By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
From its inception Walla Walla Community College has had its roots deep in the lush soils of our valley. Agriculture was, and remains, one of the key programs offered. Now there is an integrated program, offering degrees in plant and soil science, animal science, ag business, and precision agriculture. But in the early days, only individual courses were offered.
In 1972 the first adult farm management class was formed, to improve farmers’ management practices. 1973 saw the first graduating class in ag mechanics, a specialty so in demand that the 15 students who graduated had 30 local job offers.
The turning point came in 1975, with the hiring of Jerry Kjack (pronounced “check”). He had a Master’s in agronomy from WSU when he was hired, at age 25, to teach at WWCC and to develop a comprehensive agriculture program.
With the help of an Advisory Committee made up of farmers and other ag industry people he spent two years putting a curriculum together. “Ag production was the first degree we developed” he remembers, “and later we developed a two-year ag business program.”
Kjack retired in 2013 after 38 years at WWCC. Looking back, he says “I’m proud of the level of industry involvement that we had when we were putting the program together. And I’m proud of the graduates of the program and how successful they are today.”
One of those graduates, Matt Williams, first met Kjack in 1999 when he was a Wa-Hi senior enrolled in college classes through the Running Start program.
As a 14 year old he had golfed at the Veterans Memorial Golf Course, and got his first job there, trapping gophers. After trapping thousands of them “and barely making a dent in their population,” he became interested in turf management.
“I originally fell in love with turf, and working on the golf course,” he recalls, “but as I took classes at WWCC it turned out that I was really more in love with the soil and plant science part of it.”
Williams earned two Associates degrees at WWCC, then transferred to WSU. In the Crop Science program there he earned a Bachelor’s degree and then was awarded a teaching assistantship to work on his Master’s degree, which he received in 2008. Upon graduation the WSU Crop Science program immediately hired him as an instructor.
Two years later a position opened at WWCC, in part co-teaching soil science with Kjack. Williams jumped at the chance to return and teach in the same classroom where he had been a student just a few years before. “There I found that although I loved plant and soil science, my real passion had become teaching,” he recalls.
The pair co-taught for six quarters before Kjack retired, and Williams was hired to fill Kjack’s position.
Williams laughs, remembering Kjack’s influence. “Even today I model a lot of my teaching after Jerry. He had a great way of challenging students and lifting them up. And after he retired, the first day that I taught a soil science class alone, I put on my best plaid shirt and tucked it into my Wranglers, just like Jerry.”
Today he’s on the faculty with people who were his instructors, “when I was just a kid here,” he says with a grin. “And every so often they’ll remind me that I was a smart aleck in class.”
And now it’s Williams who’s passing the torch to the next generation. Paige Wood will graduate from the soil science program in December.
Born and raised in Waitsburg, she explains that: “I was around ag my entire life and loved the people, the work, and the animals. Every person that I look up to is a farmer, they’re such great, hard-working people. But it’s intimidating to go into farming when you’re not born into a farm.”
Wood too was bitten by the soil science bug. “I had thought it was going to be difficult, too much science,” she recalls, “but Matt Williams has a way of bringing difficult subjects down to a level that’s easy to grasp, and making it interesting. It’s hard to make dirt cool, but he really does.”
Even before graduation she went to work at McDonald Zaring, in the crop insurance department. She finds it rewarding to help farmers through the paperwork maze, and plans to continue working there, while hoping to one day have a farm of her own.
Although she’s 20, she already has advice for young students. “The opportunities in ag are endless, and I think they’re going to grow, especially with the new technology,” she says. “The ag program at WWCC is great, I would recommend it to anyone. And I would say to young women who want to go into ag: there should be nothing that stops you. There’s nothing you can’t learn, nothing you can’t do. There are no limits.”
Still taking ownership of the program he started, Jerry Kjack agrees with her assessment. “Our program has always been the industry standard,” he says with pride.