Preparing for the Future of Agriculture: Celebrating Five Years of Ag Forward

February 12, 2020 Heather McHale

Agriculture Forward at Maryland, the IAA’s unique transfer-advantage program, is celebrating its fifth academic year! Over the course of that five years, the Ag Forward program has ignited other changes at the IAA: an improved pathway for IAA students to earn bachelor’s degrees, a demographical change in the student population and a new track in Agricultural Leadership and Communication.  

Students in the Ag Forward program pursue both an IAA certificate and a bachelor’s degree from within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) at the same time. The IAA launched this innovative program in Fall 2014. Our first Ag Forward graduate, Ruby Fishbein, completed her bachelor’s degree in May 2018. Since then, Ag Forward students have earned degrees in Animal and Avian Sciences, Environmental Science and Technology, and Agricultural Sciences and Technology. Current Ag Forward students are pursuing degrees from many different departments in AGNR.

An Ag Forward student’s plan requires a lot of coordination. The program’s advisor works with each admitted student to finalize a specific plan that meshes the requirements of the bachelor’s degree with the requirements for the certificate. While Ag Forward allows students to maximize the efficiency of their graduation plans, the program is quite rigorous, often requiring students to carry 17-18 credits per semester in order to complete both credentials in four years. To follow the Ag Forward pathway, the student must complete 30 credits in the first year with at least a 3.0 GPA.

Ag Forward is just one of the pathways available to IAA students; many other IAA graduates pursue bachelor’s degrees after completing their certificate work. Regardless of which path they choose, IAA students who complete a bachelor’s degree at UMD enjoy a unique advantage: they receive “resident credit” for almost all of their courses, which means that they count toward the student’s baccalaureate requirements and GPA. The IAA strives to maximize our students’ choices, whether they apply for Ag Forward, complete a certificate and then apply to complete a bachelor’s degree, or earn a certificate and join the work force.

These educational pathways have attracted new groups of prospective students. Our student body is more diverse than ever before, both demographically and in terms of career aspirations. In fall semester of 2013, women made up just 22% of our student body; by fall 2018, 40% of our students were female. This change reflects evolving attitudes in the agricultural industry; the 2019 Farm Bureau Women in Ag survey found that women now make up 36% of U.S. farmers and that 91% of respondents believed that there should be more women in agricultural leadership roles.

Giving more students access to a greater range of educational choices allows the IAA to support the development of that leadership. According to the respondents, the most important leadership skills are effective communication, inspiring and motivating others, managing conflict, and strategic planning.  Recognizing this demand, the IAA launched its new track in Agricultural Leadership and Communication in Fall of 2016.

This track combines communication coursework with a solid foundation in the sciences, applied agriculture, and business. Students in this track emerge prepared for jobs in agricultural communication, policy, management, and marketing—some of the hottest job markets in the ag industry. Our first graduate in this track, Brandy Walterhoefer, completed her certificate in 2018, and is currently pursuing her degree at UMD.

Looking back at the past five years prompts us to look ahead to the future of agriculture—and to our role in providing innovative, relevant education for the professionals who will lead it. Whether by enabling students to pursue dual credentials more efficiently with Ag Forward or by offering new courses of study focused on leadership and communication, the IAA is here to equip students to be part of that future.