Farms are a central and integral piece of Wisconsin culture. Families have owned and operated their farms for generations, passing down stories, tradition and trade. In today’s day of technology, however, the art of operating a successful and profitable farm has changed.
Agriculture relies on technology more than ever, and many farmers have to learn how to incorporate it into their business in order to remain afloat. UW-Madison offers the Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC) program, a 16-week program — with an optional second program the following year — that helps those who want to work in the agricultural sector get the skills they need without a four-year degree. Students take classes for eight weeks in the fall, and then another eight weeks during the spring.
The short course program was the first solely agriculture-based course to be offered in Wisconsin, established in 1886. The original program covered topics such as chemistry, agriculture, botany and veterinary science. It took place during the winter in order to not interfere with planting or harvests, and was specifically designed to cater to students who had businesses, families and farms to tend to away from Madison.
With this program came great demand. According to the College of Agricultural Life and Sciences, short course enrollment increased from 20 students to 475 students during its first 30 years of operation. Wisconsinites were getting the education and training they needed in order to help run a farm efficiently and profitably, without the time commitment and cost of a traditional four-year education.
Since the establishment of the program, FISC has flourished. Running annually from November to April, students have access to 35 courses in “soils, crops, dairy, meat animals, agricultural engineering, farm business planning, agribusiness, human relations and communications,” according to the FISC website.
FISC offers students an accessible agricultural education.
“The benefit of the program is that it provides students an opportunity to learn from the state’s leading experts and researchers,” Assistant Director Cindy Fendrick wrote in an email. “It is ideal for a student who wants further knowledge of applied agriculture without having to take two or four years away from their farming operations. It is also applied learning which means courses are more focused on hands-on learning in and out of the classroom.”
Despite FISC’s massive influence on Wisconsin agriculture and UW-Madison’s history, the program has become increasingly cost-prohibitive for prospective students. In 1980, the program was $523.50 for in-state students. While tuition varies based on course load, the estimated cost for attendance in 2010 was just under $3,500. Counting for inflation, the price of a FISC education has doubled since 1980. This is part of a nationwide trend of higher education becoming more costly, and hence pricing out potential students from getting the education they need in order to be successful in their respective fields.
This need for education is especially true given that farming is changing and is not as profitable as it once was, meaning that there is less of a chance that family farm owners can invest in training like FISC. A vicious cycle thus begins, where only the farms and farmers with such training will be able to be successful.
FISC no longer has over 400 students like it did in the early days of the program. With decreasing enrollment and higher tuition, the art and importance of agricultural education is becoming uncertain. Yet, FISC is crucial to the wellbeing of Wisconsin agriculture. The increasing technological influence on farming makes it is harder to pass information on to generations, instead requiring formal education in order to be successful. FISC offers farmers a way to get this education in a time frame that does not interfere with their business, and at a price that is more accessible than it otherwise would be.
Without FISC, Wisconsin’s agricultural future would falter, according to Fendrick. “If the short course would not exist, I think UW-Madison would lose an important opportunity to impact the state’s 43 billion dollar agricultural industry.”
Short course provides Wisconsin farmers who might not be able to afford a costly degree from a four-year university the knowledge and education that is now a necessity farming. This universal accessibility of knowledge will not only ensure farms across the state remain open, but will ensure Wisconsin communities remain thriving and the Wisconsin agriculture industry keeps its foothold as an agricultural powerhouse in the United States.
Agriculture is something that runs deep in the veins of Wisconsinites. While most traditional students overlook the FISC program and what it offers the university and statewide community, it plays a vital role in offering the future farmers of Wisconsin a way to keep this tradition alive.
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