Capstone course provides real-life farm business experience

Randi Reeder

They say not all learning is done in the classroom, and that is definitely the case with AG 450 Farm.

AG 450 Farm is a senior-level class that is a required capstone course for agricultural studies majors. The AG 450 Farm is the one and only completely student-ran farm at a university in the nation. This farm gives students the opportunity to be involved in everyday management decisions and practices of a typical farm in central Iowa.

If a person pulls up on the 450 Farm on a Thursday afternoon while class is in session, the first thing they will see is about 50 vehicles parked all around the farm. Depending on the day, there could be a lot of activity, but if it is a cold February day with not a lot of outdoor work to be done, most of the students will be in committee meetings deciding on what they want to do with the farm for the semester.

“Farm management and operations [are] key, the farm must be managed and operated correctly,”said assistant professor Thomas Paulsen, the lead professor for the class. “A lot of kids that take this class have helped out at home on the farm. They’ve ran the machinery, they’ve done all of that, but they have not had the opportunity to make decisions that really impact the farm. For most, this is the first time.”

The class meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays, they meet in Curtiss Hall from 1:10 p.m. to 3 p.m. From 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. they hold business meetings or work on the farm. Thursdays the class is at the farm the entire time working on managing and getting other things done around the farm.

The farm is supervised by Greg Vogel, who lives on the site and has been the farm manager for over 25 years. There is also a student worker who takes care of the farm when class is not in session and during university holidays.

This semester, with 50 students, it is one of the largest groups the class has had.

The class is divided into committees and each one focuses on one aspect of the farm. The committees this semester are swine, buildings and ground, public relations, finance, marketing, custom, crops and machinery.

The committees present to the class during the business meeting portion to inform their peers on what they have been working on during the week and what is coming up. All of the business decisions such as buying seed, selling grain and hogs and other decisions are decided on a class vote.

“One time it took us 45 minutes just to sell grain because you have 50 people making a decision,” said Matthew Kopriva, senior in agricultural studies.

Every business decision has to have majority approval and the committee presenting the ideas must have facts backing it up their choices.

“It’s very interesting to see the students during the meeting hour,” Paulsen said. “The students will be tough on each other. This is a class of 50 people — 50 of their closest friends. Their peers are the tougher audience. Plus everyone has a different idea and a different perspective on what they should do. That’s where the learning really takes place.”

Such decisions could be the machinery committee wanting to buy a semi, which was an idea presented on Tuesday during the first large assignment.

Students also have to complete an experiential learning experience. This is a four hour activity done outside of class.

“The student basically does something that they haven’t done before,” said Jay Manternach, senior in agricultural studies. “Some people learn how to load hogs out, work on machinery, how to weld or run GPS. It just depends.”

The main reason for this class is decision making.

“They’ve got to realize that they can’t say ‘oh it’s a rainy day, maybe I’ll do the bookwork.’ That’s not going to fly,” Paulsen said. “They come here, and we have limited resources. They learn how to manage, and they learn how to take over from the class before them. They don’t have a say in what was decided last semester. Some decisions have already been made but they have the power to next the next decision.”