In a small room that could barely fit half of the state legislators who were visiting Williston on Monday, Oct. 4, for an Interim Education Committee hearing, those self-same lawmakers heard about how 2,000 seedlings will be grown under light trays for next spring.
The task will not only be done in a tight space, but in a tight rotation with a study that plant pathologist Dr. Audrey Kalil is leading to look at how long pulse crop rotations should really be to keep disease pressure down.
Timing is everything. Kalil will have just enough time to finish her study, before horticulturist Kyla Splichal will need to take over the light tables for her seedlings.
It’s just one of the many ways researchers at WREC juggle space and time to make room for important research that keeps agriculture on the cutting edge, both in the MonDak and across the state.
The short presentation Kalil and Spilchal made were all part of a larger, two-day hearing in Williston for an interim study of higher education, mandated by lawmakers in the last legislative session.
In addition to touring Williston Research Extension Center, legislators also heard from Kenley Nebeker, regional director for technical programs and training at Williston State College which includes TrainND Northwest, and WSC President Dr. John Miller. On Tuesday, Nov. 5, lawmakers will tour TrainND Northwest, and hear a presentation from Tammy Dolan, Vice Chancellor for Administration and Chief Financial Officer, North Dakota University System, about the higher education funding formula and the capital building fund program.
On Monday, meanwhile, Miller talked about the challenges of keeping the college staffed when the oilfield next door is willing to offer his highly trained employees much higher pay than he can.
On top of that, living expenses here are significantly higher than many other community college communities. It’s 17.6 percent more on average for housing in Williston.
In fairness, Miller said, Minot has a higher housing cost average, but Williston also had higher costs across the board — food for example, was 3.2 percent higher than it is in other community college towns.
The college, of course, is not alone in losing workforce to the oilfields. Tyler Tjelde, manager of the Nesson Valley Irrigation Research Farm in Williston, told lawmakers on Monday that he had just lost an employee to the oilfields himself.
“I can’t blame her,” he added. “It was a much better opportunity for her.”
The “churnover” that results from having so many higher paying jobs around research and education institutions, where the employees need a high level of training, plus the higher than average living expenses or “Bakken premium” are key points, Senator Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, said.
“The cost of living is a big factor, and I think that was a message they understood,” he said. “The higher education funding formula does not take that into account, so I’m hoping there will be some discussion about that.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, meanwhile, praised the partnerships he saw in action on Monday.
When Williston Mayor Howard Klug turned over a $100,000 check for Williston Research Extension Center’s new seed cleaning facility, that was a big moment, the Chairman of the Interim Education Committee said.
“All of the things Williston has done to support the research extension center and Williston State College — it’s a great partnership,” Sanford said. “It’s very good for the locals and it’s good for North Dakota as a whole, too.”
Another key takeaway, Sanford said, is the integral role WSC is playing, through programs like TrainND and others, to serve the training needs for workforce in the Oil Patch.
“The kinds of rapid responses they have to make was emphasized to us today,” he said. “WSC is really at the heart of what’s driving the economy of North Dakota with the oil industry.”
In a previous biennium, WSC was given some flexible funding to meet needs. That was something else that pleased Sanford.
“They showed us how they used that, and they used it well,” he said. “There’s a need to have some flexible dollars to permit them to be agile. And of course, agriculture research is another reason the state has had such great success. The research here is good for North Dakota, and really the nation and the world, too.”
As far as a cost of living increase, that does have a precedent Sanford said.
“WSC got money two bienniums ago, in 13 and 15, because of the ‘Bakken premium,’” Sanford said.
That is something that will be watched and considered in the next legislative session, he indicated.