By Nikki Kallio
Nineteen-year-old Lindsey Rettenmund of Black Earth, Wis., grew up working on her family’s Holstein farm, which now has about 100 milking cows, and hopes one day to either take over the operation or start her own dairy.
To give her ag knowledge a little extra boost, she enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm & Industry Short Course (FISC), a 15-week hands-on agriculture training program that runs from November through March. Rettenmund chose the intensive program to learn more from experts about crops, soils, weed and insect identification, cattle reproduction and other training relevant to today’s farmers.
“You cram a lot into those 15 weeks,” Rettenmund said. “But it wasn’t that long that I had to be away from the farm, and the time of the year worked out pretty well for us. It’s convenient.”

The program takes place over the winter, which is typically not a busy time for Wisconsin farmers. FISC, which begins its 132nd year this November, typically draws young high school graduates planning to take over the family farm, students hoping to find work on a farm or those who simply want to start a hobby farm or update their skills.
The session completed in March 2016 hosted about 100 students, down from the usual 110 to 120 participants, said Katy Tomlinson, assistant director of FISC.
As more family farms are sold, the face of agriculture has been changing and FISC plans to evolve its program to help draw more students. For example this past year, FISC added an organic grain production class.
FISC recently hosted listening sessions, conducted market research and consulted with alumni and industry leaders on what updated skills and knowledge will be best for young farmers. 
Starting in 2017, FISC plans to have an updated course list, Tomlinson said.
“We’re hearing a lot about the communication and business pieces, so we’re trying to implement some of that,” Tomlinson said.
Students can choose a general certificate or specialties such as dairy farm management, crops and soils management, farm mechanics and farm service and supply. 
Some students, like Rettenmund, plan to attend two sessions. Students who decide to continue their education after FISC can transfer up to 15 credits to a UW-Madison degree program, Tomlinson said.
“Our students, while here at UW-Madison, have all the same advantages and perks as they would if they were a degree student here,” she said, adding that FISC students can use libraries, athletic facilities, joint student organizations and participate in other campus activities.
The 15-week program is divided into three terms, six-week fall and spring terms bridged by a three-week winter term. 
The cost for Wisconsin residents is about $8,000, and FISC has its own scholarship program. Out-of-state students are welcome, with residents of Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota attending for a special rate.
Occasionally the program has even drawn international students so FISC is working on ways to continue attracting a global student body.
FISC features a dairy cattle center with 80 cows on campus, rotated between Madison and research stations in Arlington and Marshfield, as well as two greenhouses and an ag engineering lab.
Tomlinson said the UW-Madison FISC program stands out from others because of its time frame, two resident halls where students can live and its faculty, who are either UW-Madison professors or experts in their field.
The connections students make while attending FISC can come in handy later, Tomlinson said. She told a story about a FISC graduate who was showing at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis and came up short on feed. His farm was a four-hour drive away, but a nearby former classmate was able to help him out, she said.
“Everybody has that shared passion for agriculture,” Tomlinson says. “You might do things a little differently – your tractor might be red, theirs might be green. There are some fun rivalries over things like that. But everybody has that common interest in agriculture.”
Learn more at http://fisc.cals.wisc.edu/.


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