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Rebecca Green | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Melissa Bledsoe

Interim Dean, William H. Darr College of Agriculture at Missouri State University

Posted online

Data from the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education show growth in agriculture courses in high school and college over the past few decades. Where are the biggest opportunities for students now?
We’ve seen very specific sectors of agriculture have a very strong need for placement for the workforce. For instance, in natural resources like soil conservation, wildlife management, forestry, there’s many jobs coming available or are available in those sectors in the state, in the region and in the nation. We’re increasing our enrollment in companion animals and companion animal science, pre-veterinarian track. The pet industry is growing and has exploded even since the pandemic. We’re even getting a new facility to train students in companion animal science. Other areas that we’re collaborating with and integrating into our programs have to do with technology and GIS, geospatial sciences. If our students have certificates in that, have experience in that, that really bolsters their resume and their ability to be competitive for those jobs. We’re increasing our focus on agriculture technology and innovation and focusing on developing an ag innovation hub.

What are some of the technologies that have made the biggest impacts on your field? What about looking forward?
The beef cattle industry and forage production is very large here in southwest Missouri. We’ve had advanced technologies in row crop production for many years, but that is becoming more apparent in forage production, in hay production, in grazing systems. We see a huge potential in increasing technology usage. You could use sensors and even drones to estimate the health of the forage in your field to estimate feeding potential. We can track animals, how much they feed, where they’re at. Another area we have is our fruit experiment station. We can utilize drone technology to estimate the health of vineyards and orchards and small fruit production. We’ve recently hired a fruit scientist who’s going to be conducting research using drone technology and sensors for water relations and plants. We have sometimes too much or too little water and we can quickly analyze how our plants are doing in order to know how to respond. We utilize drones and imaging for our forest research at the Journagan Ranch and silvopasture systems where we’re growing grass and trees together in systems for our grazing beef cattle. We see just more and more possibilities to integrate that in our classes.

Do you see growing opportunity for students within agrotourism?
An exciting area right now that has been identified as a workforce development need is in the area of hospitality and hospitality leadership and tourism. With the realignment of the university, the Department of Hospitality Leadership is joining the College of Agriculture starting July 1. We definitely see many avenues to utilize this partnership for the agritourism industry that’s growing and is integrated in so many of our farmers’ growing operations. We can also integrate the farm to fork movement, where we’re growing the produce and the food and the beef and the animals and maybe making even value-added products. Hospitality leadership is the food and beverage industry. We can integrate these two and bridge that gap for our students so they can get some courses and experience on both sides of that table.

Multiple studies show global food production needs to increase substantially by 2050. At the same time, the impact of climate change is impacting crops. I just listened to a report that said we likely won’t have Georgia peaches in the supermarket this summer due to weather. How do you discuss this with students and what are some of the possibilities for technology to help?
The foundation of how we teach and learn agriculture practices is about efficiency and improvement for conserving our resources and increasing our production while doing so. We have to grow more while using less and building back our soils and integrating the environment to where we’re increasing our resources rather than using them. Even our grape research is about how to grow grapes in the climate of Missouri and to find genes that can help grapes withstand climate change in other areas. Technology is definitely the wave of the agricultural future to become more efficient.

Does MSU offer education on marijuana crops?
We do have a course on the cannabis industry that is going to review the history of the industry in the United States, the laws, the regulations, all the way to production and consumerism and how that has changed recently in Missouri. It is a viable industry here in Missouri and many of our students will work in that industry if they choose to, from the production side to the analytical side. There’s a lot of chemical analysis and laboratory practices that we’ve had students go into. There’s a lot of student interest in that area and we’ve started with this cannabis industry course this coming semester and we’ll go from there. We’re not growing cannabis on campus or campus grounds and we won’t be because of a lot of federal regulations. A lot of universities are still constrained in that way. But it is a viable industry in the state and we’re seeing a lot of students come into agriculture because of that. Plants are plants, and we can teach plant science on many levels that they would find useful in the industry.

Next month you'll become interim dean of the Darr College of Agriculture. Was leadership something you've aspired to during your time at Missouri State and do you plan to apply to become the permanent dean?
The timeline for all of these changes occurred from a series of events and interim deans. I was at a place in my career where I've been taking on leadership roles and preparing for such. I just completed 10 years here as a professor. I aspired to have leadership roles and didn't necessarily expect things to happen so quickly as it did this past year, but definitely was willing and ready to step up to the plate. It started with the associate dean role to help our interim dean, Dr. Kenneth Brown. It's been just a steady transition but full of opportunities. I'm definitely not going to turn away from such an opportunity. I am very passionate about the College of Agriculture. I was a student here back in the day and received a bachelor's and master's here. I want to continue to build my career here and take my passion for this institution and see it grow.


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