One Iowa State course allows Iowa State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students to step away from classrooms and lecture halls and into the Ag 450 Farm.
The farm, west of Iowa State’s campus, is for the course AGEDS 450: Farm Management and Operation and is the only student-managed farming operation in the country. Established in 1943, the farm is the capstone course for all agricultural studies majors. Although the majority of the class members are agricultural studies seniors, it is not limited to students of the major.
Instructor Skyler Rinker, a distance education graduate student in agricultural education and studies, is currently pursuing his doctorate in agricultural studies. As a former student of the Ag 450 Farm, Rinker has returned to help students in managing the operation.
“It’s finding that sweet spot of guiding and leading the students to help them make the best decisions they can, but not making it for them,” Rinker said.
The farm is graced with new students each semester, bringing new decisions and ideas with them and forcing the farm to face many changes since 1943. Not only has the farm welcomed Rinker as the new instructor, but it has also recently introduced a new farm operator.
Jacob Parr is an agricultural specialist in the agricultural education and studies department. Parr lives in a house on the farm and is responsible for helping instruct the course as well as keep up with farm work.
Growing up on an acreage, Parr said he previously had firsthand experience in farm operation. It was in his work on the farm that Parr said he realized he wanted a career in agriculture.
“It was when I was doing the late nights in the grain cart or when [I finally got to] run the combine,” Parr said. “I was actually happy doing it, so it kind of solidified my wanting to be doing it all the time.”
Before living and working on the Ag 450 Farm, Parr worked as an agronomy sales person. Beginning in July of this year, Parr took the position of the Ag 450 Farm operator. He said he engages in the ever-changing life on the farm every day.
The Ag 450 Farm has a 1,200 head wean-to-finish swine operation. In the mornings, Parr wakes up to do livestock chores with the help of some students.
“We have to check temperatures [...] of the barns, then we have to check the water and feeders, how much water they are using every day,” Parr said. “Then you just go through the general wellness of the hogs.”
Once chores are done, Parr dives into the next task on the farm.
“After that, if we need to do any maintenance or anything in the barns, that’s when we’d do it,” Parr said. “Just earlier, we got all of the bins ready for harvest. Making sure fans work, making sure all the augers run, making sure you can open doors.”
Parr’s role as farm operator isn’t limited to work on the farm, as he often comes to Iowa State to attend meetings regarding the course.
Parr said he is no stranger to the campus. He graduated from Iowa State with an agricultural studies degree and, like Rinker, is a former student of the Ag 450 Farm.
The farm operator at the time of Parr’s enrollment of the course was Greg Vogel. Vogel recently retired after 27 years on the farm. Since filling the position, Parr has become more than just a past student of Vogel’s.
“I didn’t think during the time that I was in the class that I was going to have a relationship like this,” Parr said. “He calls me every once in a while to ask me how things are going.”
Being new to the Ag 450 Farm, Rinker and Parr said they sometimes seek Vogel’s advice and expertise.
“He’s such a helpful resource,” Rinker said. “[Parr] and I can still call him and say ‘Hey, what would you do in this situation?’ or ‘What have you done in the past?’ We are new, we are still figuring stuff out.”
Students on the farm are also figuring things out. The course takes place in a classroom only partially, since students also get to work and make decisions on the farm to create hands-on experience.
“All 60 students meet together on Tuesday afternoon, and that’s where they’d have their business meeting,” Rinker said. “Wednesday and Thursdays are lab sections out at the farm […]. At the lab, the students are able to put the ideas or concepts or things that they’ve learned throughout their studies here at Iowa State, put them into practice and work on things here on the farm.”
Not every student works on the same things, as the class is broken up into six committees: public relations, swine operation, crops, buildings and grounds, machinery and finance and marketing.
Jaci Reeves and Rachel Nordhoff are seniors in agricultural studies as well as members of the public relations committee. They are responsible for tasks such as editing the Ag 450 Farm’s website, facilitating the web store for Ag 450 Farm merchandise and keeping the public informed with weekly social media posts.
“A lot of students in this class don’t come from farming backgrounds, so it does give everyone a taste of what it is like,” Reeves said.
This time of year, it is not uncommon for students to be jumping into harvest and operating farm machinery such as combines.
“We farm approximately around 700 acres of corn and about 60, 70 acres of soybeans, so about 800 acres of row crop,” Rinker said. “Along with that, the farm also does some custom work for the outlying research farms. It could range anywhere from 800 acres to 2,000 acres per year. It varies a little bit.”
Since his time as a student back in 2012, Rinker said he has seen changes in the way tasks are carried out.
“We’re using more technology now on the farm as far as precision ag and things like that,” Rinker said. “We have more opportunities now than what we had.”
A lot changes from semester to semester at the Ag 450 Farm include farm instructors and operators, crops, livestock raised, the seasons of planting and harvest. Rinker said what seems to remain constant is the spirit of the class.
“The students don’t change,” Rinker said. “The passion for agriculture, the passion for learning and getting those hands-on experiences, utilizing different opportunities that the farm has that they can relate and apply in their future careers, that hasn’t changed.”
Some students said they feel a sense of community on the farm too.
“When you’re here, it’s just like being around people you get along with all the time,” Nordhoff said. “You get to work with a small group of people and make decisions about a farm. There’s never a dull moment out here. Everybody gets along really well; we are always having fun.”
Learning and applying skills in ways that still enable the students to have fun is a reason this course is well-liked. Rinker said that taking away the real-life farming experience is what the Ag 450 Farm is all about.
“If [Parr] and I can help [students learn], that’s a win for me,” Rinker said. “If I can help these students achieve or help them get close to achieve their goals in life, in agriculture or whatever that might be, that’s really what I am here to help them do.”