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Jennie-O parent company announces tuition-free college for employees' children


Hundreds of area youth will soon have additional educational opportunities, thanks to a new policy benefitting the families of some 600 Jennie-O Turkey Store employees.

Jennie-O’s parent company, Austin-based Hormel Foods, announced Tuesday that it would create a new program, called Inspired Pathways, to cover the cost of tuition for dependent children at a local community college. The new program is open to children of all Hormel Foods employees in the United States and will start accepting applications later this year, with the first class set to begin college during the 2021-22 school year.

Locally, the children of Jennie-O Turkey Store employees will have the opportunity to continue their education at South Central College. Currently, South Central provides academic programming for nearly 5,000 students, with campuses in Faribault and North Mankato.

“I’m extremely excited for not only my employees’ children to get two-year tuition for college, but also for the Faribault community, and for any place a Hormel Company is,” said Faribault Jennie-O Turkey Store Plant Manager Jody Long. “I look forward to partnering with South Central and helping to grow that talent around our city.”

In a prepared statement, Hormel Foods noted that the rising cost of college has posed a significant barrier to some families and imposed a significant burden on others. According to a 2019 analysis by the financial firm Lending Tree, nearly one in three Minnesotans are burdened by student debt. Meanwhile, racial disparities in accessibility to education are endangering the state’s ability to meet its goal, set in 2015, of increasing the number of Minnesotans age 25-44 with some sort of postsecondary education credential to 70% by 2025.

Four years in, the portion of Minnesotans with such credentials has only increased modestly, from 58% to 61%. While two thirds of white Minnesotans have some sort of postsecondary credential, only about a quarter of Latino and Native American Minnesotans do.

To meet its goal, Commissioner Dennis Olson of the Office of Higher Education has said that more than two-thirds of the 120,000 credentials the state still needs to issue will likely need to be earned by people of color.

Now, Hormel Foods has engaged itself fully in the effort to boost the educational achievement. Hormel Foods President, CEO and Chairman of the Board Jim Snee said that boosting educational achievement could not only improve businesses like his, but transform communities.

“We believe equality in education can be a game-changer, and we have decided to take on that challenge,” said Snee. “When you think about how a college education can change lives and start a ripple effect that will be felt for generations, that’s the change-maker Hormel Foods wants to be.”

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that the initiative will provide an important boost to South Central College at a time of extreme uncertainty in higher education, and provide assistance for many students who could particularly use it.

“We know this is the best way to lift people is through education and careers,” he said. “This program will benefit an underserved population and help them advance their careers and families.”

In its press release, the company noted that it already provides a four-year college scholarship program through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. However, that program is competitive and just a few scholarships are typically awarded. Unlike the merit scholarship, the Inspired Pathways program is open to all students, regardless of test score or GPA. In order to receive the scholarship, students must complete high school and meet community college admission requirements.

A similar program, called the Austin Assurance Scholarship, has benefited all students who live in Austin. However, the Inspired Pathways scholarship will be limited to dependents of Hormel employees.

At South Central, children of local Jennie-O Turkey Store workers will have plenty of paths to choose from. They could pursue a path that leaves them well positioned to work at Jennie-O or another area factory — or take a liberal arts path and continue at a four-year college.

South Central College President Dr. Annette Parker expressed gratitude for Jennie-O’s commitment. She said that she has been in regular contact with Plant Manager Long for several months and was prepared for the announcement. Parker predicted that it would provide a significant boost to the city’s efforts to address its local workforce shortage. As a show of gratitude, she pledged to continue to work with Jennie-O, one of the city’s largest employers, to help it meet its workforce needs.

“We are very grateful to have them in the community as a partner,” she said. “We’ll be working with them as partners on the things they want to see SCC offer.”

Mayor Kevin Voracek was also ecstatic about the announcement. Voracek said that he’s been aware of Austin’s program for some time, and asked Long if there was any way such a program could be set up here in Faribault.

“I think it’s a great step in the right direction,” he said. “We need to make sure that kids are educated for the hands-on jobs that will get them a decent lifestyle, and introduce them into post-secondary education.”

County considers additional help for business, this time including ag

It’s set aside money for local businesses, non-profits and to feed those in need. On Tuesday, the Rice County Board of Commissioners turned its attention to yet another sector negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic: agriculture.

With a Dec. 1 deadline fast approaching, County Administrator Sara Folsted said she plans on asking the board to approved an additional $750,000 of the county’s share of federal CARES Act dollars for small businesses. A portion of that could be used to assist agricultural enterprises as well.

To assist farmers, the county needs to set up a program specific to them. However, by asking for ag assistance dollars in the same request as small business assistance dollars, that money can be used more flexibly, based on demand.

Folsted turned to the successful For-Profit Farming Operations Grant set up by Scott County as a model. Thanks to a sizable budget of $700,000, Scott County has been able to offer generous grants of up to $25,000 per applicant.

Scott County’s program is more spendy than Rice County is considering, with Folsted saying $10,000 per applicant would be more realistic. Like Scott County’s plan, Rice County’s could cover economic injury from COVID-19 and eligible expenses. Under Scott County’s model, a wide variety of agricultural operations would be eligible for assistance. However, under CARES Act’s regulations, expenses need to be carefully documented and any claimed loss substantiated.

“We can’t supplement income,” Folsted said. “There’s a lot of things we can’t do with this income.”

Shaping the plan

Scott County’s plan wasn’t the only one considered by the County Board. Folsted and Economic Development Coordinator Kathy Feldbrugge also provided information on Mower County’s program, designed to help animal agriculture operations. Feldbrugge noted that for counties like Mower, agriculture comprises an even more significant backbone of the local economy than in Rice County. Both Scott and Mower County’s assistance proposals could cover large farms with up to 50 employees.

Still, County Commissioner Galen Malecha seemed most pleased with Scott County’s model. He also had kind words and recommendations from farm business management instructor, South Central College’s Mark Wehe.

“Scott County has a lot of teeth in it, and South Central has some good ideas too,” Malecha said. “If we could blend some of South Central’s ideas as well, it would be great.”

In an email to Feldbrugge, Wehe noted that COVID-19 has caused significant volatility across the agriculture market. While swine farmers have been hit the hardest, corn and soybean producers across the county have taken big hits, too.

Wehe also offered to help the county promote any agriculture assistance program. Through his Farm Business Management Program, Wehe says he’s in contact with roughly 70% of local producers with sales north of $250,000.

Ironically, 2020 is shaping up to be one of the strongest growing seasons in recent years for many local growers. Local farmer Matt Braun said that while he’s hoping for a bit of rain, the biggest challenge farmers have faced has been market stability.

The threat posed to the agriculture industry by COVID-19 has been far-reaching. Corn farmers have suffered from declining demand for ethanol, while plant closures and a lack of demand for school lunches and restaurant meals have hammered livestock, pork and chicken producers.

Those challenges have come just as farmers hoped to leave behind trade conflicts that hurt them badly. To help compensate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made nearly $15 billion in payments to farmers, though the damage to many was much greater.

The USDA made its final round of payments in February, just before COVID hit. That came on the heels of agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico on a new trade agreement and a “Phase One” trade deal with China — both actions which dramatically reduced trade tensions.

Just months after receiving what they had hoped to be the last round of payments, many farmers are once again in need of assistance. Braun said that while the help will be welcome, it frustrates many farmers who wish they could be more self-reliant.

“We don’t want to take from the government, but we have to stay alive, too,” he said. “It is considered a business, after all.”

Daytripper winners

Daytripper winners

Triton/K-W/Hayfield JV girls soccer 2019

The Triton/Kenyon-Wanamingo Hayfield JV girls soccer team last season. (Photo courtesy of Studio J Images)

School district’s 2019-20 accomplishments earn high praise

The 2019-20 academic year was a year unlike any other for schools across the nation, Faribault Public Schools included.

But despite the coronavirus pandemic’s disruption to the regular school calendar in mid-March, Superintendent Todd Sesker had plenty of points of pride, positive changes and achievements in his annual review of the prior school year.

Sesker presented his 2019-20 review to the School Board during its meeting Monday. In particular, he pointed out the ways the district’s accomplishments connected to goals outlined in its strategic plan.

“There’s not one [department] that’s more important than another,” Sesker said. “I would just say the staff did an excellent job with another successful school year, prior to the pandemic, of course, and we were able to accomplish a lot.”

In the area of teaching and learning, the district implemented manufacturing and engineering pathways for students. While the pathways are still in the development process, the operating levy passed in fall 2019 will help the district implement more programming that puts students on specific career paths. The electives already added to the course list reached the full registration capacity.

Another goal was to offer more credit options for students, which was made possible at the high school and maintained at Faribault Middle School. One goal that was not completed, due to COVID-19, was to offer summer school credit options for English Learner students who need more than the typical four years to graduate.

Special Services

Sesker provided in his year review the goals Rob Dehnert, director of Special Services for Faribault Public Schools, accomplished in 2019-20.

One goal of Special Services was to improve connections with instructional and support personnel. The department held monthly spirit meetings with special education teachers last year, during which time the group analyzed 22 practices special education teachers should know and apply.

During distance learning, Special Services staff met virtually on a weekly basis to update one another and discuss best practices for teaching students with disabilities during the pandemic.

Improving academic achievement for students with disabilities was another of the department’s goals. During 2019-20, the department’s directors introduced social and emotional curriculum in emotional behavior disordered classrooms on the elementary and middle school levels. Directors also established professional learning communities for teachers of elementary students with emotional behavior disorders and teachers of elementary and middle school students who have autism or developmental cognitive delays.

Human Resources and Community Education

Sesker highlighted a number of accomplishments the Human Resources Department made possible in 2019-20, among them the implementation of district-wide professional development. The district included all staff members, including non-certified employees, in opportunities like learning to build inclusive cultures.

To promote school pride, the Wellness Committee, led by both the Community Education and Human Resources departments, purchased items like reusable lunch totes, reusable metal straws, rubber bracelets, sunglasses, bandanas, pencils, notepads and other items with the district’s Falcons logo. Students received these items at special events.

Under the Community Education umbrella, various individuals and teams successfully organized a variety of activities during the pandemic. These fulfilled the goal of having authentic communication and interactions to promote pride within Community Ed.

The Human Resources, Special Services and Community Education teams worked together to host a COVID-19 preparedness training for summer staff who worked in programs like Kids World, drivers education and adult education. Health services, activities and Community Education teams collaborated to form facility agreements and a COVID-19 preparedness plan to allow sports and other activities to take place within Faribault Public Schools facilities. Various individual staff members led efforts to ensure summer activities could continue during the pandemic by meeting health and safety guidelines.

To reach the goal of helping students become successful, Community Ed secured a Grow Your Own Path II grant which will support the work of recruiting and enrolling students of color into the Introduction to Teaching course through Minnesota State University, Mankato. Students who pass the course will earn three college credits.

Community Education also enhanced its collaborations with other departments as well as community organizations in 2019-20. The new FHS program RISE (Realizing Individual Student Excellence) was born of a collaboration with HealthFinders and Northfield Healthy Community Initiative. RISE will support students who need extra assistance in overcoming barriers in their education and achieving success.

Sesker also commended individuals within the district who were recognized for their achievements during the 2019-20 year. Service Learning Coordinator Brian Coleman was recognized as Chamber Education Partner of the Year, family and consumer science teacher Kaylee Wiens received national recognition for the Faribault High School Teacher Cadet Academy, FHS Principal Jamie Bente was named Southeast Minnesota Principal of the Year, FHS Assistant Principal Shawn Peck was named Southeast Minnesota Assistant Principal of the Year, Yesica Louis and Jefferson Elementary received state recognition for the Positive Behavior Interventions and Support program, and FHS Assistant Principal Joe Sage received recognition for his work with the district’s Somali and Latinx communities.

“We will continue that path [of achievement], understanding that we have challenges ahead,” Sesker concluded in his review. “This includes equity, success for students that are going through trauma, getting our English language learner parents to believe in our schools, distance/online learning, COVID and other areas. I am confident that with our staff and School Board we will get there together.”