Robert Rothwell runs 400 cows and operates a 1,700-head feedlot in the middle of Nebraska's Sandhills. Last spring, he decided to improve his marketing skills by enrolling in an agricultural marketing class taught by Jim Kendrick on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
"The industry is changing. Producers need to protect themselves," Rothwell says. "Improving my marketing skills to limit my risk on grain and cattle is more important than ever."
Rothwell's commute to class, however, wasn't the 270 miles from his western Nebraska farm in Hyannis to Lincoln on the state's east side. Instead, Rothwell's commute to Kendrick's class amounted to a walk from his mailbox to his video tape player.
Rothwell is one of 1,400 students nationwide who have "attended" one of Kendrick's marketing classes by satellite, cable television, videotape or on the Internet since 1994. Over the years, individuals, couples, feedlots, banks, grain elevators, Extension offices and educational institutions, rural restaurants, even bars, have used Kendrick's Distance Education classes to better their operation's marketing effectiveness, train employees and attract clients.
Kendrick, who has taught agricultural marketing at the University of Nebraska for 36 years, says the aim of his courses is to teach students "how to fish," rather than just give them marketing advice.
"My course is designed to train people to be their own marketing analysts. It would be easier to just give them marketing advice. But, by definition, it has to be too general. I've never seen two farms or feedlots that were identical. They're all different because of finances, goals, management, personalities, risk comfort, etc.," he says.
So rather than tell people what to do, Kendrick's classes enable them to look at the information and make a decision based on their management style and type of operation.
"I'm trying to teach them how to fish rather than giving them fish," Kendrick explains.
Kendrick teaches two courses:
* "Agricultural Marketing and Entrepreneurship" is a sophomore-level class designed to give students an understanding of the procedures and techniques, and the theories behind them, used to market U.S. livestock and the major grains. By the end of the semester, students learn to assess the probable impact of local, national and global events on price and future production.
* "Agricultural Marketing in a Multi-National Environment" is a senior-level class that focuses on international trade. The class is structured as a hypothetical firm based on the East Coast of the United States. Each student is assigned to a particular global trade region. There, they are responsible for researching political and economic events, as well as food patterns, in that region and advising the firm on import and export opportunities. Students rely exclusively on the Internet for research. A beginning marketing course is a prerequisite.
Each course is conducted three times per week in the University of Nebraska's Chase Hall, a media classroom with full electronic media capabilities. While Kendrick lectures and questions the 30-40 students seated before him in each class, the proceedings are videotaped for mailing to the off-campus students each Friday.
Internet Figures Heavily Both classes are also broadcast live over the Internet. Kendrick's Multi-National class is unique in that the off-campus students are linked to the lecture in real time over the Internet and participate in the class discussion.
"Having these off-campus students participating in the discussion really helps the undergraduates in class," Kendrick says. "Students sitting in class realize that these folks all over the country taking the class with them don't have to take it. That reinforces to them that maybe this stuff is important. There's a real synergism there," Kendrick says.
The courses can be taken for credit, but the vast majority of off-campus students don't. Those that do take it for credit, Kendrick says, use course credits as added incentive to keep up with the material.
Besides the 15 weekly videotapes, each carrying two to three, one-hour lectures, Distance Education participants also receive the course textbook and membership to the Internet listserv, an ongoing Internet discussion group. Students also have access to a 24-hour help line and Kendrick's live Internet discussion three times per week regarding the events shaping the market that day. In addition, Kendrick publishes his e-mail address for direct contact.
The demographics of those who take the class, Kendrick says, is "35- to 45-year-old, college-educated, very progressive producers who don't go to coffee shops and are planning to expand their operations.
"These folks love Freedom To Farm and hope to use the class to expand by buying out their neighbors who are used to the subsidies," he says.
Distance Education students are surveyed each semester as to the value of the courses. "Made a lot more money" or "learned to hedge livestock or crops" are two common responses. Another finding is that most of Kendrick's Distance Education students don't finish the course by semester's end due to seasonal time demands of the farm.
Serious Time Commitment Kendrick admits the course is a serious time commitment. "These aren't skills you can learn by just watching the tape. You need to be diligent in your study, review and concentration to get this stuff. But by the end of the semester you'll know how to market your products rather than sell them," he says.
Kendrick says understanding the interplay of factors that determine price, and therefore supply and demand, is like viewing a large bowl of marbles - move one and they all move.
"Hopefully, by the end of the semester, students are able to roughly predict which marbles are likely to move when there is a change in the economic environment," he says.
"Dr. K," as Kendrick is known by his students, is an Ohio native, but he spent much of his youth in Washington, D.C. There, his father served as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in the Hoover Administration.
He's a graduate of Ohio State University, where he earned his three degrees. He joined the Nebraska faculty in 1962. Thirty-eight years later, Kendrick is currently teaching the grandchildren of his first students.
Co-Founder Of AGNET Kendrick's Distance Education classes fit a pattern of outreach education that he has long championed. He was a co-founder and co-leader of the International AGNET computer network that existed from 1975 through 1988.
One of the first such "user-friendly" systems, AGNET was a self-supporting computer and communications network where public and private sectors worked together to provide management models and time-sensitive information to decision makers. The system provided remote access to programs offered at many land-grant institutions.
In 1990 Kendrick experimented with satellite transmission throughout the U.S. and into Canada and Mexico. Too expensive to retain, Kendrick adapted new technologies such as cable television and stream video to arrive where his courses are today.
His teaching, whether on campus or by video, as well as numerous public appearances, have made him familiar to tens of thousands of people. In fact, Kendrick reports that he has a wager with his wife that he'll pay her $50 if he fails to encounter a prior acquaintance during any leisure trip with her.
"The closest I've come to paying was a trip to Minnesota," Kendrick says. "We were waiting to board the plane to go home when I remarked to her that she would finally have to collect. But, as we boarded the plane, the pilot recognized me and said 'hello.' He was a former student of mine at Nebraska."