McHenry County College is getting ready to welcome a new crop of Entrepreneurial Agriculture students this fall.
The program, which trained its first group of students last year, is designed to prepare both degree-seeking students and food and farm innovators for a successful and rewarding future in the regional food economy.
"Our students are gaining direct, hands-on experience all the way from seed to sales," said Emily Zack, farm practicum director at MCC. "This spring, our 'Intro to Farm Practicum' class started seeds in the greenhouse, planted in one of our high tunnels, and harvested for an on-campus pop-up farm stand.
"Students in another class interviewed local and regional agriculture professionals to learn more about opportunities in the industry. The program really gives students a taste of what it's like to work in the food and farming economy."
The group also regularly provides produce to the MCC Café and Culinary program, and will be starting a weekly on-campus farm stand to showcase their produce.
"This will be structured like we are heading to a market," said Zack. "We will harvest, wash, bag, weigh, and display the morning of the stand."
Prior to the program's inception, MCC spent over a year talking to local farmers and agricultural and business experts throughout McHenry County and the surrounding region to put together a curriculum that provides the training students need to make a difference in the world of food production.
"What sets our program apart is that -- in addition to learning about basic growing -- we've also incorporated business and marketing classes so students will graduate ready to create a profitable, scalable business," said Zack.
Garrett Beier, an Entrepreneurial Agriculture instructor who also heads up the college's Horticulture program, added that it was very exciting to teach as part of the new program this year.
"You could tell how passionate the students were just by talking to them," Beier said. "They are really excited to combine the theory with the hands-on side of agriculture and farming. They love growing food, and just want to learn more. The feedback we've received from students has been overwhelmingly positive."
One of the new initiatives started through the program is Student Farm Week, an event where students can showcase their work and sell their plants and produce each May. The program has also added some equipment this year, including solar panels and a new tractor, and made considerable improvements to the greenhouse hydroponic system, including new systems and automated dosing and monitoring systems.
The Center for Agrarian Learning at MCC is garnering statewide attention as well. Sheri Doyel, director of the CAL, and MCC students Israel Sandoval, Amanda Story, and Kitt Garmisch were recently interviewed for the Illinois Farm Bureau's podcast and YouTube channel in April, as well as featured in Partners magazine and Farmweek Now newspaper.
In addition to the AAS in Entrepreneurial Agriculture, MCC offers an AAS in Horticulture and certificates in Entrepreneurial Agriculture Business/Marketing, Entrepreneurial Agriculture Production, and Floral Design. No prior experience is needed to join any of the programs.
"Anyone who is interested in any part of our food system -- someone who likes plants, working outside, or has an interest in environmental science and ecology -- would be an ideal candidate," said Zack.
"We teach every aspect, from saving seeds to soil health, harvest techniques to proper storage.
"The possibilities are really endless with this degree," she added. "Our graduates can pursue a variety of exciting career paths, including farm ownership and operations, greenhouse management, landscaping, floral production and design, or even bookkeeping and marketing specific to farm businesses."
Students interested in joining the program or learning more can visit www.mchenry.edu/ag or email email@example.com.