only and the best school of its kind,” he says. “Dr. Kirby told me once, ‘We are the best in the universe.’ It is one of the only schools where you can get a two-year degree in agriculture. And the fact that it’s at N.C. State, one of the top ag schools in the country, [assures] the knowledge you are able to obtain is the best there is.
“The program is so good because we work with some of the best research in the country in agriculture,” he says. “We have the knowledge of the major university in a more applied method. It is a great thing for N.C. State and agriculture in North Carolina.”

Upon receiving his AGI associate’s degree in 2012, “I hope to work with a poultry company in live production and eventually come back to my family’s farm and build poultry houses and farm,” he says.

“The program is a perfect fit for my needs,” he says. “It is giving me the opportunity to learn about the poultry and livestock industry and get the proper training to be competitive in the industry. I can honestly say I am happy to wake up and go to school every morning.”

Among the highlights of his AGI activities, he says, are the courses and material that “I already use on the farm or can see how I would be able to use it in agriculture. There is no work that you just do to do it. It’s all applied to the things you need to be successful in agriculture.” He also describes meetings and events with other AGI students as “like a big family.”

The AGI program, Essick says, “is a top-notch experience,” and he describes the time he has spent so far as “the best experience of my life.”

A double major in ag business and poultry and livestock management, Stephen Shepard appreciates the small-school-within-a-big-school atmosphere of AGI.

Shepard, from Columbia, S.C., shares both Essick’s and Adams’ curricular choices as a double major in ag business and poultry and livestock management, but he came to AGI from a different route. He started out as four-year N.C. State student majoring in poultry science, “but for different reasons I need to graduate early, and the AGI program is very hands-on and is a great option for me,” he says. “Although you don’t receive a B.S. degree, I still feel that you learn a remarkable amount of information about your major of choice. I need to get out in the work field soon and knew this would be the best option with the best benefits.”

Shepard calls the AGI program “a perfect fit for me, because, even as a first-year student, I have learned so much about the different aspects of poultry management. When I transferred into the institute I felt as though I already knew so much about my major, but every day I am learning something new.”

Shepard has appreciated the small-school-within-the-big-school atmosphere of AGI.  “Coming to orientation I had overwhelming thoughts of how big the school was and if I would be able to survive the classes. Needless to say, the professors here at NCSU are unbelievable teachers and exceptionally helpful in every aspect of their job. The classes are very sufficient in size, and students are known on a first-name basis,” he says.

“I have enjoyed so much about the class work and labs in AGI. We do so many hands-on activities and are set up to learn so many valuable work-related issues in our degree program. I have done a wide variety of things such as birthing newborn pigs, artificial inseminations, several dissections and ultrasounds. The opportunities are endless with the AGI labs.”

Upon graduation Shepard hopes “to contribute to NCSU and the poultry industry, like my father and grandfather have. I am looking at opportunities with several different poultry companies but would love to attain a management position in any poultry company, preferably Mountaire Farms simply because my father, sister-in-law and brother are employees there. Working and helping expand on my brother’s pesticide business ‘Critters Nightmare,’ which exterminates [pests in] poultry houses, is also another goal of mine,” he says.

“I feel like it is such a privilege to be a part of a program that doesn’t just skim the surfaces but prepares you for the job market in every aspect. I would not have done anything different and am only looking forward to what the future holds here at N.C. State.”

What the near future holds for AGI students, alumni and faculty is a fall 2010 celebration of AGI’s 50th anniversary.
The main festivities are planned for Saturday, Oct. 16, with an alumni reunion to be held at the Brownstone Hotel near the N.C. State campus in Raleigh. (For more information, go to the AGI Web site http://harvest.cals.ncsu.edu/aginstitute, e-mail ag_institute@ncsu.edu or call 919.515.3248.)

It will be a time, says Kirby, for “honoring the past and envisioning our preferred future.”

Terri Leith

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