SIGNAL PEAK — Before the pandemic, a large portion of Central Arizona College’s agriculture students were local kids from local farm families, intending to carry on the family business.
As long as there is farming in Pinal County, that dynamic won’t disappear. But according to CAC Professor Deanna Diwan, herself a fourth-generation farmer from Coolidge, the pandemic has produced a new and eclectic study body for the ag programs.
Diwan said that a new group of students has emerged.
“We have a few old family dairy kids from here or around the state,” Diwan said, “but I have some students this year that are a bit older. They have done other things but now they want to get their degree and pursue agriculture.”
Some of these students, Diwan said, are taking the online classes from the Midwest or even further afield.
Kevin Rodgers, a 52-year-old retired barber and businessman in Atlanta, is taking part in the program so he can learn how to grow jojoba for hair products his company produces.
“I feel like a freshman in life,” Rodgers said. “It’s exciting. It’s renewing. It’s an adventure. Getting a degree was an important part of my pivot after COVID. And I found CAC was an opportunity and an entry point into the culture of Arizona and the jojoba industry.”
Despite his business, Rodgers is a full-time online CAC student right now.
Even Diwan is taking part in the dynamic of having one foot in education and the other in a work sector. Diwan is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in crop science at the University of Illinois. Rodgers called Diwan “inspirational” and said she is very helpful in explaining things as someone with decades of real-world experience.
Diwan said she is essentially the only full-time agriculture professor at CAC after multiple retirements over the past year, during which CAC was completely online. Local grower Phil Bond, who taught several classes in the program, also recently died, and Diwan said CAC would definitely feel the void he leaves behind.
“We have a ton of awesome native plants Phil donated to the program,” Diwan said. “Phil was so amazing, the knowledge the man had, and he had so much that he wanted to do. I just took over the greenhouse last semester, and I’m trying to put my stamp on it now.”
Diwan herself is not a fan of online-only learning, despite acknowledging that it allows more flexibility to students in terms of working classes around their other schedules.
“I like seeing my students!” Diwan said. “I don’t think you can do everything completely online with biology and agriculture.”
According to Diwan, many CAC students are now working in full-time jobs they found during the pandemic. That presents a challenge for everyone because while some of the business classes can stay online, plant science classes are hands-on.
CAC’s two introductory “world of plants” classes are divided between an in-person and hybrid option, which also allows Diwan to take the class online if the COVID situation changes. Some other courses offered include agriculture accounting, an introduction to agribusiness and microcomputing agriculture.
“We were juggling trying to figure out what students were going to want,” Diwan said. “I think with agriculture it’s so hard to cut out the science from the business.”
Diwan always tries to incorporate her experience as a farmer and talks about the fundamentals of agricultural production, such as accounting measures for items like seeds. New for this year, CAC is now also offering an agribusiness certificate for people who want to work immediately after studying.
For Rodgers, who already runs a business, SHWAXX, which produces hair products, the benefits of the program include vertically integrating so he has direct control of growing necessary components like jojoba, which flourishes in the Sonoran desert region.
“During COVID, I learned how much the supply chain can be affected,” Rodgers said. “I started realizing that I am dependent on other companies to provide oil. I thought, in order to continue manufacturing, part of what I have to do is own my own supply of oil.”
Many of the new students, Diwan noted, are surprised to learn just how large agribusiness is and the role it plays in society.
“Take a cheeseburger at McDonald’s,” Diwan said. “How many agribusiness companies touch this? From the meat guys growing beef, to feeding the cattle, the farmers, the logistics to get it places, the processing plants, wheat, bread, sesame seeds… it’s so much to take into account!”
Part of the curriculum also includes teaching students about the history of the region and ongoing water challenges from drought and climate change.
Also, at some point, Rodgers and other out-of-town students will have to make the journey to CAC’s Signal Peak Campus. Rodgers said he is “putting Arizona on the agenda” for 2022, with a goal of buying land or partnering with a local grower.
“I’m definitely looking forward to coming out to the desert,” Rodgers said. “I’m so thankful that I did this.”