When Nicole Shirrell arrived on campus at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant in 2019, she had an entirely different future envisioned than where she finds herself today.

“I came here looking to get a degree in education,” and to play softball as an infielder for the Tigers, she said.

She never considered anything related to agriculture as an option, having grown up in Hillsboro, Missouri, with little ag background.

“When I first started to look at Iowa Wesleyan, they did not even have an agribusiness program,” she explained.

But after four years of study, Shirrell will graduate this month having earned a business administration degree with a concentration in agribusiness. 

Graphite seed additions

Shirrell is finishing up her research on graphite additions to seeds as a method to increase and speed up germination rates. She first looked solely at corn but has expanded her research to a variety of crops. The graphite helps feed carbon immediately to the soil, which in turn helps the growth rate of the plant, she said.

“In the first phase of the testing, I looked at whether different amounts of graphite mixed with talc will actually show a difference in germination/emergence rates,” Shirrell explained. “It was small scale in individual growing mediums, but differences were seen with corn.

“This year I am doing the same test, but rather than individually, I am doing a small plot of seeds, both corn and soybeans. Seeds are rolled and set in the concentrations of graphite/talc combos and then planted.”

First and last

Unexpectedly, Shirrell and the other initial graduates of Iowa Wesleyan’s ag business program will also be the last. It was announced March 28 that, after operating for 181 years, Iowa Wesleyan will close at the end of this semester due to financial challenges, leaving the futures of the ag program’s remaining 17 students in limbo.

For an ag program just getting started and seeing initial success, the closing came as sad news, said Gail Kunch, assistant professor of biology and agribusiness.

“I’m heartbroken for the kids here,” Kunch said. “We’ve had a wide diversity of kids coming into the program, and not just from the Midwest but from inner city schools and from other countries. We were just getting going.”

Hands-on learning formed an important component of what the ag program offered.

“The success of our students has been our number one priority,” Kunch said. 

“The Iowa Wesleyan Agribusiness Management program has been like a family. Our small class sizes have allowed students to develop relationships with their classmates and professors on a level uncommon at most institutions, (and) the diversity of students in our program exposed them to both traditional and nontraditional agriculture operations.”

Kunch said Iowa Wesleyan’s ag students explored multiple pathways in a short time.

Blake Deal, a junior from Carlisle, experimented with soil testing opportunities. 

When working for Summertime Potatoes during the past few summers, he not only helped sort and package potatoes but also took soil samples and dug up potatoes to make sure they were growing at the correct rate. 

Mount Pleasant-area residents brought their own soil samples for students to test.

“Through this, we learn how to test soil, and if they are having any problems with anything growing, we can write them a prescription to help them find ways to grow whatever it may be,” Deal said.

Mount Pleasant native Jacob Simmons has experimented with how to increase the amount of microbiological life in the soil.

“Some of the things we added to the soil were orange peels, goat manure and some liquid fertilizer that helped increase microbiologic life,” he said.

Finding a new home

With the university’s closure, Kunch said faculty and staff are aiding students with finding alternative educational options. Most of the current ag students have found other educational institutions to continue their studies next fall. 

A Teach Out Fair was hosted on campus April 10, with 83 colleges and universities on hand to help students fill out applications and learn more about what those institutions have to offer.

The event was particularly beneficial for the diverse bunch of ag students, who sport backgrounds from growing bananas in Ecuador to potato farming in central Iowa. 

The Midwest is fortunate to host many ag programs for students, Kunch said.

“I have told the students that no matter what, don’t lose that passion and to never stop asking questions,” she said. “There is a reason you are studying this because you’re passionate about making sure the world is sustainable and the world has enough to eat in the future.

“It’s up to you as young entrepreneurs, as young farmers, to come up with how we are going to feed our 9 billion people the next couple decades.”

With the university’s closing, a decision will have to be made about the recent purchase of an 80-acre farm that was intended to be used for the ag program. Kunch expressed optimism that the farm still will be utilized for educational purposes.

“There’s still hope that is what it’s going to be,” she said. “The whole idea was to take that farm and make it a learning center for not only college, but also for the community.”

Pictured above: The graphite helps feed carbon immediately to the soil, which helps the growth rate of the plant.  PHOTO / CONRAD SCHMIDT