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Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future

Steve Fransen and Charles Golob for Progressive Forage Published on 06 July 2017

We never know what the markets or weather will be, but we know they will change from what they are today. Life on the farm is similarly subject to changes, but we like to think we’re in a bit more control with it than our influence over the markets or weather.

You never know exactly what is going to happen the next day. Opportunities emerge, and we may decide to take them or walk away. Opportunities are not likely something we’ve created with our toil, sweat, and creativity but often result from toil and sweat equity we already invested. This is a story about exploring an often unseen, sometimes forgotten, but critical resource for our future – our kids and grandkids.

Students enrolled in Crop Science 302, aka Forage Crops, for the spring semester at Washington State University (WSU). In October 2016, I was asked to consider teaching this undergraduate class in Pullman, after more than 30 years as forage agronomist and state extension specialist. This was an unexpected opportunity to which I agreed if a key person, Charles Golob, would be assisting with the entire course. Charles agreed, I agreed, so we were set.

After gathering resources from trusted colleagues Bill Johnston (who had taught the course for more than 30 years), David Hannaway at Oregon State University and Tom Griggs at West Virginia University, we set out to chart a new course and direction for Forage Crops 302. Having been involved with David, Tom, Glenn Shewmaker at the University of Idaho and Mylen Bohle from Oregon State University on many extension programs over the years, these were key forage resources to draw from in the Pacific Northwest, i.e., my forage "networking group." There are some similarities in teaching adults in extension and students in a classroom but some obvious differences as well.

In January 2017, the Pacific Northwest experienced one snow blast after another. Travel is restricted or limited at best, so the first few weeks of lecture and labs were conducted over the electronic delivery system at WSU. The students can only see the slides and hear the voice; no actual images of people are shown, making communication a one-way street. You know what happens when you go down a one-way street the wrong way? Yep, that’s kind of what we experienced. During this time, we had presentation engagements for the annual Washington Hay Expo and we had received USDA grant funding for an alfalfa GMO conference, so guest speakers had to be found that would move the lecture series and concepts forward. That was accomplished and everything turned out fine. But the concept “Is there hope?” entered both instructors’ minds.

Early in the semester, we described forages as an integrated science. Forages grow and produce within numerous different environments, constituting a wide diversity of annual, perennial, tall, short, cool-season, and warm-season crops, and involve varying soils, dryland or irrigated, livestock species and animal products. By the time students are juniors, they have had many of the basics, but Forage Crops 302 always attracts a broader range of students than many other 300-level courses. That broad range of backgrounds adds to the diversity; some are totally engaged, while for others it’s a crops class that counts.

We focused on teaching these students as much about forages as possible. Juniors should be able to take a diversity of information and synthesize this into something meaningful for them, i.e., “their story.” To accomplish this task and having no textbook, we provided students a list of reading resources for each lecture; then we asked them to write a 1,500-word integrated technical forage writing assignment. The focus was to have students create their own story from those reading resources.

Our format was abstract/summary, introduction, background and synthesis, what’s missing and recommendations. The reason for this format was to ensure all the key elements of their story were included. The students had never encountered “what’s missing” or “recommendations” in previous writing assignments. After numerous attempts to explain these and why they actually had to create their own story and why we didn’t simply assign them a topic (like all the other instructors), we got through the first technical writing assignment. A few really got it, most struggled, but none gave up. There was hope!

Life tosses us unexpected obstacles. The icy winter conditions helped create a couple of falling incidents, and during one of my falling incidents, both hips went out. Wow. Never having had a hip problem and the only comparable injury I’d had was broken ribs, I’ll take broken ribs over injured hips any day and twice on Sunday. Several weeks of therapy resulted with my wife driving me to lectures and labs. Traveling was now possible, but no races were being run. Hope continued.

About this time, my annual review was scheduled, where I was asked if I’d “dumbed it down.” Meaning, were my expectations of the class reduced? That reminds me of the Chuck Knox autobiography, titled Hard Knox: The Life of an NFL Coach, where he described coaching and training the most talented and expensive athletes in the world. Paraphrasing his message, he described holding both hands out, palms down, one about shoulder-high and the other waist-high. The shoulder-high hand represented his level of expectations; the waist-high hand was that of the athletes. The choice was, does he lower his expectations to match theirs or do they raise their expectations to match his? That struck a chord, which went back to being raised on a farm, attending school and being trained by the WWII generation. Our parents and those WWII vets never talked about lowering expectations or failure; those thoughts were never on their radar. We had to improve, raise our expectation level and get tough – as “getting out” was not an option. Without saying anything to the Forage Crops 302 students, we worked to raise their expectations, to challenge them in this upper division course.

We make mistakes along the travels of life, and that certainly was evidenced in this course, with lecture exams. When exam one was returned, we spent a full hour answering questions, thinking they were absorbing this insightful wisdom and new knowledge missed on the exam. We raised the average score, thinking they would respond with more efforts for exam two, but not so. Disappointed, we decided to return exam two and have them correct the missed questions for review and grade adjustment. That worked. The students’ own expectations changed, moving upward. More writing assignments and reports were required, all preparing students for the integrated forage farm plan. As Robert H. Schuller said, “Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future.”

Students could see the semester’s end on the horizon, which is always a major push-time for all courses. We introduced the integrated forage farm plan format, similar to the technical writing format but expanded on the assumptions of their farm. No page or word limit was imposed, only asking students to tell the farm story as completely as possible, including economics.

One student was always early, often a week before the due date. We reviewed his submission, and he’d missed some key points, so we sent it back for updating and cleanup. The word got out and soon others were submitted, all electronically. The majority of students used a farm they inherited, a working farm, a parent’s farm, an uncle’s or close relative’s operation. These plans were based from Texas, Nebraska, Montana and all over the Pacific Northwest.

Each plan was a culmination of all the basics learned for selection of forage crop species and cultivars, soil fertility, hay/silage operation, and required implementing a grazing method with the restriction each farm had to follow the organic standards for pastures (i.e., 30 percent of dry matter derived from grazing).

Students bought into the farm plan, made it their own and matured in their thinking. Many came to us after the final exam stating they appreciated being challenged and realized they could raise their expectations and get rewarded.

As “baby boomers,” we were fortunate, but the events described here strongly suggest there is a reason hope exists. These young folks do have what it takes, but our job, and your job as forage industry parents and grandparents, is not over; we must be engaged in training and demonstrating how to transform those ideas into action, by expanding forage farming opportunities into new horizons where hope can fully blossom.  end mark

Steve Fransen and Charles Golob are with Washington State University.

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