A CALS “Bridge to Business” Turns 20

Each January, the Renk Agribusiness Institute hosts the Wisconsin Ag Outlook Forum and releases the Status of Wisconsin Agriculture report—a sure sign for the agricultural business community that the new year is here. And each fall sees the arrival of a new cohort of Renk Scholars, undergraduates selected

for a scholarship program emphasizing leadership in contemporary agricultural issues and agribusiness.

The Renk Agribusiness Institute was founded 20 years ago to coordinate the university’s agribusiness teaching, research and outreach activities, provide financial assistance to students pursuing agribusiness degrees and offer professional development programs for agribusiness executives. The institute originated with a gift from the Renk family of Sun Prairie, founders of the Renk Seed Company. The institute is housed in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics (AAE) and draws on the expertise of faculty from across campus.

This year the institute has a new director: AAE professor Paul Mitchell, who is eager to increase the visibility and reputation of agriculture and agribusiness in CALS and UW and build more connections between the campus and agribusinesses in the state and region.

“Whether by offering educational and training opportunities for agribusiness professionals,
or exploring new options to facilitate connections between campus and the state’s ag industry, the institute can play an important role to help maintain and enhance the innovation capacity of Wisconsin agribusiness,” Mitchell says.

The Renk Scholars program offers a great way to help fuel growth, notes Mitchell.

“I inherited a solid student program from my predecessors, with a thriving agribusiness management club and a number of undergraduates participating in national student competitions,” says Mitchell. “Through the high-caliber work of the students, I hope to build the program’s reputation and visibility on campus and especially in the private sector as the number of Renk alums continues to grow. Through these experiences, we’re establishing cohorts among the students that generate synergies—and lifelong connections for both students and campus to capitalize on.”

Mitchell, along with colleagues on campus and partners around the state, a committed board of advisors and new associate director Jeremy Beach, is taking time this year to consider exactly how the institute should grow.

“There’s plenty of work to do and we are still in the visioning stages,” says Mitchell. “I’ve been looking more carefully at data analytics or ‘big data’ as a possible focus for the institute as it builds on the strengths of the department and college, but we have many other ideas on the table as well.”

Click here for more information on the Renk Agribusiness Institute and the Renk Scholars Program

Paul Mitchell, Agricultural and Applied Economics, takes the helm at the Renk Agribusiness Institute.
Photo by Ben Vincent, UW-Madison CALS

Catching up with Darrel Feucht

Wisconsin’s first Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) will get some help from CALS before their tour starts in late 2011. The group is taking a short course Feucht calls “101 Extreme,” a 40-hour crash course in farming practices they’ll need in Afghanistan. And CALS International Studies will serve as a “reachback” resource for Feucht’s team to call upon for assistance while in country. • Feucht’s group, headed for the volatile eastern province of Kunar, will build upon an effort that since 2007 has involved dozens of National Guard ADT teams from other states (they have been going over in waves over the past three years). Their work has included everything from training farmers in the use of trellises in grape production to building root cellars, slaughterhouses and wind turbines.

What kind of agricultural efforts will you build upon?
One thing that’s really gained momentum are demonstration farms. ADT teams demonstrate growing particular crops at different stages of the growth cycle and invite farmers in to show how you can do things from start to finish. It’s more efficient to teach a group of people the same thing at one time. It also means less time for soldiers to be traveling on the road. It’s more secure for our people.

What kinds of crops will you be working on?
Winter wheat is becoming a popular crop. Pomegranate is a huge crop in that region. One of the construction projects is a pomegranate juice production facility. Beekeeping is popular, too, and is part of the demonstration farm as well.

Why is this kind of help needed?
Many years ago, Afghanistan was one of the major crop-producing countries in the region. They have the wherewithal to produce because of their rich soils and irrigation. The challenge is that a lot of the canal work and irrigation systems have been neglected or destroyed over the last few decades because of the wars. What looks to us like a vast wasteland has great potential when you work on these irrigation systems. That’s why we’re taking a couple of civil engineers with us.

What’s the state of farming compared to our own?
It’s been described to me many times as 1900s Wisconsin. There’s almost no machinery, you till with an ox. It’s very basic farming.

Are you excited?
I am apprehensively excited. To me, “excited” is if someone said you were going to spend a year in Hawaii. It’s still a dangerous country. There’s a risk in where we’re going. We try to mitigate and minimize that risk to keep everybody safe. I think it is a tremendous opportunity for the state of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin, and the College of Ag and Life Sciences.  And I’m looking forward to it. I’m glad I was picked to do this, and we will do the best we can. My No. 1 focus is that of the 58 people who go over, 58 come back and we’re all safe and healthy.