When Bel Brands USA, the Chicago-based snack and gourmet cheese manufacturer, chose Brookings for the location of their third plant, South Dakota State University's Dairy Science Department and SDSU Extension played an important role in their decision.
"In addition to milk availability, we needed access to local talent we could recruit as well as research and development. Because of SDSU we had access to both," said Francine Moudry, project director for Bel Brands USA.
Bel Brands' experience is not unique, explained Barry Dunn, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences and Director of SDSU Extension. "It all comes down to fulfilling the Land Grant mission of education, research and outreach," said Dunn of how SDSU provides South Dakota agri-businesses with a professional, agriculture-focused talent pool while at the same time, SDSU Extension, the Land Grant's outreach arm, supplies research-based information.
"We've built strong relationships throughout the agricultural industry and, with 100 years of experience, we're good at adapting to its changing needs," Dunn said. "Within the College of Agriculture we have strong degree programs, cutting edge research and SDSU Extension specialists who work directly with producers and agribusiness to share research-based information and provide support."
Dunn points to the Dairy Science Department and SDSU Extension Dairy Specialists as an example of how the Land Grant system works to not only increase the state's overall milk production but also provide the professional talent necessary to attract local markets, like Bel Brands to South Dakota.
"SDSU is one of only two universities in the nation to have degrees in both dairy production as well as manufacturing," Dunn said. "And, because of leadership's close connection to industry, we are able to quickly adapt education and research."
This proactive model pays off in high demand for graduates of the Dairy Science Department, resulting in 100 percent job placement and competitive starting salaries of $50,000-plus.
"We produce graduates, research and education to help the industry grow. These pieces work together and are key to moving the entire industry forward," said Vikram Mistry, Professor and Head of Dairy Science Dept.
Mistry explained that in the early 2000s, as the average size of dairies across the state began to increase, the labor force demographics changed, and milk quality needed to be addressed"SDSU Extension quickly recognized that dairy production wasn't only about milking cows, it was also about managing the people who milked cows," Mistry said.
Once the need was identified, SDSU Extension began providing training sessions in Spanish to dairy employees across the state. At the same time, they began providing cultural training to dairy owner/managers. Within four years, milk quality and overall milk production increased by about 100 pounds of milk per cow, said Alvaro Garcia, SDSU Extension Dairy Specialist.
"Our research has shown us what the best milking procedures and cattle handing practices are, but until they are adopted by the labor force, you can't expect to see results," said Garcia. "It's the role of SDSU Extension to provide information we gain through research to the right individuals in a way that make sense to them."
Similar examples of the interconnected relationship between the University and SDSU Extension abound, said Rosie Nold, SDSU Extension Program Director for Agriculture and Natural Resources. "When you have educators, researchers and SDSU Extension working together it is a powerful combination," Nold said. "Whether it is economists helping agri-business start ups develop a marketing plan; wheat breeders releasing wheat varieties that will thrive in South Dakota's growing climate or SDSU Extension State Veterinarian helping livestock producers overcome herd health challenges following Winter Storm Atlas -the Land Grant system plays an integral role in South Dakota's agriculture industry."
Support for agribusiness in the state has not gone unnoticed. According to a recent study published by Colorado State University agriculture economists, South Dakota ranked No. 1 as the most agribusiness-friendly state in the nation. The study reviewed and ranked states on everything from governmental regulations and services pertaining to agriculture inputs and meats and livestock products, to funding of the state's Agriculture Department and percentage of the population with degrees in agriculture, environment and sciences.
South Dakota's ranking didn't surprise Matt Diersen, SDSU Extension Risk & Business Management Specialist and Professor of Economics. "In South Dakota agriculture does not take a secondary role to some other industry - it is not side-lined in this state," Diersen said. "Because there is an inherent understanding of the needs of agri-business throughout the state, it impacts everything from the trained labor force to the state's infrastructure."
In the case of Bel Brands, all these factors played a role in opening their newest plant in South Dakota. The plant is complete and should be fully operational by July. Once it is fully staffed, it will provide about 275 South Dakotans with competitive salaries and benefits.
"We have everything we need here in Brookings; access to milk, great people, great economical vision and a university that provides excellent support as well as research. When you put all those things together, it was the right environment for us," Moudry said.