TIFTON–For Dr. Mark Kistler, there’s education and then there is the “real” education that students receive in the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. He gives the J.G. Woodroof Farm at ABAC a lot of credit for making that happen.
“ABAC is known for experiential learning, and the farm is an important component to this,” Kistler, Dean of the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said. “Students apply what they have learned in a real-world, hands-on environment under the guidance of their instructors.”
Spread over 400 acres of sun-splashed South Georgia countryside, the Woodroof Farm is named for the first president of ABAC, Dr. J.G. Woodroof, who stayed in the job only one year from 1933-34 before returning to his first love of agricultural research. The enrollment at the time was 99 students.
Today, there are nearly 4,000 students at ABAC and a record 1,371 of that total are enrolled in the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Many of them will not return to a traditional row crop operation when they graduate, but sometime during their four-year stay at ABAC, most of them will take a class which involves the Woodroof Farm.
Kistler believes the extraordinary teaching laboratory gives ABAC an extra edge.
“You’re darn right it does,” Kistler said. “Our students not only learn the principles, theories, and concepts in the classroom but then turn right around and apply these in their course laboratory sessions, capstone projects, and internships. They do not just observe. They actually do.”
Companies take notice when ABAC students graduate.
“Employers seek out our students due to this comparative advantage they have over their counterparts at other colleges and universities,” Kistler said. “This alone is a testament that we are doing something right in our undergraduate programs to prepare our students for not only the workforce but also further educational opportunities.”
Trey Davis earned his associate degree from ABAC in 2006 and then received his bachelor’s degree in Agriculture and Environmental Sciences from the University of Georgia. He joined the ABAC staff as Farm Manager on April Fool’s Day in 2012 but do not expect any foolishness from him. He takes his job very seriously.
“Our students are workable,” Davis said. “They have the book knowledge but then they come out here and learn to calibrate that grain drill or they run that piece of equipment or they are hands-on with the beef cattle.
“That’s what I love about ABAC. Put your hands on it, and that experience will always be yours. The students that come out to the farm love agriculture, and they want to do something to make the world of agriculture even better.”
From teaching labs to managing the crops, Davis does it all on the Woodroof Farm.
“Hey, it’s a farm,” Davis said. “You got to be ready to do everything.”
On this day, Davis guided the farm pickup truck over uneven terrain as it pulled up to a fencing project in progress. The new fence will keep in the ABAC herd of 87 cows.
Beef Cattle Manager Doug Hicks said ABAC students take in the full picture of how steak gets on your plate.
“Yep, they see the artificial insemination, they see the calf born, and then they see it loaded on the truck to Iowa,” Hicks, who has been on the ABAC staff for 20 years, said. “That calf comes into the world at about 75 pounds or so and when he leaves the world, he probably weighs 1,500 to 1,700 pounds.”
Hicks is married to Dr. Mary Ellen Hicks, an ABAC Professor of Animal Science, who just happens to be the only faculty member in the history of ABAC to receive all three of the top awards in teaching, advising, and student engagement during her 32 years of service.
The Hicks accompany students on a spring break experience to Iowa each year. That is where the Black Angus-based ABAC cattle mature by gaining approximately five pounds a day before they meet their demise at the age of 18 months so you can enjoy them at the local steakhouse.
Davis said the farm is always busy.
“Just like any farm, there’s always something to do,” Davis said. “We just harvested the corn, and this hay needs to be cut right now. We use some of the hay to feed the cows, but we also sell some of it.
“We grow corn, cotton, peanuts, soybeans, alfalfa, and Bermuda hay. We had four lab classes out here yesterday. They were at the turf plots, scouting cotton, looking at the corn harvest, and taking soil samples. I also like to see the students do some equipment maintenance, so they can get their hands greasy.”
Ah yes, the equipment. Some of it has been around a bit. Other pieces looked brand new.
“We have a great relationship with the equipment companies,” Davis said. “Sometimes they let us use a piece of equipment for a year. At other times, they will give it to us or loan it to us for a certain length of time.
“These companies believe in what we are doing here. It is all about buy-in. If you get buy-in, other people are willing to help you.”
ABAC Chief Development Officer Deidre Martin said winners abound in the relationship between ABAC and the business world.
“Working with many of the prominent ag equipment companies allows us to have some of the latest equipment for our student experiences,” Martin said “It is a win-win for the companies as they invest in ABAC to help us educate the next generation of ag leaders while our students also become familiar with their brand.”
Employers literally plant the seeds for their future when they donate soybean, cotton, and corn seeds for tucking into the soil on the Woodroof Farm. ABAC graduates who watch those seeds burst into fruition may become a part of that company’s workforce.
“They always compliment us on our graduates in that they are work ready,” Kistler said. “This is due to not only our outdoor learning laboratories such as the Woodroof Farm but also due to our engagement programs (internships, study abroad, undergraduate research) which, again, provide the opportunity for hands-on learning where students apply what they have learned in the classroom.”