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Students can gain international experience through ABS 482/582

Great Wall of china
Students can gain experiences abroad through one course, ABS 482/582, in just two weeks. Different locations students can register to visit are China, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and more. Here, is the Great Wall of China, which nearly 30 South Dakota State University students visited in 2015. Photo credit: Kylee Whitehill

South Dakota state university abs china
Bob Thaler and a group of South Dakota State University students during their 2015 trip to China. Photo credit: Kylee Whitehill

Ever wanted to study abroad, but didn’t want to leave for an entire semester or figure out how to pay for it?

Students have the opportunity to visit other countries through the ABS 482/582 course to learn about agriculture and the cultures of other countries. Trips spanning over two weeks to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and China are planned nearly every year.

Bob Thaler ’82/M.S. ’84, a professor of animal science and the SDSU Extension swine specialist, leads the annual trip to China. He said the trips started due to a $2 million endowment from the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council. Then-College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences Dean Barry Dunn created dean’s scholarships from the endowment’s earnings for those attending international trips.

“One of the things they wanted the College of Ag and Bio to do is to start some international trips that focus on agriculture,” Thaler said. “President Dunn knew that I had done some work in China so he asked if I could get one started.”

farm in china
Students learn about agriculture in the countries they visit and their ties to American markets. Photo credit: Kylee Whitehill.

Thaler has been to China more than 30 times through either the U.S. Soybean Export Council or the U.S. Grains Council. Thanks to China native and friend Defa Li, a connection Thaler made while earning his doctorate in swine nutrition at Kansas State, Thaler works with pork producers in China. He educates them on topics such as understanding the benefits of U.S. soybeans and Dried Distillers Grains in diets, as well as how to incorporate the latest technologies to be more economically and environmentally sustainable.

Thaler said that since visiting China initially in 1993, agriculture and everything else has drastically changed.

“It’s quite unimaginable actually. In 24 years, they have done what it took the United States 80 years to do in regard to livestock production and everything,” he said. “They basically went from backyard production to large-scale production, and skipped the growth phases in between.”

terra cotta warriors
Seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors is a stop usually on the agenda during the ABS 482/582 China trip. Photo credit: Kylee Whitehill

The sixth group of SDSU students are about to make the journey to China.

Nineteen students—comprised of both agriculture- and nonagriculture-related majors—will embark May 8 on a trip to four cities. The group will spend three to four days each in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Xi’an and Bejing.

Students will experience city life and history, visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors and the Great Wall of China. They will also view Chinese farms and cropland along with swine, beef cows, feedlots as well as dairy- and fish-production facilities. Thaler said students learn about the advanced progression of Chinese farming and compare their agriculture industry to America’s.

Thaler said that one in every three rows of soybeans in the U.S. end up in China. Students will look at why China imports certain commodities from the U.S. Thaler attributes it to farm size and the large population.

“The average farm size in China is 2 acres. At 2 acres, there is not a lot of mechanization, it’s all done by hand … you can drive down the road and see people with a hoe. It’s not grandma’s garden, it’s their farm,” he said.

canton tower Guangzhou Tower china
The Canton Tower is an observation tower in Guangzhou, China. Photo credit: Kylee Whitehill

With more than 1.3 billion people living in China, Thaler said that if each person ate a quarter-pound more pork per year, it would take all of the pigs South Dakota raises to cover that increase.

“Even a little increase in consumption by them is huge to our markets,” he said. “Their population times any number is a really big number, so if we’re talking pork, soybeans, corn or beef, an increase in demand from China has a huge impact on our producers.”

“You learn a lot about how Chinese and American markets affect each other. They are connected tightly,” said Kylee Whitehill, who went in 2015.

Whitehill graduated in December 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minors in English and equine science. She said she learned about the trip from one of her classes.

“I was an equine science minor at the time. Rebecca Bott was one of my teachers and she was going,” she said.

Choosing highlights from the trip was difficult for Whitehill. Two of her top places were a Hong Kong race track and the Bejing Equine Center.

Kylee Whitehill South Dakota state university
SDSU alumna Kylee Whitehill poses at the Great Wall of China during her trip in 2015. Photo credit: Kylee Whitehill

“It’s always been hard to decide. I loved the trip; I had a lot of personal growth.”

In fact, Whitehill enjoyed the experience and her first exposure to China so much she would like to go back and try living there.

“Dr. Thaler is awesome for setting this up. It’s like a short study abroad, but much more affordable … a good in-between,” she said.

Thaler said the cost of the trip is approximately $3,700, which covers travel expenses, hotels and a majority of meals. The endowment provides a $500 scholarship per student. The China course is offered as a spring class, so students wishing to attend can register along with the rest of their spring classes.

“Put yourself out there,” is Whitehill’s advice to students. “You learn at some point you’re not so different from each other.”