For the University of Mount Olive Agriculture program, the strategy can be summed up by a simple phrase – see a need, fill a need.
That philosophy has seen the program’s enrollment grow from the single digits in 2002 to around 200 today, spread across a variety of degree programs both in person and online. That level of flexibility is necessary to stay afloat in agriculture today, said Dr. Sandy Maddox, dean of the UMO School of Agricultural and Biological Sciences.
“Diversification, adaptability and efficiency are the key components of agriculture moving forward,” Maddox said. “All of that comes with risk. If you’re a farmer, risk is part of what you do, and not to be flexible and adoptive of new technologies and new opportunities, it’s very difficult to stay profitable.”
To that end, UMO offers a wide variety of agricultural degree programs to provide students with a broad base of experience. The school offers degrees in Agricultural Education and Agricultural Production Systems with several concentrations, along with a pre-vet program.
That success came from relatively humble beginnings, Maddox said. The program was founded in 2002 and at the time included only an agribusiness degree.
Sitting in her car, Maddox pointed to a small plastic greenhouse visible out her driver’s side window.
“When I got here in 2007, that right there is what we had for agriculture. I held my first horticulture class in that plastic greenhouse right there,” she said. “And that was maintenance’s, that wasn’t ours.”
Out the passenger window opposite Maddox, a class of undergraduate horticulture students worked with ferns in a newer, larger greenhouse made of metal and glass. It’s just one of many signs that the program has grown substantially in recent years.
A nearby commodity shed full of equipment and a wooden covered walkway were among the other new additions, and just those within view of the greenhouse. The program has also added a three-acre arboretum, full-service welding shop and a 63-acre farm donated by George Kornegay Jr. where students can get hands-on experience in the field.
By 2007, UMO had begun developing its ag education program, which was completed in 2010 when the school became licensed to send teachers into the workforce. In 2015, several new degree programs such as Animal Science, Plant Science, and Environmental and Natural Resources, along with the Pre-Vet program.
That diversification all works towards one goal – making sure that UMO students are prepared for the work that will await them once they graduate. That tactic appears to be a resounding success – Maddox said that 94 percent of students tracked in 2018 had jobs in their field of study within six months of graduation.
Most of those students – 94 percent again, Maddox said – find work in rural communities. Another 92 percent of that group stayed in eastern N.C., she said, an area rich in agricultural history and in need of young professionals.
One of those aspiring professionals is James Johnson, a senior Ag Education major at UMO. A native of Selma, Johnson grew up helping his uncle grow row crops on his farm, and ended up drawn to UMO after talking with his Career/Technical Education teacher at Southern Nash High School.
He said that the sense of family at UMO has been one of it’s defining characteristics.
“Definitely the small class sizes make a difference, and the professors really show that they care about you,” he said. “On the first day one of the first things a lot of them do is give you their cell phone number in case you ever need to call them. Their doors are open, they’re always available. It really feels like home.”
That UMO sits in the middle of one of the state’s most productive agricultural reasons is a big part of what makes the school’s ag program so special, Maddox said. The school stresses hands-on experience, including mandatory internships for every student outside of Ag Education students, who complete student teaching.
A constant migration of young people out of rural communities has opened opportunities for those willing to work there, Maddox said. By finding work for graduates in those kinds of areas, UMO both helps its students make a living and helps rural areas keep themselves moving forward.
“If you look at eastern North Carolina and these rural communities, that’s one of the biggest fears – what’s going to happen to them?” Maddox said. “What’s going to happen when everyone has moved out and the kids aren’t coming back and building families and businesses?”
Producing qualified agriculture graduates who are both able and willing to work in rural communities is one step toward fixing that problem, Maddox said. The university’s location means that students get their practical experience working in the very same communities that will need their expertise when they graduate, which makes it easier to convince them to stay.
Just as important, Maddox said, is the kind of mindset that UMO graduates tend to have. Around 60 percent of UMO ag students come from eastern N.C., Maddox said, and many have grown up seeing the kinds of issues that need fixing in their communities. The university also works to instill a sense of community involvement in its students – UMO ag students completed nearly 3,000 hours of public service work last year including a coat drive for several local elementary schools.
Johnson is one of those students aiming to stay in eastern N.C. after graduation.
“I know I want to get my master’s degree, and then I would like to teach in Johnston County,” he said. “It’s home. It’s close to family, and I’ve grown up knowing the ag teachers there. Agriculture is a big part of life in eastern North Carolina, and the kids always grew up knowing that the ag classes had a really good reputation.”
From joining as associate director and an assistant professor in 2007 to now, Maddox’s role at UMO has evolved alongside the program she helped build. Now leading the entire ag program, Maddox has had such an impact on the program that the education building at George Kornegay Jr. farm bears another notable name – her own.
Maddox is characteristically humble about it.
“It’s kind of weird,” she said with a smile. “It wasn’t my idea.”
Maddox prefers to give credit to the school leaders in 2002 who had the foresight to develop the ag program in the first place.
“They understood that Mount Olive was situated in the middle of the agricultural heartland of North Carolina. When you look at cash receipts, Sampson and Duplin counties are numbers one and two, Wayne in in the top four or five, and then Union County,” she said. “Those institutional leaders and the agribusiness leaders like the N.C. Pork Council, when the proposal was set forth, they were on board and very supportive of it. And they’ve been partners ever since.”
For Johnson, the experience of being a UMO ag student can’t be summed up just by what happens in the classroom.
“I was engaged in collegiate FFA my entire time there, and I joined the officer team my Freshman year. I’m just thankful for all of the opportunities that I was able to experience,” he said. “From national trips to community service, it was all valuable.”