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Grant takes MTI program statewide

Mitchell Technical Institute President Greg Von Wald, front, speaks Wednesday morning at the school to announce a grant it received for its South Dakota Center for Farm/Ranch Management. Also pictured, from left, are instructors Calvin Pietz, Lori Christensen and Roger DeRouchey. (Chris Huber/Republic Photo)

Mitchell Technical Institute has garnered a $147,542 federal grant to help it expand its Farm/Ranch Business Management Program statewide.

The grant will help the newly renamed South Dakota Center for Farm/Ranch Management hire an instructor in Mitchell to replace Calvin Pietz, who is retiring next June, and employ a new one in northeast South Dakota, program instructor Roger DeRouchey said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture provided the grant.

MTI President Greg Von Wald noted that the state's economy is dominated by agriculture and the average age of farmers nationwide is 57, with a higher average for the state.

"The real purpose is to get a new generation of farmers into the field," Von Wald said.

The program, which serves more than 90 area farms and ranches a year, helps farmers to develop the business and management skills needed to operate their farms more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Program instructors were ready to shut down the program after being unable to secure about $110,000 in state funding support in 2009. The program has been offered since 1982.

MTI announced in July that the program would survive through private industry support in 2010-11. That support translated to $35,000 a year over three years from five partners -- Farm Credit Services of America, the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, the South Dakota Wheat Commission, the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council and the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council.

Most of that money was used as a local match for the federal grant, said Heather Lentz, MTI Foundation director.

Some of the partners' contribution was used to pay for new instructor Lori Christensen, who was hired in July to work in the Brookings and Madison areas, said Julie Brookbank, MTI marketing director. While the school is paying the remaining cost of hiring Christensen, grant funds will eventually cover that, she said.

Farm Credit Services also is helping with farm-family recruitment and allowing its regional offices to be used as classroom space.

The one-time, two-year grant and partners' contributions will provide MTI with the means to expand the program, making it available to all farmers and ranchers in the state, DeRouchey said.

MTI plans to add an instructor in western South Dakota in 2012, Brookbank said.

Christensen said program changes involve Farm Service Agency borrower training becoming part of the beginning course.

Then, instructors will begin recruiting newer, younger farmers into its traditional course later this fall, she said.

Lentz projected that 80 to 100 students would enroll in the beginner program the first year of the grant.

Von Wald envisioned 250 students statewide in the second-level farm business management program, in which participants work one-on-one with the instructor to keep records of their own business to use in developing a farm business plan and get cost comparisons to help increase profitability.

Brookbank said students in the program have an average annual net income of more than $96,000, compared to the nationwide average of $71,000.

"We hope that by being able to bring this program statewide, it will help expand the educational opportunities available and, of course, raise their bottom line," she said.