PHCC Drops Agricultural Degree Programs — Why It Matters

Farm sales by Virginia locality 2012, taken from the StatChat blog. Red circle shows location of Martinsville/Henry County.

The Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville has dropped its agricultural degree program along with certificate programs in horticulture and viticulture. Between declining enrollment in the programs and state budget cuts, it is no longer feasible to offer the courses, President Angeline Godwin told the Martinsville Bulletin.

Many people might view this flotsam in the torrential current of news coverage as utterly without interest. To Bacon’s Rebellion, the story is imbued with deeper significance in at least two ways.

Market-responsive education. First, it shows how at least one community college is responsive to market forces. Each degree program is the functional equivalent of a product line. The agriculture/horticulture/viticulture product line wasn’t selling in the Martinsville-Henry County area and could not be operated at a profit. So PHCC eliminated the program. Wise decision. As the map above shows, there was not enough farming activity in Henry County in 2012 to register any farm sales. While there still may be some hobby farms, career farming in that part of the state appears to be a defunct vocation.

Virginia’s colleges, universities and community colleges offer literally thousands of product lines — everything from two-year degrees in agriculture to four-year degrees in Tibetan language studies. Some programs are in greater demand than others. Some programs are more “profitable” than others — profitable in the sense that the share of tuition revenue attributed to class enrollment exceeds the cost of employing faculty and administrative overhead to teach them.

Public colleges and universities in Virginia must seek approval of new degree programs by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia — and SCHEV does not act as a rubber stamp. The council scrutinizes requests and sometimes sends them back for revision or reconsideration. But once an institution gets the OK for a degree program, SCHEV does not monitor its ongoing progress. I have seen no evidence that even the Boards of Trustees of the institutions themselves track the enrollment numbers in degree programs. Do college administrations even compile these numbers? Surely, they do, for they must have some rational basis for deciding how to allocate resources for hiring faculty. But if they do, the public never sees these numbers.

The PHCC article reminds us that some degree and certificate programs fall out of favor. PHCC made a good business decision by shutting down three for which demand had evaporated. But note this: The college acted out of the necessity caused by cuts in state support. Would it it have acted otherwise? Who knows?

My question is this: How many other zombie degree programs are there in Virginia’s system of higher education that are shuffling around half-dead? Could Virginia’s colleges and universities combat runaway costs by chopping out the deadwood?

The decline in farming. The second lesson to learn from this seemingly innocuous article is that inhabitants of what we think of as “rural” Virginia appear to be losing interest in pursuing rural livelihoods, the most notable of which is farming. Based on farm sales, the only part of Virginia where large-scale agricultural operations takes place is the Shenandoah Valley.

When we think about rural economic development in Virginia, one would think that farming would be a major underpinning of the economy. After all, one thing rural Virginia has is a lot of land. Inexpensive land. And Virginia has water. We don’t have to fight wars over water rights like farmers do in California and the Inter-Mountain West. As manufacturing jobs dry up, why aren’t people turning back to farming to make a living? Is the work too hard — it is work that Americans don’t want to do anymore? I don’t know the answer. But the question seems important to ask.

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7 responses to “PHCC Drops Agricultural Degree Programs — Why It Matters

  1. It’s really hard to make a living farming these days, especially if you don’t have a large operation. The definition of large operation is changing and the minimum that can be productive is a lot bigger than it used to be. What we need to stop and think about is whether we value having locally grown food enough to help farmers stay in business. Doing things like bisecting a farm with a pipeline that will have to be crossed umpteen times a day by farm workers/equipment/animals doesn’t help our cause. Many days it feels like agriculture is up against so many obstacles that it’s hard to hang on doing it.

  2. This relates back to one of your earlier posts about SWVA. As I mentioned then, if Virginia cares about the rural portion of the state, the only place worth investing in is the Valley. It is the only portion of rural Virginia with a thriving agricultural sector. There are very few profitable farms in SWVA.

    Nobody wants to answer my question: If you are a 20 or 30 something that is looking for an outdoors lifestyle, great farmers markets and fresh food, and a locality that has the infrastructure and bones to host a start-up……why in God’s name would you ever choose anywhere in SWVA over Harrisonburg? Plus, you’re only 2 hours from DC if you want to go to a large scale cultural/athletic event.

  3. A good “learning” exercise is this: Go to a grocery store; I realize most guys probably do not normally do that (I do)… but do it .. then wander the aisles… the meat, the dairy, the produce, the canned and boxed good and pick things up and see if you can see where they came from.

    If you live in Richmond, or Harrisonburg, and most other places in Virginia, almost nothing comes from the counties nearby… poultry and cattle in Shenandoah Valley, yes.. but take Richmond (Henrico) and see what food comes from … Virginia… In the spring/summer..produce..yes.. there are still such a thing as “truck” or “market” farms… Our local farmers market (which requires “local” – 100 mile radius) .. is a cornucopia of veggies!

    but at as “farmer” will tell you – you cannot make money with small operations .. these days… large, industrial scale farming is what feeds the country. Hobby farms are for folks who have other means of support – it’s not a way to make a living! It’s more like running an antique store so you can something to do !

    We came back from NC on US 29 this week and the NC part of that road has two things the US part of it is pretty skinny on….. great fields of solar panels.. and some farms… Once you hit the Va line – things change.. There are some cattle…. but I cannot recall seeing a single working farm from the NC line to I-64 near Charlottesville.

    and yet… the average supermarket is bursting at the seams with just about any kind of food – fresh or processed that you’d want!

    there are obviously still farms around … but like a lot of other things – productivity has reduce the labor needs . probably 10-20 fold.. and migrant labor takes care a lot of what is still not mechanized…

    A “combine” can cost ..hundred of thousands of dollars and it needs to operate a LOT to pay for it… Virginia does not have that kind of farmland.

  4. re: the decline in farming..

    there is no decline… it’s called productivity and like manufacturing… it’s not “declined”.. it’s actually increased output but has leverage technology such that far fewer people are needed to produce the same or more.

  5. re: higher ed and “profitable” … “product lines”.

    Community Colleges are much more focused on education that leads to jobs int he economy – 4 yr – not necessarily so much and that’s a problem not only with higher ed – but with parents, kids and govt loans.

    Some parents want their kids to become “educated” but follow their dream – whether it has any relevance in the economy or not. The four year colleges are more than happy to provide whatever “kind” of education someone wants. And it’s not necessarily not “profitable” at all.. If they have a tenured staff – they deliver the course. IF the course loses popularity – the college will let the tenured folks retire and not replace them and remove the course from their catalogue.

    UMW in Fredericksburg does this from year to year..they just stop offering some courses that no longer have sufficient demand but if staff is tenured.. it’s different than at a Community college which uses adjunct staff and in many respects are much more nimble than 4yr institutions – in responding to labor market demands.

  6. If the ag-related programs at Tech and Virginia State start to wither, that might actually mean something. Those are the land grant institutions with the mission of developing and maintaining the agriculture economy in Virginia. It really is not surprising that the 2-year programs are not popular in a part of the state with only small farms. I suspect Tech’s programs continue to thrive and turn out graduates, but I’m not so sure about VSU.

  7. yup — from the Va Tech CAL website:

    ” More than 2,600 undergraduate and 400 graduate students are pursing degrees in departments within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. ”

    and they offer online Masters Degrees:

    Online Master of Agricultural and Life Sciences

    but still – it would seem to me that some kind of partnership between Va Tech AG and the community colleges would be a win-win… it would give local kids a chance to get started…without signing up for 4yr campus.. and it would give Va Tech a “feeder” of new students transferring into their 3 and 4 yr and graduate.

    folks should also realize that “AG” is a bunch of things.. from research into diseases for animals from dogs to goats to a litany of related issues to include their veterinary school which trains not only for dogs/cats but large animals.. and other critters.

    And in order to do that – they need the infrastructure – the labs, the barns and other buildings and the medical.. Little to none of this can Community Colleges provide.

    Horses are BIG in Virginia!

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