Local dairy farmer moves on to become agricultural engineer and Nuffield Farming Scholar

Learning from the world ... Brian Dougherty of Waukon stands in a hillside pasture area near Keash, Ireland during the travel portion of his Nuffield Farming Scholar designation. Dougherty has traveled throughout the world this year learning and conducting research in regard to soil health, nutrient management and water quality. Submitted photo.

by David M. Johnson

There are individuals who choose career paths, some not so well traveled and some paths that involve multiple journeys. Then there are individuals who venture down the road that is above and beyond what was imagined when the journey began.
Brian Dougherty was a local farm kid, raised by John and Rita Dougherty of rural Waukon, who wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. Graduating from Waukon High School in 1991, Dougherty pursued an Associate’s Degree in Farm Management from Ellsworth Community College before joining his brother, Scott, to farm the family farm.

His parents sold the original herd in 1987. The family purchased 40 cows in 1994 and the brothers eventually expanded to 160 cows as they took over the farm. The Dougherty farm raised corn and alfalfa for the herd on 300 acres of owned and rented land as Dougherty became an active member of the community. He was president, vice president and a voting delegate for the Allamakee County Farm Bureau plus served on the Iowa and American Farm Bureau dairy committees. Then, after 17 years of toiling as a farmer, Dougherty decided on a major course redirection in life. He chose to go the route of academics to build on his knowledge and experience of being involved in agriculture and farming.

Dougherty earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Ecological Engineering from Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR before pursuing a Master’s degree in Agricultural Engineering at Iowa State University in Ames. As Dougherty continued his studies, he applied for the Nuffield International Farming Scholars Program.

Along with one other American, Dougherty was chosen as one of the 2018 applicants to become a participant in the program. This is only the second year that the United States had representatives in the 70 years of the Nuffield International Farming Scholars Program, a program with an alumni of 1700 scholars.

As described by the program, it provides access to a network of industry leaders, plus provides the chance to explore production agriculture in different parts of the world. This is a global scholarship initiative focused on enhancing the capacity of agricultural professionals and inspiring them to shape the future of agriculture and their local and global communities.

This Allamakee County local spent a week with approximately 80 scholars and guests from around the world learning about the Nuffield organization and exploring the diverse agricultural sector in the Netherlands. This was followed by a six-week tour through Italy, Washington D.C., Texas, British Columbia, Argentina and Chile with seven other Nuffield scholars.   They learned about global trade, regulations, government policy, marketing, production practices and environmental issues in different agricultural sectors in each country.

Dougherty’s research topic is exploring how farmers and researchers in other countries tackle soil health, nutrient management and water quality issues. In early May of this year, Dougherty traveled to New Zealand and Australia for a month to begin the personal study portion of the scholarship. It came to his attention that New Zealand is challenged with nitrate leaching issues similar to those in Iowa and other Midwestern states.  It is believed that excessive nutrient leaching has contributed to the famous Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers in New Zealand face strict environmental regulations regarding effluent capture and application.

In Australia the challenges are different as dry conditions in the areas that Dougherty visited make soil moisture conservation a priority and nutrient leaching is less of an issue. Poor quality soil and limited moisture make it difficult for farmers there to build organic matter levels and improve soil health. The travel portion continued with visits to France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Ireland in September. In addition to investigating soil health practices, manure management and odor control technologies for livestock farms were observed and studied.

When it came to adoption of technology, Dougherty felt that the United States was not lagging when compared to the countries he visited. He observed that, “Some of the European countries might be doing a bit more with precision ag at small scales. They have generally smaller farms and there are a lot of high value crops grown, especially in greenhouse production.”

Dougherty does feel that his native country is lagging in addressing long-term challenges to farming both economically and environmentally. European nations provide farmers with financial support for implementation of conservation practices, reducing the need to profit from bulk commodity production. The Europeans have a societal perspective that it is advantageous to preserve small family farms and a diverse landscape. Dougherty has witnessed that the farming industry in his home country lacks diversified cropping systems and has extremely tight profit margins that come with bulk commodity production. He added that Australia is experiencing similar problems as the United States in that respect.

One thing that it seems all farmers share world-wide is the struggle to encourage the younger generation to farm.   Expensive land and absentee land ownership make it difficult to begin farming or to expand an operation once farming. As here, unless an individual is raised on a farm and has that inside access, business succession from older to younger generations is difficult. Those lacking that access have the limited opportunity to farm and lack the capital for the initial investment required. Coupled with international market competition and a reduction in support from many of their respective governments, the outlook for growth in the number of farmers is not only bleak here but overseas as well, according to Dougherty’s observations.

When asked to reflect on the positives and the negatives with his association with the Nuffield Scholar experience, Dougherty pointed to the many challenges he witnessed that are faced by different farmers in different parts of the world. Farmers in Chile fully expected a portion of their grain shipments, including the truck, to be hijacked by armed gunmen and sold each year. A dairy farmer in Chile milked 600 cows in cheap, portable milking parlors since a permanent building was too risky as the farm sat directly in the path of a drug smuggling corridor.

One negative for Dougherty, individually, was that it would be hard, especially for active farmers, to take 16 weeks off for the travel. He had finished his coursework for his Master’s degree, which opened up a more flexible schedule allowing him to absorb a life-changing experience.

Looking back, Dougherty has in a short time period crammed in a lifetime of memories. He has been exposed to situations and scenarios that presented a backdrop that would give insight into how different and yet how similar agriculture is in other parts of the world compared to America. But, how does one go from rising early in the morning, milking, doing fieldwork, chores, and finishing with milking to the pursuit of a course change that involved an educational direction and not hands-on farming?

“I guess you could say I saw the ‘writing on the wall’ with the direction the dairy industry was headed. There is tremendous pressure on producers to continue expanding,” answered Dougherty.

He continued by adding, “It wasn’t an easy decision to change careers, but I just had no interest in milking several hundred cows to make the economics work. I always liked to tinker around with designing and building things and had it in the back of my mind that it would be fun to return to college at some point.”

Dougherty always had an interest in environmental issues and felt that the ecological engineering and agricultural engineering degrees that were pursued were a great way to combine those interests.

Going back to school, he did encounter the problem that he had so many varied and interconnected interests that it was hard to narrow the focus on one specific area.  His many interests included his studies in biofuels and bioproducts, ecological restoration, soil science, water resources engineering, bioremediation and agronomy.  Eventually, Dougherty chose to combine his farming background and education to try to assist farmers in regenerating healthy soils and to improving the resiliency of their farming operations. This is why he strongly feels that the Nuffield International Scholars Program, and his involvement in the program, is such a vital educational and career booster to his ongoing development and enhancement of his career.

Anyone interested in the Nuffield Program can check out the website nuffieldinternational.org/scholarship.html. Qualifying applicants are called in for in-person interviews where a committee decides whom to award the scholarship to. The website maintains a database of all reports written by scholars, which allows the public to have access to the knowledge and experiences gained by scholars over the years.

So how does one balance career and educational activities with family and the call of life’s distractions? When Dougherty initially began his educational journey, he had trepidations about his route with engineering as he felt it might be difficult.

“Honestly, it was easier and less stressful than running a dairy farm!” observed the former dairyman.

Even as busy as he is, his schedule has been easy to flex, thus allowing more time with his wife, Kecia, and their two children, Kourtney Kleven and Chayna Staudt.

Thanks to his ongoing education at Iowa State University and being a part of the Nuffield International Scholar program, Dougherty is gaining the insight and know-how when dealing with issues that affect Iowa farmers. Manure management, soil health and water quality are everyday challenges to farmers. With his exposure to the differing elements and possible solutions that are part of the agricultural landscape, Dougherty might be able to help overcome these nagging environmental issues that complicate a farmer’s decision on how to approach and implement positive elements for his or her farming operation.

Dougherty has used his experience from the Nuffield Scholar Program as a career and life benefit and is very thankful not only to the Nuffield organization and the Iowa State Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering department,  but also for the support he has received from the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Pork Producers Association and the National Pork Board, all of whom provided funding for the scholarship. He feels when agricultural organizations work together to promote a scholarship opportunity such as the Nuffield program, it can provide a long-term benefit to local farmers and rural communities. Brian Dougherty’s experience is evidence of that approach in action.

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