Colorado’s farms and ranches might seem a long way away from the financial markets of Wall Street. However, there aren’t too many business sectors that are as important to the United States economy as agriculture.
Agriculture runs through Wendy Lewis’s veins. Born and raised on a farm, Lewis has more than 25 years of experience teaching agribusiness to students in the Colorado Community College System.
“I actually came here to Northeastern Junior College myself and received an Associate degree in Agriculture Economics before finishing my Bachelor’s in Agriculture Economics and Animal Science at Colorado State University,” says Lewis. “I then did my master’s at the University of Minnesota, which gave me insight into production agriculture in the Midwest. I was able to combine my love for the production of both crops and livestock with the business side of agriculture, which I really enjoyed."
Alongside her work at Northeastern, Lewis continues to work on her family farm with her husband.
“We live on a farm near where I grew up, and we raise crops and livestock,” says Lewis. “Everything we do on our home farm involves all aspects of agricultural business. It’s exciting because I get the opportunity to not only teach about agriculture in the classroom but then also experience that daily on our home farm.”
What is Agriculture Business?
Lewis explains that agribusiness incorporates all of the activities required to raise crops and livestock and then make those products available to the consumer.
“Agribusiness supports every activity within the whole realm of the food and fiber system,” says Lewis. “That could be production, financial aspects, marketing, merchandising, or distribution. Agribusiness encompasses all of those support activities.”
According to Lewis, agriculture business is the dominant industry in the areas surrounding Northeastern’s campus.
“Agriculture is very important to the town of Stirling,” says Lewis. “A lot of jobs in our area are related to agriculture in some way. We get a lot of strong support from the agricultural community.”
This local support allows the agribusiness program at Northeastern to enhance the real-world instruction they offer to students.
“We do a lot of field trips, visiting people who are in production to see how their farms and ranches work," says Lewis. "When we ask the question, ‘What is agricultural business management?’ we'll visit a feedlot and actually go and see how it works in practice. We also regularly bring in speakers. For example, in the precision technology area, those industry speakers are coming in all the time to help students understand exactly what they do.”
However, agribusiness isn’t just a local concern. As a business sector, agribusiness is a national powerhouse.
“The agribusiness sector absolutely is huge for the economy,” says Lewis. “More than 22 million jobs are part of what we would consider our food and fiber system. We are feeding the world, and that's exciting, but we are also talking about a lot of employment and output for our nation.”
Different Types of Agribusiness
The agribusiness sector involves a wide range of agricultural disciplines and traditional business skills — which means that career opportunities are also wide-ranging.
“It’s such a big field, and our students are interested in almost every aspect of it,” says Lewis. “Maybe they like the financial side of things and want to work as an analyst at a bank. Others are interested in sales or marketing and will find themselves working for organizations selling ‘input supplies’ — that could be anything from seed and feed, chemicals and fertilizer, through to agricultural machinery.”
Other students are looking for the skills they need to go back to the family farm or ranch and develop the business.
“We have a lot of agribusiness students who want to go back into a family farm or ranch management role,” says Lewis. “Maybe they are involved in production agriculture, and they are looking to advance their skills and knowledge to help support those areas.”
No matter what area of interest a student wants to pursue, Lewis believes there is a world of opportunity in the agribusiness sector.
“I would say the sky is the limit in agribusiness because there are so many positions that continue to grow,” says Lewis. “Some graduates might start as management trainees and then eventually move themselves up into senior management roles. Maybe they start as an analyst at a bank but then have the opportunity to move up to a loan officer position, and then eventually to higher levels within the banking system. Or perhaps they start a career in sales as a sales representative before moving into regional, national or even global sales.”
How to Get Jobs in the Agriculture Business
To work in any aspect of agribusiness, students need to equip themselves with a solid set of “traditional” business skills. They will also need to become “fluent in agriculture.”
“I was speaking with a student recently about the differences between a straight business degree and an ag business degree,” says Lewis. “One of the benefits of having an agribusiness degree is that it will give you the business skills you need, but it will enable you also to talk with confidence and understanding to someone in agriculture, based on real experience.”
Getting the experience that top agriculture companies look for in their employees means that students have to be prepared to get their hands dirty.
“That's the thing I think that's exciting about the agribusiness field,” says Lewis. “We want our agribusiness students to be well-versed in the business side of things. We want them to know the financial, marketing, and merchandising side of things. However, we also want our students to understand production agriculture from both the crop and the livestock side. That might mean that you are going to be in some crops classes, or maybe some precision technology classes — or maybe you are going to be in a reproduction class, and you'll be out calving cows one weekend.”
Lewis explains that students need to develop the skills and knowledge to address the often unique business challenges facing the agribusiness sector in any given season.
“In agriculture, there are always going to be challenges,” says Lewis. “For example, we are always going to have challenges related to water and land use. We’ve got to figure out how to balance those valuable and fragile resources to feed a growing population in the future. The agribusiness sector needs to understand these challenges and help farmers and ranchers adapt, keep growing and continue to feed the world.”
Agribusiness – The Next Generation
According to Lewis, there is no shortage of young people ready to take on the challenge presented by modern agriculture. Many students, like Lewis, have agriculture in their blood.
“I would say maybe 70% of my students probably came from a farm or ranch background,” says Lewis. “I feel like we do have a lot of young people who want to go back into agriculture, and we don't want to lose that.”
Lewis suggests that students who don't come from a farming background are often inspired to study agriculture business at Northeastern after participating in high school agricultural programs.
While not all of Lewis's students come from farming families, they quickly feel like they have joined one.
“Northeastern has a unique family environment,” says Lewis. “When students come here, they feel at home. Students can easily relate to the other students, and that's important because while they are best friends at college, they might also be colleagues and business partners in the future.”
Agribusiness Degree Options
Northeastern offers students two agribusiness degree options: an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree designed for students who plan to directly enter the workforce after graduation and an Associate of Science (AS) degree for students hoping to transfer into a four-year degree program.
“The non-transfer students will take more applied courses in agricultural-based concepts,” says Lewis. “We make sure they are well-versed in the financial side and the marketing side. They’ll get to see both the crop and livestock side of things when they look at production. They'll also do an internship with a company, giving them the opportunity to have hands-on experience that they will need to land those high-demand jobs in agriculture.”
Lewis explains that the college works closely with many organizations in the local agribusiness sector, and this is where most students find their internships.
“A lot of the internships are with companies that have had our students in the past,” says Lewis. “We have a good working relationship with lots of businesses in our area, and so a lot of students will look to those organizations for their internships. If they want to be back in their home location to find their internship, that's also perfectly fine. They may even be able to find one with a company they would like to work for in the future.”
Transfer students focus on acquiring the general education credits they need to transfer into the third year of a four-year program.
“They'll take a lot of their first freshman and sophomore courses,” says Lewis. “They’ll complete those and have 60 credits ready to transfer on to a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school.”
While Lewis highlights the cost savings of attending a community college before transferring to a four-year school, she also believes there are many other advantages Northeastern can offer.
“The ratio between the instructors and students is a lot lower here," says Lewis. "We can offer more hands-on instruction and smaller class sizes. There will be many lab-based courses that provide one-on-one attention for students that you might not get if you are at a bigger university — especially with those lower-level courses. The instruction level will be exactly the same here, but maybe you are taking your biology with 30 students instead of 300 students. Those smaller class sizes, the one-on-one faculty attention, all help students prepare for their next level of education.”
Lewis also believes the smaller class sizes offered at Northeastern allow many students to acclimate to college life before transferring to larger institutions.
“Those transfer students are hitting the ground running because they had such a well-transitioned setting from first attending Northeastern,” says Lewis.
Again, Lewis can share with her students expectations of college life based on her own experiences.
“I attended a smaller high school,” says Lewis. “Having that stepping stone of coming here and getting my feet wet in this atmosphere before I transferred to a university with 25,000 students on one campus was such a good thing. It’s just a blessing for these kids — they can step into that next point at the university and almost be ahead of a lot of juniors because they've had so much early background experience here with us.”
The Northeastern Junior College Experience
Students attending Northeastern aren’t only interested in the excellent educational opportunities. They also want to participate in the full college experience offered on the college’s Sterling campus.
“When students come to Northeastern, they are getting a full campus environment,” says Lewis. “The students can live in the dorms and really be involved in anything they want to be involved in.”
Lewis is particularly proud of the various clubs and organizations available to students across the Northeastern campus.
“A student here in the agricultural department could be in multiple clubs and organizations and participate in activities across campus,” says Lewis. “We have, of course, sports teams across campus, but in our department, we've got a ranch horse versatility team, a rodeo team, a livestock judging team, and our horse judging team.”
Lewis often shares her personal experiences of club membership at Northeastern with her students.
“I was on the livestock judging team when I was a student here,” says Lewis. “When I look back to my college career, I loved the things that I studied, but the friendships and experiences I formed out of the classroom and the contacts I made with colleagues on the judging team or while we were out visiting producers are the things you remember.”
Students are also encouraged to explore ideas a little further from home.
“We've got one of our groups going on a tour to see a variety of different agricultural operations based in Florida,” says Lewis. “They are going to see aspects of how a different area of the world is producing and marketing their products and what is it like to be in agribusiness somewhere else. Those types of experiences are always invaluable for our students."
Lewis explains that the skills and perspectives acquired both inside and outside of the classroom are especially valuable in the workplace.
“To be successful in the agribusiness sector, you have to be able to prove that you have critical thinking and analytical skills, problem-solving skills — and that you can communicate ideas in a very professional manner, with strong leadership capabilities,” says Lewis. “If you can leave Northeastern with those traits, it doesn't matter where you are headed; you'll find success in many different areas."
To learn more about how a degree from Northeastern Junior College can help you find your place in the ever-growing agribusiness sector, visit the agriculture business program page on our website.