At 2:30 p.m. on Thursdays, students filed into a classroom at NC State taught by what may be a unique team of educators in U.S. agriculture – the dean of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and North Carolina’s Commissioner of Agriculture.
Dean Richard Linton and Commissioner Steve Troxler taught Joint Ventures in Agriculture during the spring semester to a mixed group of two-year and four-year degree students. Having taught the course alone in the past, Troxler proposed that Linton join him as co-instructor.
The course is an example of the innovative approach that CALS uses to prepare the next generation workforce for agribusiness in North Carolina and beyond, Linton said. The focus is on emerging and important issues in agriculture and life sciences today.
For Linton, the partnership provided an opportunity to return to the classroom. He had not had a chance to teach since he came to CALS as dean in 2012.
“The class that we teach is nothing like the normal classroom environment,” Linton said. “It’s really about introducing and discussing important agriculture-related issues, whether they are policy or regulatory or science-based issues. And we bring in experts from the state and national levels to talk about how those issues impact North Carolina and how they impact global agriculture.”
The class gave students a rare opportunity to learn from some of the state’s top leaders in commerce, economic development and agriculture. In April, Secretary of Commerce John E. Skvarla III talked with the class, along with Chris Chung, CEO for the new Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest spoke at another class session.
“We want to expose them to leaders they would never have a chance to meet,” Troxler said.
Linton and Troxler also want students to come away with a sense of the importance of partnerships to North Carolina agriculture and how CALS and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services work together to support agriculture and agribusiness in the state. One class focused on the 18 research stations that the two organizations share to help find solutions to challenges facing North Carolina producers.
“This course exemplifies the partnership that exists between the N.C. Department of Agriculture and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,” Troxler said. “Each time I teach, I try to bring awareness to the strengths of North Carolina agriculture.”
“When we bring in industry leaders to talk about their farming operations, their production practices or their agribusiness success, we focus on the partnerships of university, government and industry,” Linton said.
For one class, students went downtown to North Carolina’s legislative building and re-enacted the process of voting on a mock bill – more funds for the agriculture department. For a class session on the Food Safety Modernization Act, Linton pulled together a team with expertise in the areas that the law will cover. The class also connected online with Michael Taylor, Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner for foods.
“We talked about the many facets that would be important to prepare the state of North Carolina for one of the biggest pieces of legislation in food systems written since the 1950s,” Linton said.
In late April, as Linton and Troxler were preparing for a trade-related trip to China, they described for the class what they hoped accomplish – “selling hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural products” to the world’s fastest-growing economy. Representatives from the state’s forestry, pork, soy, tobacco and poultry industries accompanied the dean and commissioner on the trade mission.
Troxler told the class that he would celebrate his birthday in Beijing. In preparation, Linton asked the students to sing “Happy Birthday” to Troxler. At the March 18 NC Ag Awareness Day in downtown Raleigh, Troxler had asked hundreds of ag supporters on the Capitol grounds to sing “Happy Birthday” in honor of Linton’s birthday.
When Troxler and Linton returned to class two weeks later, they shared photos and told students about the trip to China: traveling aboard a high-speed train and seeing high-rise concrete buildings across the country, unoccupied and awaiting masses of new residents.
The group also visited the Chinese company that bought North Carolina-based pork producer Smithfield Foods and Murphy-Brown and attended a groundbreaking ceremony for an NCDA&CS facility in Shanghai. They were pleased to make headway in resolving some trade issues around N.C. agricultural products.
Linton said that the class attracted a diverse group of students, whose interests and experience included animal and plant science, agribusiness, commercial agriculture and local foods. The diversity led to dynamic and engaging discussions, especially on controversial issues, like genetically engineered crops.
“I don’t think we had a single class that finished on time…and the students stayed,” Linton said. “We came in the class with an agenda, but quickly that agenda got turned into a very free-flowing conversation.”
Linton and Troxler both say they will continue to teach this class. “We’re both really busy people, but we’re committed to doing this. We’ve enjoyed it,” Linton said.
Of the students in the spring class, at least 25 percent want to pursue a future in production agriculture, Linton said. He hopes that all students gain greater knowledge of the partnerships that keep N.C. agriculture profitable.
“I hope students come away with an understanding of how important agriculture is, not only to North Carolina, but also to the United States and the world,” he said. “I hope they come away wanting to be in agriculture and wanting to stay in agriculture, and knowing how important it is to communicate that message to others.”
– Natalie Hampton