‘Sky is the limit’

Sunday, August 19, 2018
Self-described “farm kid” Matt Meiners at the Prairie Plantings plot outside the Science Center at BVU. After formerly working with Congress on agriculture legislation, he jumped at the chance to lead a new BVU Ag Institute program being developed at his alma mater to begin in 2019.
Photo by Dana Larsen

Director for new BVU Ag Institute returns to alma mater

STORM LAKE — “Welcome back, Matt!”

While the newly-minted director of Buena Vista University’s newly-minted Institute of Agriculture, Food and Resource Management is explaining the task ahead of him, he pauses to wave to a passing well-wisher, as might be expected.

As a former poly sci undergrad on the same campus not so long ago, Matt Meiners’ face is a familiar one.

“It’s kind of a strange feeling coming back here as a faculty member instead of a student,” he admitted, as he settles into a Science Center office dominated by a massive wall of imposing black bookshelves, all but one shelf still empty.

“Gonna need more books,” he said, hunting for a favorite, “Letters to a Young Farmer.”

His desk is still mostly bare, too, except for a table lamp made from a Templeton Rye bottle, an homage to his Iowa hometown.

He hasn’t had much time to shop. Two weeks into his tenure after being lured away from a gig as an agriculture policy advisor and legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, he’s just back from representing BVU at the Iowa State Fair.

Time is of the essence. BVU will launch the Institute with the fall 2019 semester.

Step one, he says, is reaching out to the agribusiness industry leaders, to find exactly what they will be looking for in their future hires for key positions. Then he will use that information to build curriculum and get the necessary classes approved to provide those skills to the students.

“We’ll start with ag science and agribusiness and see where the future directs us,” Meiners said.

There will be work to do partnering with community colleges and bringing the programs to BVU’s remote locations to reach nontraditional students as well as those on campus. Simultaneously, attention will turn to recruiting and admission strategy to attract the students who will be tomorrow’s leaders in the agriculture science world.

Within one year, things will need to be seamless.

“We don’t want prospective students to be thinking, you’re new, you don’t know what’s going on,” Meiners said.

The process of building a program from the ground up is a rare opportunity, and one he relishes.

“I’m excited to see where this goes,” he said. “Really, the sky is the limit.”

Luckily, BVU has the resources to work with to pull off a bold development, and current staff members who will be able to teach some of the necessary base classes for the new institute, he says, “For example, students will need a good background in chemistry early on.”

The idea of the institute, announced in April with considerable enthusiasm by first-year President Josh Merchant is to prepare students for good careers in an industry thirsty for skilled people. A USDA study predicts 57,000 annual job openings in food, agriculture and renewable resources fields, many of them at the management level.

“We are literally in the heart of the agriculture world right here,” Meiners said. “Hopefully, we will educate people who will be able to stay in the state or the Midwest.”

Initially, the program will probably target students in Iowa and Nebraska, but in time it could attract ag-minded students from coast to coast.

“Eventually, we will study more than just corn and beans,” he said.

Meiners feels that BVU’s size will be an advantage. Most of the universities known for their agriculture education programs, like Iowa State, tend to be massive state institutions.

The smaller campus, and the 9-to-1 student to staff ratio with a lot of personal attention was one of the aspects of BVU that he appreciated most in his time as a student, Meiners said.

Going to a non-Division I school may also mean that some students are able to balance competing in a sport or other activity with their agriculture studies, which might not be an option for them at a large university.

Also, BVU’s strong reputation for arranging internships should serve it well in recruiting.

The university is already getting some interest from students as word gets around of the Ag Institute plans, but in the beginning stages, no goal or limits for enrollment numbers have yet been set.

“The more the merrier,” Meiners suggests.

Growing up as a “farm kid” himself, he said that if the Ag Institute had been in place when he started college, he would have chosen it as a double-major or a minor.

In general, he feels, agriculture has not received as much attention as it deserves in higher education.

“Farming is becoming so much more conservation minded, so much more technological — there is a lot to learn,” he says, noting that the agriculture students will be among those utilizing a new market trading center being added to the Forum building, with a live stock-market ticker to follow the fortunes of companies including agribusiness corporations.

Long-term, he says, a personal goal is to establish a farm research facility for the college to work with growing crops and technology. “We’d need to get our hands on a few acres,” he said. “My goals will be pretty lofty — they will probably surprise some people.”

Meiners is pleased with the support the Ag Institute development is receiving at BVU long before the first student is enrolled.

“There’s just a great team here, and everyone is excited about this,” he said, noting one personal side benefit.

“I don’t have to wear a suit every day,” he smiled. Once a farm kid, always a farm kid.

Area agriculture related businesses and industries are encouraged to contact Meiners to discuss their needs and internship possibilities.

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