REXBURG, Idaho — Chase Wilcox is a college sophomore, but he’s already collaborated with agriculture industry professionals and publicly presented research he conducted for a major producer of crop nutrition products, the Mosaic Co.
Wilcox is one of several Brigham Young University-Idaho students involved in a rapidly growing research program operated under a unique partnership. Since September 2014, BYU-Idaho and the Research Business Development Center, a nonprofit partially funded by the university, have collaborated to provide undergraduates with the chance to take part in agricultural research typically reserved for graduate students.
In replicated trials conducted at BYU-Idaho’s 190-acre Hillview Farm, Wilcox evaluated two Mosaic micronutrient products used to boost potato yields.
“It’s been pretty amazing that we get to do some of that serious research work,” Wilcox said. “Hearing I could do that at the place I am in my life and not having to go through years of college to get that experience was something I found intriguing.”
Nels Hansen, chairman of BYU-Idaho’s Department of Applied Plant Science, explained there’s a shortage of agricultural program graduates to fill vacant positions in the industry, and his program aims to win over new recruits early in their college careers.
“At our department, we have one of the highest rates of students who have a job at graduation because the demand is so high,” Hansen said. “The problem is we don’t attract enough students into our program to meet demand.”
Though BYU-Idaho doesn’t have a graduate program, the school doesn’t shy away from agricultural research. Hansen said most clients who contract with the RBDC — the Idaho Wheat Commission, the Idaho Oilseeds Commission, J.R. Simplot Co., Monsanto, Agrium, Bayer Crop Sciences, BASF, DuPont and Mosaic, to name a few — also appreciate the chance to help groom the next generation of agricultural professionals.
Chris Humphreys, an agronomy and agricultural technology professor, has good luck recruiting mechanical engineering students into the agricultural program. He said mechanical engineering is a rigorous program with high turnover, and “rather than seeing them walk away, we’re trying to find off-roads for these students.”
Humphreys has also noticed more agricultural students with no farming or ranching background are enrolling. According to USDA, U.S. colleges produce 35,400 graduates per year to fill roughly 58,000 annual job openings requiring bachelor’s or advanced degrees in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and the environment.
Growth at RBDC
BYU-Idaho, owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originated in 1888 as an elementary school serving 59 students in a log cabin, called Bannock Stake Academy. The curriculum was expanded to include high school courses two years later, and the name was changed to Rick’s Academy in 1903.
College courses were added in 1915, and the institution became Rick’s College in 1923, retaining only college courses. In 2001, Rick’s College became BYU-Idaho, and now boasts an enrollment of 19,000, and is projected to grow to 22,000 students within the next few years, Hansen said.
BYU-Idaho’s Hillview Farm is self-sufficient, supported by the sales of commodities such as wheat, alfalfa and potatoes.
“The primary goal of the farm is to give students applied experience that prepares them for the field of agriculture,” Hansen said.
Farm revenue covers wages for student workers — the farm is available to about 100 students in the agronomy program and 200 horticulture students, who raise vegetables for sale at area farmers’ markets.
The university also seeks applicants each spring for more intensive “mentored student research.” The student scientists are paid for the work but receive no course credit. RBDC handles the money and works with clients, who typically approach it with their research needs. Sometimes, however, RBDC and its mentors pitch ideas to industry.
Much of the research is conducted at Hillview Farm, involving BYU-Idaho faculty mentors. RBDC also has its own outside staff of expert mentors that supervises BYU-Idaho students’ off-campus research.
RBDC Director of Agriculture Kurt Harman said the organization handles about 35 research projects per year, covering food science, animal science, plant science and agricultural business. Harman said RBDC’s goal is to double its student-led research within the next 18 months, and to triple its program within three to four years. He said RBDC will soon make a push to hire additional expert mentors, attract volunteer mentors or reach arrangements with clients willing to supply new mentors to aid in the program’s expansion.
“We have the students. We have the industry. We just need to get organized,” Harman said.
BYU-Idaho students are always among the top performers in an annual competition ranking undergraduate research projects, hosted during the annual meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America. Of the five BYU-Idaho students who presented their research posters at the late-October conference in Tampa, Fla., three placed in the top three in their divisions.
Wilcox, who was raised on a cattle ranch in Redmond, Ore., took second place in the agronomy division. As an undergraduate studying agricultural business, Wilcox is following closely in the footsteps of his grandfather, Dennis Wilson, a former DuPont agronomist. Wilcox has enjoyed collaborating through his research with his grandfather’s former colleagues and competitors.
BYU-Idaho senior Brad Davis, of Kingsport, Tenn., took second place among 22 participants in the competition’s soil fertility and plant nutrition category. His research involved testing the effectiveness of humic acid-based products made by his client, J.R. Simplot, to prevent phosphorus from binding with calcium in soil. After five months of testing soil reactions in a laboratory, Davis concluded at least one of the products would provide growers with a good return on their investment.
While pursuing his bachelor’s degree, Davis said he’s participated in about 10 agricultural research projects, including four that received funding from industry partners.
“Our program is probably one of the most student-driven programs in the country,” Davis said. “I don’t know of any other program that allows undergraduate students to do the things they’re doing at BYU-Idaho.”
BYU-Idaho faculty members have a heavy course load and seldom have time to get the research they facilitate published in scientific journals. Nonetheless, research findings are widely disseminated. Clients often publicize the data or provide support for students to present their findings at conferences.
Most of the program’s graduates become agronomists or farm managers, and about 10 percent go on to graduate school. Hansen, the department chairman, believes the opportunity BYU-Idaho students have to learn in real-world circumstances enables them to “hit the ground running, and it sets them apart.”
“I have a degree in agronomy, and I think I was out in the field two times the entire time I went through that degree,” Hansen said.
Humphreys typically asks students he’s mentoring to help teach classes, and recruit classmates to help with labor and data-gathering.
“There’s a certain aspect of learning you have to do before you teach,” Humphreys said.
The Idaho Oilseeds Commission started contracting with BYU-Idaho on mustard research this season to provide data in the region where most of the crop’s production occurs.
“We can have field days and have our growers come to those field days and review the work they’re doing,” said Bill Meadows, owner of Mountain States Oilseeds in American Falls.
University of Idaho Extension Cereals Pathologist Juliet Marshall, who conducts UI’s cereal variety trials, is working with Humphreys on winter wheat variety trials BYU-Idaho students planted this fall at Hillview Farm.
Cathy Wilson, the Idaho Wheat Commission’s director of research collaboration, said her organization helped the BYU-Idaho program buy a combine last fall. The commission is also supporting the variety trials and has contributed toward a seeding-rate study and trials on fungicide and herbicide application timing.
Wilson said application-timing research “wasn’t novel,” but the commission supported it based on its strategic objective to “raise the next generation of agricultural professionals.”
Students who lead research for the commission must submit a report documenting what they learned and present their findings at a national conference.
“A lot of people throughout the industry are approaching retirement, and we need that next generation to fill those positions,” Wilson said. “We’re trying everything we can to encourage students to pursue agriculture.”