DIXON, Ill. — Despite the curveballs thrown by a year of COVID-19, the agriculture program at Sauk Valley Community College just keeps growing.
When First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited the SVCC campus on April 19, she saw demonstrations in some of the college’s career and technical education programs, including nursing and manufacturing.
One of the newer programs at Sauk is the agriculture program, which was restarted in 2017, after being absent from the college for a number of years. Since then, the program has been through a change of faculty and the challenges of COVID-19.
Throughout everything, Kevin Larsen, the SVCC ag instructor, has his eyes on the future.
“We survived COVID, and we even experienced a little bit of growth in the year of COVID. We did not see any decrease in enrollment in ag at Sauk from the spring of 2020 to the fall of 2020, and we saw an increase in enrollment from the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021,” Larsen said.
He took over from Dr. Ryan Anderson in the fall semester of 2019.
“I had a semester of normalcy,” Larsen said.
With classes at Sauk recently returning to in-person learning, Larsen said his classes returned to the classroom a year to the week that they left last year.
For Larsen and his classes, the switch to remote learning really wasn’t a stretch.
“I said that actually, we are kind of built for it, in a way. I wanted to go paperless anyway so they could take quizzes online. And something unique to the ag program at Sauk is team-based learning,” Larsen said.
In team-based learning, students are put into groups, where they work together to take quizzes, discuss learning material and topics, and generate ideas and answers.
“They are able to discuss what they gained from the reading, what they remember from the previous chapter, along with their own experience. They are able to collaborate and discuss and generate ideas to find the answers,” Larsen said.
The teams are built at the start of the semester and are a mix of students with farm and agriculture experience and those who are new to agriculture.
“We mix students together so you get a nice balance of experiences and knowledge,” Larsen said.
The ag program is a mix of classroom and hands-on learning for students.
“We are out and about and doing a lot. The ag mechanics class comes out to my farm to work on equipment. The animal science class is out doing farm tours. We’ve been out at my place working with my cattle. The soil science class recently visited a farm that has a strip-till machine that was built by the farmer himself,” Larsen said.
He said the program continues to benefit from supporters and local agribusiness.
“We are very fortunate to have some really strong, supportive equipment dealerships in our area who have helped us out with harvest or with planting. We have our own planter and grain cart, but we don’t have a tractor so we’ve been fortunate to have some partners close to campus who just tell me if you need a tractor, the keys are in it, go ahead and use it,” he said.
Larsen said the program is in the process of purchasing a tractor pending college approval.
In The Field
The program has two outdoor plots, a 7-acre test plot and then a 14-acre plot that has been in a corn and soybean rotation. One addition to the program is that the 14-acre plot is being transitioned to organic small grains production of corn, soybeans and wheat, so students can get real-life experience in both the process to move to transition ground to organic grain production and so that they can learn about all types of agriculture production.
Larsen and his students will incorporate cover crops on both of the plots.
“The one thing we emphasize with the Sauk ag program is that there is not just one way to do agriculture, organic or conventional. One is not more right than the other in our viewpoint,” he said.
Larsen added that he wants to prepare students to not only be prepared to work with different types of agriculture production, but also to be able to communicate about different systems and approaches.
“My focus is — if they have a conversation with someone who has an opposing viewpoint, they at least need to have an understanding of where the other person is coming from,” he said.
Larsen said he is looking forward to the addition of precision agriculture classes and an additional instructor for the program. A second instructor is expected to be on board by the fall 2021 semester and will teach classes in the ag program, as well as other programs before that instructor starts teaching the precision courses offered starting in the fall 2022 semester.
“We have a feeling that’s going to take off, and we are very excited about being able to offer those classes,” Larsen said.