UMN Crookston’s degrees impact NW MN; graduates staying for the regional workforce

Times Report
Crookston Times

    “Our graduates can go anywhere, we have students that come from other areas of the country, those specific to our region, and we have established ourselves as having a strong agriculture program, agronomy programs broadly,” said University of Minnesota Crookston Agronomy Lecturer, Rob Proulx, Ph.D.

    But it isn’t just Crookston’s agronomy graduates that have become pretty well embedded in a lot of the different companies in this region, particularly American Crystal Sugar. Proulx said the variety of degrees and, in this case, ag, touches everything.          

    “One concrete example is American Crystal Sugar Company, and of their Agriculturist staff, something like one-third of those individuals have come through the UMN Crookston’s Agronomy program,” Proulx explained.

    Ryan Wall, American Crystal Sugar Factory Manager, echoed Proulx’s comments about the graduates saying there are mid-level managers with a bachelor's degree in manufacturing management, communications and agronomy to name a few.

    “Agriculture touches everything from family farms to food production,” said Wall.  “Employees at American Crystal Sugar have the ability within the company to take on many roles and responsibilities.”

    “A lot of people that work here like daily challenges, they take on different things; it is why we are able to keep people at American Crystal Sugar,” he added.

    Wall explained that the University of Minnesota Crookston, while important to the region, is a collaborating partner just like other educational institutions like the Crookston High School, and local partnering two year schools.

    “American Crystal Sugar has strong roots, believes in its employees and values safety, integrity, quality, teamwork and accountability,” he said.                

     Tommy Smith, UMN Crookston Communications ‘16 alumni and American Crystal Sugar Technical Writer says the days typically switch up, and you never know what you're going to be thrown each day.

    “It’s what I love about being here, it changes constantly,” he said.

    Smith went on to admit that he never imagined working in agriculture as a student-athlete while attending UMN Crookston.

    Branden Kuersteiner, ‘16 alum and Packing Warehouse Supervisor says Crystal’s core values result in being the best sugar company in the world. He said that’s an impressive mission.

    “My road on how I got here is a little different than many,” Kuersteiner explained. “To make a long story short, I got my associates and bachelors in music and I am from up state New York.  After college I traveled to Tennessee and Colorado, joined a band and I met my wife while on the road when I was traveling. She was from Crookston.”

    “American Crystal Sugar was the first job I got when I moved here,” he added. “I needed to figure out what I wanted to do so I was hired as a packaging operator, then packaging technician, then a mechanic, and worked in the factory as a shift administrator and am now Packaging Supervisor.”

    Kuersteiner engaged in the tuition reimbursement program at American Crystal while going for a double major in manufacturing management and quality management. He went on to earn a Master of Science in Finance.

    “Thankfully I was able to do it asynchronously (not happening real time) as I was on a rotating shifts,” he explained. “It (my career direction) didn’t go anything like planned, up to age twenty-five it was pretty predictable but life after that was very different.”

    Kuersteiner also admitted that he liked the variety each day brings, “a normal day, there isn’t a typical day, just to give you an idea.”

    2017 alum, Kyle Baril, Assistant Packaging Warehouse Supervisor, agreed that the flexibility of the manufacturing management degree allowed him to complete his education online while continuing work and family obligations. Kyle said he did things a little backwards by hitting the job market right off the bat and got to work, yet took advantage of the tuition reimbursement program.

    “I started at Crystal Sugar, and then made a decision to go back to school,” Baril explained. “They have a tuition reimbursement program that gave me a headstart to get me back to school and once I did things just started clicking.”   

     Baril had a variety of roles his first three years and then, while going to school, a position opened up for Assistant Packing Warehouse Supervisor. He applied for it and said his schooling, he believed, gave him a leg up. Baril has been with the company for eight years and the second four years of his career has been in a supervisory role. He said the hands-on learning at UMN Crookston was key.

    “I was able to apply what I was learning directly to the job I was doing,” said Baril.

    Travis Pederson, ‘09 alum and Crystal Sugar Senior Agriculturist, said while regional farmers up and down the Red River Valley are becoming more integrated, there are still challenges for agribusinesses. Pederson, from Cando, North Dakota, arrived at the Crookston campus for hockey and agronomy and knew agriculture was in his future.

    “As an agriculturist, there are 24 (agriculturists) of us in the company, I work with 30 farms and sugarbeet farmers,” Pederson explained. “Helping farmers make decisions on field locations, varieties, chemicals, aiding in the management of harvesting sites with employees to bringing the crop in ag is always changing.”

    “From the Agronomy side, it is such a great experience.,” he added. “The classroom size, the hands-on and the classroom settings were all a huge factor in why I am successful today.”

Tommy Smith works at American Crystal Sugar Company