Committment to rural development gives Technical Agriculture College renewed strength

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March 16, 2011 - 7:00pm

We spoke with Weldon Sleight, dean of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, about the revival of the campus in Curtis, Nebraska.

BILL KELLY (NET News): When you took this job did you take it with the intent of taking on (rural economic development) or once you had the job, did you realize this is a great opportunity?

WELDON SLEIGHT (Dean, Nebraska Technical Agriculture College): I spent most of my career developing branch campuses and centers throughout Utah and the western United States and the western states around Utah with the sole purpose of increasing the quality of life for those rural residents.

SLEIGHT (Cont'd): I'll take you back to Paris, Idaho. I left there in (19)68. In (19)98, I went back there and I went up and down Paris' main streets and they kind of had two of them. It was a county seat so it was bigger than it should have been. In those 30 years, we'd lost 29 businesses and agencies. Twenty-nine. Almost one a year. For my mother, it was not too big a loss because when they lost something, she just traveled a little bit more and she could travel, but now she's 80 years old and now it's really really tough. We used to have three hardware stores in Paris, Idaho. That's not the way we ought to be living. And so the, how do you do that? You have to bring the kids home. I got to talk to my mother the other night and she says, it's time for you to come home. She doesn't understand why in the world I'm not home with her now. But yes, Paris, Idaho is deep in my gut and I, if I can do anything to help rural communities, rural Nebraska communities, I want to do that.

KELLY: When you came here, what kind of condition was this place in?

SLEIGHT: I think NCTA has been in a reactionary mode for a long time. My predecessor wanted to make this a community college. We'd die (if we did that). We have a community college 40 miles to the north. We have one 40 miles to the south. We don't have local taxes. There's just no way that we can compete with those community colleges. In fact, we can't compete with any institution in this state. The only way we're going to survive and thrive and grow is by fulfilling our mission which is to produce the next generations of farmers and ranchers and rural business main street business owners in preserving the rural communities of the state.

We have a state-wide mission but if we get off of that, I don't know how we'll survive. But we're, in my estimation, the institution of all institutions in the state that can more fully understand what it means to live in a rural Nebraska community than anyone else of people who live here.

Occasionally when I'm traveling from Lincoln home, I will stop at a Wal-Mart in Lexington or wherever and I come home and have to repent. And the reason I do is because I know the people who own the hardware store here. I know how they struggle. I know the people who own the grocery store and I know that they've got to be struggling. So every time I take my money outside of Curtis, Nebraska, I'm hurting Curtis, Nebraska. But in all the years that I lived and I lived outside of Logan, Utah, but in all the years I lived there and I lived in Ames, Iowa, I didn't think those thoughts because I was close to these metropolitan areas and the little places I lived didn't have these stores. And so it wasn't so clear in my mind all the time as it is now.

KELLY: What makes you think that this college with an enrollment of barely 300 can make a dent on all that?

SLEIGHT: We can't do it alone. But we're part of a huge university. Every chance I get to speak and every time anyone will invite me into a rural community to speak, I go there and speak. This course we developed, yes, it's for our students, but there's a whole bunch of students who never come here. A doctor. That attorney. The teachers. They need to go to UNO and UNK and UNL, the Medical Center. We recognize that it takes this whole big university, but I think we can be a catalyst. I think we are a catalyst of recognizing that these little places, (are) not going to be around unless somebody says, we'll help you bring some young people home and they're going to have babies.' Keep the schools open. Keep that main street viable. In fact, if I had my way, every farmer and rancher in Nebraska's spouse would have a downtown job so they could afford to make it. And they would own the community.

KELLY: In the time you've been here, has what is happening in the classroom changed here on campus to meet this mission?

SLEIGHT: The very first initiative we had was to teach entrepreneurship across our entire curriculum. It doesn't matter if it was English or Math or Chemistry or Vet Tech (Veterinary Technician) or nutrition. We want that professor sometime during that class period to talk about entrepreneurship.

Let me give you a vet tech as an example. Veterinarians have a choice of products to use. Many of them do the same thing, but they're different prices. A Vet Tech, to earn her or his keep ought to be able to say, Mr. Veterinarian or Miss veterinarian, if we buy this product and we buy it in bulk and we do this, we can save five thousand dollars a year.' Rather than a salesman walks through the door and I buy whatever is there.

KELLY: So entrepreneurship and the fact that even if it's not my business I have a better understanding of business skills that I can bring to my employer.

SLEIGHT: That's right. And help them have higher salaries. If I save you five thousand dollars, you're probably going to be pretty enamored with me.

KELLY: The was that an adjustment for faculty here?

SLEIGHT: Oh yeah. We all took this UNL Edge course for entrepreneurs. I encouraged the faculty and my wife and I went to have a date night and we went through that Edge program together. I told them they could develop businesses if they wanted. And I encouraged them to. And we have some that have businesses. There's just no problem with that in my estimation as long as they're teaching and but if they can bring that entrepreneurship, the realism of entrepreneurship in their classroom, that's a good thing.

KELLY: How important is all this construction (being done on the NCTA campus) to meeting the mission and this place having the potential that it does?

SLEIGHT: Two really important things. First of all, something is growing is exciting, and when you come on this campus, you see all the building, you say this place is a going place.

Second, without the new buildings, we couldn't double our enrollment and we absolutely need that. So those are the two major reasons that we're willing to do it. College kids today expect much more than what they used to. When I was growing up, I never had my own bedroom. Now most college kids have their own bedroom and you bring them to the traditional dorms and that's pretty hard on them. So we had to come up with some new apartment-style residence halls that would be more like what the other institutions have because unfortunately, some of these good farm and ranch kids may choose to go to another institution that doesn't have as good a program as we have by a long ways but because they like the dorms. And they like the Student Center. And these other things we haven't had.

KELLY: I heard something that really surprised me. I can't use a credit card on this campus?

That's right. Those things are much of it has to do with our system. And that has been a hard thing. This little campus, we have to do everything that a large campus does with a whole lot fewer people and we should have fewer because we have less students, smaller student bodies, more physical plant. But the processes are identically the same. And so because of that, we don't have everything that we need. We're getting there and yes, the credit card machine is coming.

KELLY: That's something that should have happened ten years ago.

SLEIGHT: Yeah. So basic. What I've said is people have expectations. It doesn't matter if it's the residence hall or credit card machines or whatever, we have expectations. We have to have all the services even though it's hard for us to afford them all.

KELLY: You want a double enrollment.


KELLY: Is that something you know you can do because there's pent-up demand or something you're going to have to work very hard to fill?

SLEIGHT: I think we're going to have to work really hard for it, but we've instituted a lot of new things this Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots' deal. (A program recruiting recent veterans to campus with the hope of getting them to operate farms and ranches.) We're getting huge national press and state press on that. We have a huge number of veterans returning every month. We're sending some care packages to the those who will soon be veterans and in those care packages are is a brochure on the combat boots to cowboy boots. And we're going to get them here. The beautiful thing about that program is many of those are older and (have a family). That's an entirely different dynamic. If we bring a hundred of those students to this to Curtis, it's different than a hundred single 18-year-olds. They're going to have to have housing downtown. They're going to have to have groceries. They're going to have to have a whole bunch of stuff that's going to build the city. And yet, that's the very thing that we want to show all cities throughout Nebraska as think these you may not have an NCTA in your community, but you can certainly develop something else. And that's the entrepreneurship deal.

KELLY: Is the future (stability of the NCTA campus) a done deal now or is it still going to be year-to-year as to what your future's going to be?

I would suggest to you that if the (Nebraska State) Legislature didn't think that we had it together, they wouldn't have funded building 15 million dollars worth of buildings here. Some using private (funds), some will be built with student board and room fees, and some with grants.

We're going to change our heating system to a bio-mass system so that we can harvest all of the red cedars throughout our ranges. Those red cedars are covering 20 to 50 per cent of our ranges. Yeah, we'll save some money on utilities, but the real take-home message is what could we do if we could increase the stock in grades 20 to 50 per cent on our ranges. And boy you just go up and down these highways and see what's happening with red cedars. They're the most invasive weed that we've got. NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and FSA (Farm Service Agency) and our money put together we think is going to give ranchers about 200 dollars per acre to harvest these trees. That makes it worth it to them and it also produces grass for students.

Other people say, "well Sleight, where's all the grass going to come from for all these cows?" And I have two answers. Between 1974 and 2010, we've lost about 380 thousand mother cows in Nebraska. This is a beef state. But we ought to be getting (the cedar trees) out of there. And that's where a bunch of this grass is so I'm suggesting to our students, you buy a skid loader and you go out there and you cut a deal with this rancher that says you have all that land that doesn't have any grass on it. Let me clear it. And within three years, the grass will be there and the grass is mine. And so we created the grass. So those are out of the box entrepreneurial thoughts.

KELLY: Do you come up with this stuff on your own?

SLEIGHT: No I have a much higher power that does that. No, it's old farmer thinking.

KELLY: (For Nebraskans east of Cozad) what do you think the most important thing is for people to know about this campus?

SLEIGHT: That we want to return their children to them. That's the single most important message I can get out. Send your kids here and we'll teach them how to return home. Or if they need a BS Degree or a Master's Degree or another degree, then teach them how to go wherever they need to go to get those degrees, to return home.

KELLY: Why can't (the Lincoln campus) do that? Why can't Kearney do that? Why can't Concordia College or Wayne State do that?

SLEIGHT: They can and they will. I just think that we need to determine we're going to do something for rural Nebraska. In fact, Ronnie Crane, the new vice president for agriculture with the University has an initiative for the rural future and that's exactly what we're doing there as a university. We're going out and we're doing everything we can to determine what we need to do for these rural communities to preserve and enhance them and we're part of that.

KELLY: And what's the difference between what you're saying now and what was happening (at NCTA) ten years ago?

SLEIGHT: The difference is ten years ago we were producing hired hands. And hired hands, they leave for the next highest bidder. If I'm your employer and I bring you to my ranch and say, okay Bill, I'm going to give you seven dollars an hour, whatever we agree with, ten dollars an hour, and I know you'd like to be a rancher someday, but we got calving tomorrow and we've got to bail hay the next day and we've got fencing to do. We'll figure it out one of these days.

Well, you go on for about 15 years and one day your dear wife sits you down and says, Bill, I've been looking at your hours and you're working for about five dollars an hour. Do you know that you can make 12 dollars an hour at Wal-Mart stocking shelves? And you know, we got these kids who are coming up and they're going to be teenagers. We need more money. Well, it's pretty hard for you to say, I'm going to stick around here when you can give your family a higher standard of living.

But all we do is we put a hundred cows in your hind pocket when you leave here. And then when your wife comes and she says, Bill, do you know that you're working for five dollars and hour? You can say, yes, but we have 200 cows. We're working toward 300 cows and we're going to own this ranch or one like it in a few more years. All of a sudden, the two of you recognize what you're that you're working for something much higher, much more important. That's what we have done is we have shown these kids and hopefully, their employers that your very, very best employer, the employee, is somebody who has a stake in the operation.

KELLY: And the young men and young women, they're coming through the doors now. Their first day, are they coming here almost expecting to be hired hands and then the light bulb goes off? Or are they coming here now saying, I'm coming here because I want to be the boss.

SLEIGHT: They're coming here because one day they want to own a ranch. We have 42 kids that are freshman and sophomores that want to own the ranch. Some of them are still fairly immature and they don't know how. They don't know how to talk with ranchers but we're teaching them and it maybe that they've got to go on to UNL and get some more education and some more time to mature and then go out. But again, we want to plant those seeds of ownership within them here now.



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