Innovative Agribusiness MBA Program Takes Root at WWU

By Allie Layos ‘09

Dawn Thurnau, of the Missouri Beef Industry Council is enthusiastic about the new master of business administration (MBA) degree in agribusiness now offered throughout the state by William Woods University.

“I’ve been singing its praises for months,” she exclaimed.

WWU is one of the few universities in the United States to offer this program. It is designed to enhance the knowledge of the agriculture professional by emphasizing common business concepts as they relate to today’s highly competitive and rapidly changing agriculture industry.

Courses for the 36-credit-hour degree include agriculture law, agriculture policy and futures trading, in addition to traditional MBA courses in executive management, economics, organizational business, entrepreneurship, marketing research, marketing planning and development, accounting and financial decisions.

Thurnau, who is currently enrolled in the program, called the course “innovative.”

She was raised on a cattle farm, but Thurnau felt that there was a lot she didn’t know about agriculture outside of the beef industry.

“I have been the marketing director of the Missouri Beef Industry Council for the last seven years. We are funded by every single cattle producer through the $1 per head beef check-off program and we use that money to promote beef through various channels. ‘Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner’ is the most recognizable campaign, but we also work with key influencers such as retail supermarkets and dietitians to help consumers understand the importance of beef as part of a healthy diet,” said Thurnau.

“I felt like it was my obligation as a leader in this industry to understand the broader scope of American agriculture’s impact on the global economy.”

So, she enrolled in the agribusiness program, and found the courses to be challenging, but “eye-opening and very rewarding.”

“The agriculture policy class was so thought-provoking! We really took the time to examine the Farm Bill and figure out the consequences (both intended and unintended) to farmers and urban populations alike. I am also really looking forward to the hedging [futures trading] class; it’s a concept that I’ve never understood as well as I should. These two concepts—policy and hedging—are cornerstone to agribusiness; anyone in a leadership role should be well-versed on both,” said Thurnau.

Thurnau’s favorite part has been the cohort structure. Rather than signing up for each course individually, and changing classmates with every course, the cohort structure allows students to enroll for the entire program at once.

“Going through the program with the same 20 people adds camaraderie and accountability,” said Thurnau. “Our group is so diverse; I’ve noticed that I’ll start to think through all sides of an argument before I voice an opinion.”

Joshua Gordon is a foodservice consultant for Banta Foods, a division of Reinhart Foodservices. Gordon has enjoyed many things about the program, but he, too, names the familiarity with his classmates as his favorite part of the experience, and as something very special.

“I enjoy the family that is developing with everyone in my class of peers,” said Gordon. “You do not get this closeness in larger class settings.”

Terry Culver, director of Columbia and Jefferson City site operations, feels that the program is a strong one, with a unique niche and a unique structure.

“Our strengths are our facilitators who teach and have a long background of education and experience in Ag. Of course having several people on the Graduate & Adult Studies (G&AS) staff with Ag backgrounds and Ag degrees doesn’t hurt either,” said Culver.

Culver himself has an Ag degree from Lincoln University and worked in production agriculture and international livestock sales for 18 years, so he is passionate about the program.

“The material covered in lectures and assignments, including projects, is something that relates to the real world issues of today,” said Culver. “We like to say, ‘What they learn
in the classroom tonight they will be able to use at work tomorrow.’”

According to Culver, much of the learning is accomplished through class discussion where everyone gets equal time to share their ideas. This is beneficial because many class members bring 20 to 40 years of work experience to the table.

“That is what keeps me coming back and what keeps the students so enthusiastic about the program. The work that each student does is geared to help them in their day jobs…When our students graduate they are very knowledgeable about the material covered as it applies to the real world.”

The students agree.

“The information learned in the classes has not only interested me because I am passionate about the agricultural industry, but also has helped me in my job,” said Jill Fleischmann, program coordinator for the Missouri Value Added Center, a section of the University of Missouri’s agricultural economics department.

“I work day-in and day-out with producers, and the classes have really helped with projects I have worked on,” she said.

Breck Frerking, public relations coordinator of the Show-Me Institute, agrees that what she learns in the agriculture classes easily translates into her work.

“The strong emphasis on agriculture policy has been incredibly beneficial in my professional work,” said Frerking. “I have gained valuable insights into the agriculture industry as a whole.”

According to Jessica Brush, G&AS director of office operations, the idea for the agribusiness MBA began as a way to target one of Missouri’s largest and most successful industries.

“There are not a great deal of educational options for the agricultural-focused person in Missouri who cannot attend a traditional program and does not want to specialize in a specific area, such as econ or policy, but would prefer the broader, more applicable agribusiness option.

“Geographically speaking, Missouri enjoys a rich agricultural legacy, courtesy of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. St. Louis was an industrial hub of trade and remains the headquarters for many successful agriculturally based companies,” said Brush. “Every product has its roots in agriculture from the paper labels on merchandise and the metal in buildings to the food on our plates, as well as the ink in our pens.”

However, offering good information is only part of the equation. A knowledgeable professor is equally important. According to Frerking, the agribusiness program offers both.

“What I have enjoyed most about the program are the insights and knowledge presented by the instructors, who are respected professionals with strong backgrounds in agriculture,” she said.

Thurnau concurs: “I really respect Terry Culver and his ‘open door’ policy. He’s been easily approachable and genuinely concerned about our educational experience at WWU.”

According to Hattie Francis, adjunct professor of business law, the professors are just as excited about teaching the courses as the students are about taking them.

“I like working with the students. I’m a lawyer, so I like it all, but contracts would be my favorite segment,” said Francis, speaking about the agricultural business law class.

She says the course is fun because of the enthusiasm everyone has for the topic.

“Not only are they interested in the core material but they are interested in how that really translates into real world application.”

Francis added, “This is a brand new program. It’s getting a good reception, so we are very excited about it. This is the only opportunity I know of in central Missouri and probably all of Missouri to give agribusiness professionals a venue to learn in—at the level of the MBA degree—with an emphasis in agribusiness. The emphasis is important because it does have its own particularities.”

Jim Graham began teaching th