International Programs

The college and the university have a rich history of involvement in international activities dating to the early 1960’s. In general these activities can be categorized as (1) direct international assistance, (2) international education and training, (3) student study abroad programs, and (4) faculty development.

The 1960s

In 1963, Dean Richard Delorit led a People to People agricultural tour to Russia. The tour, which attracted agriculturalists from around the state of Wisconsin, was one of many organized by the U.S. State Department. Although there are few records available, given the intense cold war era competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, one can speculate that this tour must have been an eye opener for all who participated.

Richard Delorit

Richard Delorit

First Casualty

In the early to mid-1960s, prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which is credited with the initiation of full-scale hostilities between the U.S. and North Vietnam, there was a massive build-up of U.S. foreign assistance professionals in South Vietnam. UW-River Falls faculty member Melvin L. Wall, participated as a short-term consultant in agricultural education. He and other members of the delegation, which began in January, were killed in a plane crash in a mountainous region north of Da Nang on March 24, 1967. Weather was apparently a factor in the crash of the plane, which was en route to Saigon. Wall was 54. Others killed included professors and educational administrators from Bemidji State University, UW-Stevens Point, Washington State, UW-Whitewater, Maryland, Illinois, and Gustavus Adolphus. Dr. Richard Delorit was informed of the incident late at night by telephone, and was responsible for notifying Wall’s relatives and the university community.

Melvin Wall

Melvin Wall

Dr. Wall was chairman of the Plant and Earth Science Department in the College of Agriculture. He joined the River Falls faculty in 1940. As an agronomist, his accomplishments were recognized in Crops and Soils Magazine in a series featuring leaders in his field. Born in Holton, Kan., he and his family moved to a farm near Hawkins where he attended public schools. After graduation from the River Falls State Teachers College in 1936, he taught agriculture at Roberts High School for two years. He earned the master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1939 and the Ph.D. degree in 1957.

The Melvin Wall Amphitheater, located on the south bank of the South Fork of the Kinnikinnic, was designed by Wall. It is only amphitheater of its kind found on any of Wisconsin’s university campuses. Wall, became the head of the Campus Planning Committee, and as such he had a vision for improving the southern part of the campus, which consisted of a swamp and the South Fork, also called “Pete’s Creek.” In planning for   improvements, he saw the need for an outdoor amphitheater. He and his wife had been on a tour of Northern Italy and had seen an amphitheater built in the Greco-Roman style. After exploring it he told her, “I’m going to build one down on the creek.” She asked, “You and who else?” and he said, “The Prez and I.” When he returned he found President Kleinpell enthusiastically supportive of his idea. A great deal of labor went into the project, much of it contributed during summers by students who lugged slabs of limestone for the seating circles. Hundreds of students aided by faculty and friends of the university waded in mud to level the area, where they also hauled dirt and laid sod.

President Eugene Kleinpell

President Eugene Kleinpell

The Melvin Wall Amphitheater

The Melvin Wall Amphitheater

The UW-River Falls Foundation was a new and active force for idealism in the early 1960s and the improvement of the south portion of the campus became a major goal. A fund raising drive resulted in considerable assistance from the Axel Foundation and former student, W. H. Hunt, who contributed $20,000 as a challenge gift to match student, faculty and alumni contributions. The amphitheater was dedicated in 1972 and featured a performance by the Minnesota Orchestra.

The official memorial to Dr. Wall is the concrete fountain located on the mall to the north of the Agricultural Science Building and west of South Hall. Dr. Wall’s wife, Margaret, donated the fountain.

Wall Fountain

Wall Fountain

Melvin Wall was also honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award, posthumously, during the 1967 Commencement. In paying tribute to Wall, President E. H. Kleinpell said:

In addition to the sense of personal loss his colleagues at the University feel in the death of Melvin Wall, there is also a great loss to the institution. Wall devoted 27 years of his life to the University from which he was graduated and had great influence on its students and alumni. His interest in the University went beyond the classroom and included all aspects of its welfare. As chairman of the campus planning committee, he did much to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the River Falls Campus. Wall was untiring in giving of himself and our only solace is that his death resulted from an important task in which he believed.

The 1960’s also marked the beginnings of college involvement in the U.S. government’s foreign aid programs. In addition to Mel Wall’s mission in Viet Nam, other faculty members were invited to participate in projects in the newly independent developing nations of Africa.

Richard Jensen, a 1964 graduate from the College, was recruited in 1968 for a supervisory role in a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) agricultural education project in Nigeria. He and his wife, Diane, the daughter of Richard Delorit, were stationed in the Nigerian city of Ibadan. Jensen was instrumental in recruiting faculty members from Wisconsin for short-term assistance projects in Nigeria. Prior to Jensen’s involvement in program leadership, Dr. Marvin Thompson, Chair of the Department of Agricultural Education at UW-River Falls and Dr. Walt Boraker from UW-Madison, were among the first to spend time in Nigeria designing curriculum and teacher development projects. Their work in the mid 1960’s successfully set the stage for future USAID projects in agriculture in Nigeria.

Richard Jensen

Richard Jensen

Second Casualty

Thorvold Thorsen, a professor of Agricultural Engineering at UW-RF, and his wife, Wilma, signed on for a two year contract in Nigeria through a USAID project managed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They left for Nigeria in late summer of 1972, after packing up and shipping their personal belongings, including a motorcycle. Although details of the accident are lacking, Thorsen suffered a critical head injury while driving the motorcycle near Ile Ife, where he and Wilma were stationed. He was quickly evacuated to Germany where he underwent emergency surgery and stabilization prior to being transported to New York. In New York he underwent a newly developed form of restorative brain surgery. Although he lived a long and apparently happy life for many years after that, he was unable to continue his teaching career.

Thorvold Thorsen (left)

Thorvold Thorsen (left)

From 1974 through the mid 1990s, Thorsen was a familiar fixture around the campus. He maintained an office in the Agricultural Engineering Department and in an unofficial capacity did what he could to help. Many people on the campus were encouraged and appreciative of his upbeat and cheerful attitude through what must have been a difficult period for him. Most people understood that Thor was not good at remembering their names, and would answer respectfully when hailed by his familiar, “Well hello, you old toad.”

International Student Involvement

There has also been a long tradition of student involvement in international study. Dr. Robert Bailey was Chairman of the Sociology Department in the early 1970s. He also founded and served as the Director of the University Quarter Abroad Program. In 1974, seven agriculture students participated in the Quarter Abroad Program and spent approximately nine weeks in Europe pursuing independent research.

Quarter Abroad Students in 1974

Sigurd Hanson (Onalaska WI) A comparative study: dairy family farms in Norway and the upper midwest. Hanson returned to Norway the following year, serving as the group leader for The Experiment in International Living organization
Kenneth Voorhees (Prescott, WI) Vocational Agriculture in Denmark
Edward Scholler (Wauwatosa, WI) Pork quality as influenced by pork stress syndrome and the development of the pale soft exudative phenomenon in Denmark
Michael Olson (Black River Falls, WI) Agricultural Extension in the Netherlands
Rodney Draeger (Fort Atkinson, WI) Agricultural Education curriculum development in the Netherlands
Gregory Krueger (Black River Falls, WI) The production of registered Aberdeen Angus breeding cattle in Scotland
Steve Grover (Avoca, WI) The development and use of AI services in West Germany
Sigurd Hanson

Sigurd Hanson

Sigurd Hanson graduated from UWRF in 1975, and began his career in international development, working in Taiwan. Later he spent 18 years in Africa, working on development in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, later moving to Pakistan in 1998 where he became the Director of the Pakistani branch of the humanitarian organization, World Vision. Hanson was selected as the 2004 UW-River Falls Distinguished Alumnus in recognition of is outstanding work in career.  Chancellor Don Betz referred to Hanson as “a model of leadership on campus as well as around the world.”

Hanson returned to campus in November 2005 to share his experience with students and faculty members, focusing on the relief needs in Pakistan in the wake of the magnitude 7.5 Richter scale earthquake that struck in the Kashmir region, severely affecting 3.5 to 4 million people. The CAFES Dean’s office collected funds locally to assist with providing shelter and other needed materials for people in the region. Approximately $4000 was raised and sent to World Vision.

USAID Grant

In 1979 the College was awarded a capacity building, strengthening grant from USAID through the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD). The grant, which was for $500,000 over a five-year period, was the largest that the university had received up to that time in its history. Dean James Dollahon and Dr. Richard Jensen, whom Dollahon had recruited from the University of Vermont in the winter of 1977, were the authors of the grant proposal.

James Dollahon

James Dollahon

The purpose of the strengthening grant was to prepare faculty members to become better positioned to contribute to U.S. efforts to improve the development of food and agriculture on a global basis. In general three kinds of activities resulted from this program.

  1. Several faculty members enrolled in foreign language classes. Spanish and French were the most popular. There were 14 UWRF faculty members enrolled in Spanish training and three in French in 1981.
  2. Participant trainees from developing countries were enrolled in customized training programs on the River Falls campus. The first two were from Egypt (livestock production) and Nicaragua (cooperatives).
  3. An administrative structure for managing international programs was set up. Following the untimely death of Dean Jim Dollahon, Acting Dean Roger Swanson served as Director and Richard Jensen as Assistant Director. Library resources were purchased, and several faculty members were sent abroad to study food and agricultural development projects first hand.

The first of these were Elwood Black and Alex Simons, who were both in the Plant and Earth Science Department. Black and Simons spent four weeks in Indonesia during the summer of 1980 studying soils and cropping systems and were also able to investigate higher education and the agricultural extension systems. They reported being particularly struck by the vast transmigration that was going on at the time from the populous regions near Jakarta to Java and other outlying islands, which were then sparsely populated.

Another group of faculty members, Leland Wittwer, Marvin Thompson, and Lou Greub, traveled to Indonesia and other Asian countries the following year. They observed agricultural activities in Indonesia, Philippines, Fiji and Samoa. This group also made arrangements to visit the University of Hawaii to observe agricultural research on tropical crops and various types of farming operations. Greub reported that “this was the trip of a lifetime because it gave me my first exposure and insight into both tropical and relatively primitive agriculture.”

Lee Wittwer

Lee Wittwer

Marvin Thompson

Marvin Thompson

Lou Greub

Lou Greub

Lou Greub provided his reflections on this memorable visit to Indonesia, Fiji, Samoa and the Philippines:

We learned that rats were a serious pest to be dealt with in most of those tropical environments. We were viewing the resettlement farms that the Indonesian government had established in the Upang Delta on the island of Sumatra in an attempt to relieve population pressures on the island of Java. These new ‘farms’ had literally been carved out of the jungle and each consisted of a house and about two acres of land on which the farmer and his family were to grow the crops they needed for food and some extra to sell. We were looking at a particular rice paddy in front of one of the houses and I remarked to the Indonesian agronomist accompanying us that this farmer had a good rice crop developing. Our Indonesian friend said ‘yes’, but unfortunately when it begins to ripen the rats will start to come out of the jungle at night to feed on it and the farmer will be very lucky if he harvests even half of it.

Later we saw other rice paddies where the farmers had set up poison bait stations in an attempt to control the rats, and on one of the larger farms they had a couple of dog brigades that would be taken out at night to kill of as many rats as possible. Almost everywhere we went in the tropics, rice granaries were constructed on posts wrapped with tin to prevent rats from having access to the stored grain. At one of our overnight lodgings at a government outpost in Sumatra we could hear the rats squealing and crawling around the walls of the room where we were sleeping.

At the International Rice Research Institute in The Philippines we saw rice research plots surrounded with fine wire mesh rat fencing supplemented with about a two foot wide  vertical strip of sheet metal around the bottom. The sheet metal was pushed down into the ground several inches to keep the rats from burrowing under the fencing.

When Thompson, Wittwer, and I were in the Philippines our host, missionary Dick Schwenk, originally of Hudson, WI, and a former UWRF student, took us out to a remote village which could not be reached by vehicle and road. We had to walk several miles on the last leg of the trip. It appeared that the invention of the wheel had not yet reached this village because their water buffaloes were pulling loads of material around on two long poles made up like a sled. We did not see a wheeled device of any kind in that village.

Greub continued his narrative, commenting on changing provinces and time zones in Australia:

With nearly the entire central part of Australia a vast desert, some locations are pretty remote. When I was on the People to People Forage and Grassland tour in 1988, we were at a meeting with several Australian agricultural extension specialists in the capitol city, Canberra, and one of our group asked about traveling to a location further inland in an adjoining province. One of the “Aussie” extension guys said ‘when you go in there, don’t forget to set you watch back an hour and screw your brain back about 20 years.

One evening our People to People tour group had dinner at a nice, but rather laid back ‘frontier style’ restaurant at one of the more inland stops in or near Waga Waga. The dinner started at 7:00 p.m. and was served in courses with ample time and waiter service between courses to order drinks which soon appeared to be one of the restaurant’s main features. We were on the ground floor with a nearby door out to the street. Between courses a few of our group would wander out the door and see what was going on outside. Several found a souvenir store open a few doors down the street, and came back with a purchase or two whereupon a few more would leave after the next course to see what they could find.

I don’t think anyone missed any of the meal nor the chance to have all the drinks they wanted. The whole meal took about two and one-half hours.

Steve Ridley and Phil George spent four weeks in West Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, and Senegal) visiting universities and observing development projects funded by various agencies, including USAID. They observed first hand the problems that rural farmers had in obtaining financing for expansion and even getting  supplies, such as seed, for basic crop production. They also experienced some of the difficulties associated with living in West Africa, including bed bugs, gastrointestinal challenges, and over-zealous and greedy customs authorities. They also learned, perhaps inappropriately, that the best deals for currency exchanges were frequently found through informal contacts such as taxi drivers rather than through official banking channels.

Steve Ridley (right)

Steve Ridley (right)

Dr. Phil George in Nigeria in 1981

Dr. Phil George in Nigeria in 1981

The strengthening grant, which was in place from 1978 to 1983, was a pivotal force in moving the College into the forefront of international assistance programming. UW- River Falls was one of 48 universities in the country to receive such a grant and one of only seven non-land grant universities participating in the BIFAD program.

This program also involved faculty members from other colleges at UWRF. Dr. Ed Robbins, a professor of sociology became involved and eventually served several years in Rwanda and later in Burkina Faso as a USAID rural sociologist under several contracts with Winrock International. Robbins had to become fluent in French for these assignments. He worked hard to achieve this and was highly respected for his achievements on the projects he was involved in.

Ed Robbins 1994

Ed Robbins 1994

Several faculty members who participated in the program subsequently left the university. Both Elwood Black and Alex Simons left within two years of their experience in Indonesia. Others, however, continued to participate in international development programs for many years. Dick Jensen, Lou Greub, Gerald Nolte, Ed Robbins, Dennis Cooper, Dennis Cosgrove, and Steve Ridley achieved solid records for several projects throughout the remainder of their university careers and beyond. Emeritus Professor of Agricultural Economics, Gerald Nolte, still travels to destinations all over the world several times a year under the VOCA program for agricultural assistance. His primary focus is to educate farmers, agribusiness people, and government officials about the benefits of cooperatives and properly designed marketing systems for agricultural products.

Gerald Nolte

Gerald Nolte

Perhaps the most lasting result of this extraordinary program was the legacy of international students and trainees who found their way to River Falls. The College of Agriculture, which in the mid-1980s became known more inclusively as the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, was indeed “strengthened” by this program. In a real sense the faculty became more aware of the developing world, and that world became more aware of us. Beginning in the early 1980s, a stream of international students sponsored by USAID and other agencies began to pursue studies in the University. The first of these were two young ladies from Somalia, Zeinab Ali and a colleague, know as Zarah. Originally they had planned to participate in a somewhat limited training program – 1 to 2 years. Zeinab, however, stayed on to complete her degree in Food Science and subsequently earned a Master’s degree at Cornell University. Other international students and trainees soon followed from Belize, Nicaragua and Nigeria.

Poland

In the early 1980’s Acting Dean Roger Swanson was instrumental in paving the way for a faculty exchange agreement between UW-River Falls and Warsaw Agricultural University (SGGW). Dr. Henryk A. Jasiorowski, President of SGGW, and Dr. George Field, Chancellor of UWRF, signed a Cooperative Educational Agreement between the two institutions on November 24, 1980. It was agreed, “that the universities would begin an exchange program involving consultants, professors, researchers, students and education officials with the objective of cooperating in strengthening educational cooperation”.  Considering the “cold war” tensions between the United States and the Communist Bloc nations at that time, this agreement was considered to be quite extraordinary.  Professor Wolski, an Agricultural Economist, was one of the first of several Polish visitors to come to River Falls.  He was soon followed by Professors Adolph Horubala, Head of the Food Science Department; Edward Pierzgalski, Head of the Department of Land and Forest Reclamation; and Andrzej Gasik, a Food Science Professor.

Professor Adolph Horubala from Wausau Agricultural University 1981

Professor Adolph Horubala from Wausau Agricultural University 1981

Following these visits, soils professor, Donavon Taylor, and adjunct biology professor, Edward Pryzina, joined their faculty colleagues in Warsaw for a few months where they conducted research.

In June 1992, Dr. Edward Pierzgalski, Head of the Department of Land and Forest Reclamation at Warsaw Agricultural University, hosted Chancellor Gary Thibodeau. In the Fall of 1992 Dr. Alina Dobranska, Head of the Dept. of Nutrition at Warsaw Agricultural University, was a visiting Professor with the Food Science group at River Falls.  This was a cordial visit. Faculty, staff and students were greatly impressed with Prof. Dobranska’s energy and by her unbounded curiosity.  Because of her rather advanced age and stature, she and was admired and respected by many as quaintly old-fashioned.  At that time the College was also hosting many younger Polish and other Central European student trainees.  Dr. Dobranska adopted a motherly attitude towards many of them.  Unfortunately her visit was terminated early because of health concerns.

Lou Greub and Bill Taubman joined the visiting Professor program with SGGW in the early 1990s, initially working at Warsaw Agricultural University on a no-till seeding project to improve forage stands on high organic matter soil in eastern Poland. They arrived in Poland with a specialized no-till drill and various legume and grass seeds. Greub returned again two years later to follow up on the work. In the spring of 1994 Kazimierz Piekut, a conservation tillage specialist, and Jerzy Jeznach and Jozef Mosiej  with specialties in soils and water management came to River Falls and continued to work with Greub and Taubman.  These exchanges were funded through the Foundation for Polish Agriculture. K. Piekut later wrote, “Especially I was impressed (with) your attitude towards environment and water protection. You, I mean Wisconsin, have a lot of water.  It was very interesting to see your agriculture, your methods of farming, and applied technologies”.

Bill Taubman 1993

Bill Taubman 1993

In 1993 Greub wrote the when he and Bill Taubman were in Poland, they were teaching their Polish colleagues how to use a no-till drill.  At one of the seeding sites Greub noticed that as soon as they arrived the old Polish professor headed down to a small brook flowing through the pasture.  At about 10:00 a.m. he motioned the crew and the Americans to come down to the brook to take a break.  When they arrived he retrieved a cloth bag full of beer bottles that he had put there to cool earlier that morning.  They all had their “coffee break”.

On another occasion they were working on a Polish experimental farm and staying overnight in the somewhat primitive facility on site.  In the morning at breakfast Greub reported that “I was wanting some water and there did not seem to be any around.  I noticed an old woman in the neighboring farmyard about 50 yards away hand-pumping water at a well.  I grabbed an empty container, went over, and she graciously filled it for me with nice cool water.  I took it back, promptly filled a glass, and drank it.  The Polish farm crew thought I was crazy to drink water.  They were having beer for breakfast.

Mexico

An exchange agreement was signed by Luis Garibay,  Rector Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara (UAG), Estado de Jalisco, Mexico and George R. Field, Chancellor, UWRF on April 15, 1980 to: (1) Develop an informal needs assessment for the development of the UAG School of Agricultural Engineering. (2) Identify listing of appropriate donors for assistance in development of the School of Agricultural Engineering. (3) Complete site visitation to initiate continued cooperation. The sum of $1500 was designated for a visit by UWRF faculty in May of 1980.

A second agreement was subsequently signed by Richard Jensen, Assistant Director of Intl. Programs at UWRF and Ing. Vincente Valle Herrera, Direccion General de Promicion at UAG on October 23, 1981 to: (1) provide a short-term course for first year students enrolled in the College of Agriculture and Engineering at UAG; (2) provide a seminar for second year students; and (3) to assist with professional development of faculty. (4) develop short-term and long-term plans for further cooperation. This agreement resulted in faculty exchanges between the two institutions.

Chancellor Field and Rector Garibay signed a third agreement, which specifically authorized one-to-one student exchanges, in November 1984.  These student exchanges, which primarily resulted in UWRF students going to Mexico, remains in affect to this day.

The East Central European Scholarship Program (ECESP)

The ECES Program was conceived and originated at the Center for Intercultural Education at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. around 1990. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1989, several former Soviet states such as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia suddenly re-emerged as newly independent states after many years of Soviet communist control.  For nearly 50 years the people of East Central Europe had been forced to operate under soviet inspired practices, which included centralized government control of industrial production, finance, education, and agriculture.  As one of the Georgetown faculty members observed, “there was probably not a single real economist to be found in any of these countries”.

Dr. Maria Pryshlak, Director of the East Central European Scholarship Program, and Dr. Andrzej Kaminski contacted the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and requested submission of a proposal to conduct training in the agricultural sciences and economics and also in teacher education for participants from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The training proposal was prepared by Steve Ridley, and in the very cold winter of 1993 the first group of trainees arrived in River Falls.  From this time until the close of the program in 1997, approximately 100 participants from Central Europe were trained at River Falls.  Most did not enroll in degree programs; they typically completed 3 semesters of academic training and one summer of practical training through internships.

Other U.S. universities participating in ESCEP training programs included UW-LaCrosse, the University of California at Modesto, Georgetown, George Washington University, and the University of Kentucky.

It is probably not difficult to imagine the intense level of interest and the sense of exhilaration that pervaded the campus and the River Falls community with the arrival of the first group of about 25 participants in January of 1993.  In general the people we were serving had been effectively cut off from Western influence for their entire lives.  Many of those who applied and who were selected to come to River Falls appeared to have been deliberately disenfranchised and politically isolated by the Communist establishment in their home countries.  One example, a brilliant young man from Czechoslovakia, had been expelled from his university because of his family’s Christian heritage.  Others had apparently spent time in prisons for various “offenses” against their states.  Most were somewhat older than typical American students at the university. In spite of differences in culture, age, motivation, etc., there was significant interaction and bonding that took place between the visitors, local students, and many area residents.  Several local residents participated in a host family program to help visiting trainees engage in social and family events.

One of the Polish participants was a bank manager, and he was eager to observe life in the U.S. banking sector.  His experience began early in his stay in River Falls when he went to the First National Bank to open a checking account.  He seemed greatly surprised when he went up to the teller’s window, and the lady smiled and greeted him in a friendly manner.  Afterward he he confided that when he returned to his position in Poland, he was going to tell all his workers to smile at the customers.

The ECES Program at River Falls was managed through the Dean’s Office of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.  The entire university community was involved, however.  Most of the participants were taking courses not only in agriculture, but also in business and economics.  Those involved in teacher training had professors and advisors in the College of Education.

Russia

There is always an element of risk when universities and others become involved in international programming.  At the extreme there are risks of outright physical danger and death as were the cases with Mel Wall and Thor Thoreson as described earlier.  There has always been the fear of accidents and injuries to students who are studying abroad.  Fortunately UWRF has not yet had to deal with situations such as these.  Finally there is the risk of programs simply failing to live up to expectations and becoming liabilities to the University due to poor planning and/or misunderstandings.  The experience with UWRF and the KELI Global Group program for training Russian farmers is an example of the latter.

In 1998 the College was approached by a private businessman, from Madison with an invitation to form a partnership with his company, KELI Global Group, to provide practical training in dairy farming for young Russian farmers.  The need arose, according to KELI, because there were many young Russian farmers who came out of the old Soviet system of state farms, who were attempting to farm independently with little relevant experience or training.

As the program was conceived, KELI Global would screen and select young Russian applicants, and set up12-18 month internship placements on dairy farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  The University would assist with planing and placements, and would also provide academic training through periodic group meetings or by means of distance education technology.  Host farms would provide housing and a small salary for the participants.  Financing was totally raised through the program itself by requiring a portion of the salaries paid by the host farms to be shared between KELI Global and the University according a negotiated formula.

It was apparent from the beginning that one of reasons for KELI’s interest in a university partnership resulted from the University’s somewhat unique legal status as a sponsoring agency for student visas for international students and trainees. The program proposed by a private entity such as KELI could not (at that time) operate without this type of assistance.

The original group of 20 Russian farmers arrived in April 1999.  Over the course of the next two years the number increased to about 100.

There were problems from the very beginning when a few of the trainees left the farms where they were working and simply disappeared.  KELI’s response to this troubling situation was to hold the passports of all the participants.  In so doing the company came under criticism from some of the host farms for being heavy handed, unfair, and possible acting illegally.  One of the host farmers complained directly to the Wisconsin Attorney General, Jim Doyle, who initiated a brief investigation into some of KELI’s practices.  The University was drawn into this as well.

Other problems developed over some of the participants who were more or less impostors, somehow making it through the screening process by falsely representing themselves as farmers, when in fact they had no experience and even no interest in farming.  They just wanted to come to the U.S.

In the face of these difficulties, and with an acute sense of embarrassment, UWRF abruptly withdrew from the KELI partnership after two years.  KELI continued the program on its own after receiving INS approval to apply for student visas.  Apparently the company was able to adopt reforms that helped it to overcome most of the negative public perception.

Latvia

Juris Plesums immigrated to the U.S. from Latvia in the 1950s. He grew up in Spooner, WI, graduated from the University of Minnesota, and farmed near Spooner.  Later he attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and received his master’s degree in Agricultural Economics.  Plesums maintained contact with his home country through the Latvian American Society and through the community of Latvian immigrants in the U.S. He gradually began assisting young agriculturalists from that country by bringing them to the U.S. for training and education.  UW-River Falls became involved with this in the 1980s, and hosted several short-term trainees, most of whom were from the Latvian University for Agriculture (LUA) in Jelgava.

Jelgava Palace, home to the Latvian University for Agriculture

Jelgava Palace, home to the Latvian University for Agriculture

Chancellor Gary Thibodeau and his wife Imogene visited Latvia and the LUA in 1996, only a few years following that county’s reemergence as an independent state. The Rector of the university, Prof. Voldemars Strikis and members of the faculty requested assistance in designing a new dairy production facility,  to replace their aging facility at Vatcaucse.  Subsequently UW-RF Campus Planner, Dale Braun, and Grants Director, Bill Campbell, went to Latvia.  Braun worked with the faculty and others studying various possibilities for farm locations and design ideas.  Campbell conducted training for the faculty in preparation of grant proposals.

Faculty members from River Falls visiting Latvia were quite impressed with the
architecture of the Latvian University for Agriculture. Jelgava Palace dates from 1772, and houses the entire university.  The palace was designed by the notable Italian architect, Francesco Bartholomeo Rastrelli, and was the residence of the Dukes of Cortland who are now entombed in the palace’s crypt. Today this vast facility houses all departments of the university.

The next few years saw a number of faculty members and a few officials from the Latvian Ministry of Agriculture coming to River Falls for specialized training.  Dr Uldis Ositis, Chairman of the LUA Animal Science Department was one of the notable visitors. Ositis worked closely with Dr. Dennis Cooper and Dr. Dennis Cosgrove and became interested in promoting the benefits of forage nutritional analysis, a practice that had not been utilized previously in Latvia.  With assistance from Cooper and Cosgrove, Ositis worked tirelessly to introduce the technology and taught the benefits of this practice in his classes and to Extension workers.

Other visitors coming from Latvia to River Falls were Velta Feodorova, from the Ministry of Agriculture, and Dr. Daina Karklina, Chair of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at LUA.  Dr. Karklina and two of her colleagues also attended workshops on food safety conducted by P.C. Vasavada at River Falls.  Training was also conducted for several agronomists and dairy scientists from LUA during the 1990s.

Throughout this time, obtaining funds for the Latvian training programs required considerable creativity. Plesums and the Latvian American Society provided some funds, but the university was unsuccessful in obtaining assistance from the U.S. government. In 1996 Dean Gary Rohde and Associate Dean Steve Ridley discussed this difficulty with an aide to Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl. The following year, most likely due to assistance from Senator Kohl, UW-River Falls was identified in the 1997 Farm Bill as “an institution with unique capabilities as a training provider in agriculture for participants from the Baltic States”. This language opened the door for a series of USDA funded Cochran Training programs, first for Baltic participants, but later for participants from Central European countries including Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Moldova. Most of the latter programs were focused on forage production for dairy nutrition, and were ably conducted by Dennis Cooper and Dennis Cosgrove.

Another USDA agricultural training program known as the Young Scientists Program brought several veterinarians from Romania to Wisconsin for short-term training.  Cooper, Cosgrove, and other faculty members worked with these trainees and introduced them to the concept of Cooperative Extension as a means of transferring the results of agricultural research to farmers and other practitioners. The idea caught on with at least one of the Romania scientists who helped establish programs modeled after what he  learned in Wisconsin in 2004.

Later Developments

By the early part of the 21st century, the university administration had made a strong commitment to international programs, and many faculty members and students eagerly    pursued opportunities to work, study and travel abroad.  During the 2002-03 academic year, approximately 350 faculty members and students participated in some form of international study or travel.  Under the leadership of Chancellor Anne Lydecker and International Programs Director, Brent Greene, the University could boast in having representatives from the River Falls campus working in many diverse places including Russia, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Uganda, Japan, all of Western Europe, and even at the South Pole in Antarctica.

In 2002-03 the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences received $78,000 in grants from the Foreign Agriculture Service of the USDA for a three-part technical assistance project to improve dairy feeding and production in Serbia.  The College also hosted a group of Romanian scientists for training in dairy production after  a visit by faculty members Dennis Cooper (Dairy Science) and Dennis Cosgrove (Agronomy) to Romania for an assessment of the country’s developing needs.  Cooper commented on his experiences by noting that his international activities served well in helping to improve his courses and his classroom teaching at home.

Also during this period Ranee May, dairy plant manager in the College, continued to build on her previous experiences in international training over a 20-year period of teaching techniques and skills in cheese manufacturing.  In 2003 she was introduced to the UW-River Falls Distinguished Alumnus and well-known photographer and conservationist, Wong How Man.  This meeting resulted in the opportunity for May and a group of students to travel to Zhongdan China where they began developing specifications for a farmstead facility for yak milk production and processing with the goal of producing a signature local cheese to be marketed in the region in support of the growing tourism industry in that region of Western China.

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