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Funding Boosts Agricultural Institute’s Career Readiness Programs

Man in red hat and blue gloves pointing speaking to students
AGI lecturer Currey Nobles teaches students in lamb evaluation class.

In 2021, the Golden LEAF Foundation provided the Agricultural Institute (AGI) funding for nearly $1 million to support new programs to increase student recruitment and enhance job readiness for agricultural management and the livestock sector. 

A nonprofit organization based in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the Golden LEAF Foundation aims to increase economic opportunity in North Carolina’s tobacco-dependent, economically distressed and rural communities. 

Through the foundation’s generous gift, AGI has applied the funding in four areas:

  • Agricultural operations certificate
  • Food animal and poultry processing curriculum
  • Student internships
  • Mentorship program

“It’s wonderful witnessing the impact that the Golden LEAF Foundation funding is having on potential and current students, especially those in rural North Carolina communities,” says Alyssa DeGreenia, AGI assistant director. “This funding enables opportunities for the development of the agricultural workforce.”

Agricultural Operations Certificate

To address the need for qualified managers in the agricultural industry, AGI recently introduced an undergraduate certificate in agricultural operations.

Students who want to earn the certificate must seek a degree in one of the six AGI majors from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS): 

  • Agribusiness management 
  • General agriculture
  • Livestock and poultry management
  • Field crops technology
  • Horticulture science management  
  • Turfgrass management

Students attend required courses and complete an external learning experience focusing on communication, problem-solving, working with diverse groups, technology and leadership.

Caroline Becker, of Wake Forest, North Carolina, joined the certificate program to boost her career prospects in the ag industry.

A double major in general agriculture and livestock and poultry management, Becker enjoys networking opportunities with agricultural professionals and fellow AGI peers from various backgrounds.

“This program has enhanced my professional skill set and improved critical thinking abilities that I will take into my professional career,” she says. 

The program’s design and the diverse agricultural backgrounds of her classmates motivates Becker, who plans to graduate in December 2024, to join conversations on topics ranging from future trends to skills employers value to how the farm industry will adjust as innovations advance.

Charles McGhee, of King, North Carolina, considers the certificate program pivotal to his career goals. A double major in horticulture science management and agribusiness management, McGhee plans to graduate in May 2025.

“The professional development course (AGI 191) is beneficial for acquiring skills employers want and for internship application and interview preparation,” he says.

Young man standing behind a red table
Charles McGhee at an AGI booth during a career and college fair in Surry County.

Food Animal and Poultry Processing Curriculum

Funding from Golden LEAF also mobilized AGI to address the immediate need for highly trained, qualified professionals in North Carolina’s food animal and poultry processing industry. The institute introduced a three-course curriculum in 2022 to prepare students for work in the food animal field. 

Currey Nobles, a lecturer in NC State University’s Department of Animal Science and AGI, helped develop the food animal and poultry processing curriculum. Nobles earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science at the university. 

The food animal program consists of three classes: 

  • An introduction to learning basic concepts of meat processing operations and technology
  • Value-added meat and poultry processing
  • Meat safety and quality systems
Man in red hat and white apron and blue gloves grills meat
Lamb meat on the grill
Young man in gray shirt and red hat eats lamb sample
Female student in red cap and blue pullover

All three courses contain labs that leverage NC State’s on-campus pilot-scale meat processing plant.

“I take all the classes I teach on field trips. We go to meat processing plants across the state, tour their facilities, and see different processing operations to understand what quality and safety systems they use daily,” says Nobles. “The best way students can understand the meat industry is to see what happens inside a processing plant.”

Golden LEAF funding also made it possible for AGI to promote the food animal curriculum, including:

  • An informational landing page and print collateral providing program information to interested students and their advisers.
  • A curriculum introduction video, which gives prospective students an overview of the classes
  • A Farms, Food and You podcast episode and testimonial videos featuring interviews with Nobles and industry professionals from North Carolina meat processing operations
  • Course testimonial videos from industry experts

Support for Internships

AGI initially established an internship program for all students in 2015. However, students still needed assistance paying for housing and other expenses, especially those living in rural areas. Funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation has established $2,000 stipends for students interning in Tier 1 or Tier 2 counties of North Carolina, where support is critical for economic growth. 

In 2023, students completed 84 internships, and 15 students received a stipend. This support provided more students with opportunities to work in rural areas.

Mentoring Teams

To boost student recruitment from Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties, the institute created mentoring teams of four-year, two-year and high school students and graduate students. The teams visit high schools in Wilson, Nash, Sampson, Robeson and Duplin counties. AGI has three mentoring teams for the spring semester of 2024. 

Graduate student Charity Stallings worked beside Nobles to develop a meat processing mentoring team curriculum.

Stallings is pursuing a master of science degree in agriculture and Extension education through the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences. She’s also a graduate assistant for CALS Academic Programs and AGI, and plans to graduate in May 2025.

Young woman smiling in red graduation gown
Charity Stallings

Golden LEAF funding allowed her to use her passion for outreach, curriculum development and agriculture.

“I received the opportunity to assist Currey with the course Animal Science 242, where we took a tour of the Chandler Foods processing facility,” Stallings says. “My experience working on the mentoring curriculum has been exciting and compelling. I’m eager to establish informative and hands-on lessons for our mentoring teams as they continue to inform students about meat processing and AGI.”

While earning an agricultural operations certificate, Becker serves on a mentoring team that travels to high schools and emphasizes the importance of the farming industry and its many career opportunities. Her team also talks to students about the meat processing field.

“We’ve gotten to know a few of the students who will hopefully pursue careers within the industry and become leaders in their communities,” Becker says. “It’s been amazing to see how different the next generation of agricultural leaders are and what interests them in becoming a part of the future of North Carolina agriculture.”

Leading a mentoring team has also been gratifying for Texas native Justin Lowery. His experience in Extension leadership and educational outreach has sparked a passion for recruiting high school students to AGI. Lowery is earning a doctorate in animal and poultry science and expects to graduate in 2026.

Three female and one male student standing in front of building steps
Mentoring team in front of Patterson Hall. From the left, Savannah Wood (Southern Nash High School student), Keely Marlowe (animal science major), Montgomery Scism (poultry science major) and Justin Lowery (doctorate in animal and poultry science).

His team visited high schools in Wilson and Nash counties to present educational opportunities available to the students through AGI.

“We visited Beddingfield and Southern Nash high schools,”  Lowery says. “The students were great to talk to. It’s surprising how much they knew about agriculture, especially in their areas of interest.”

Being a mentoring lead has exceeded Lowery’s expectations. “I look forward to leading future teams to help recruit and mentor students to join the Agricultural Institute and build upon the already impressive network of agriculture professionals throughout North Carolina.”

Golden LEAF funding has enabled AGI to continue cultivating a rich learning environment for its students. 

“Educational initiatives are only possible when adequately funded,” says Lee Ivy, AGI director. “The funding creates an opportunity for AGI to serve its students by providing quality education that prepares them for careers in agriculture. We thank the Golden LEAF Foundation for its generous and impactful support.”