After Nearly Two Decades, Full-time Farmer Completes Master's Degree

December 12th, 2005

Dave Serfling has been going to Iowa State University for almost 17 years.
Dave Serfling (left), shown with his son, Ethan and wife, Diane, used a computer and the Internet to finish his distance education masters degree.
Photo courtesy of Republican-Leader Newspaper/Lisa Brainard
On Friday the full-time farmer will complete his master’s degree from Iowa State just as his daughter, a college sophomore in Michigan, is finishing up her fall semester exams.

Serfling, 46, manages a 350-acre crop and livestock operation near Preston, Minn. with his wife, Diane, and two children. He is a student of the education technology revolution and a steward of the land he has planted and harvested each year.

Serfling has avoided the 187-mile drive to campus with the help of Iowa State’s distance education program. After earning his on-campus undergraduate degree in farm operation in 1981, Serfling started earning his Master in Agriculture degree with a major in professional agriculture in the spring of 1989, just three years after daughter Hannah, now a sophomore at college in Grand Rapids, Mich., was born.

"If the class intrigued me, I’d take it. I wasn’t doing it for the degree then," he said. "It was a way for me to learn and keep up."

In the late 1980s, the distance education technology of choice was videotaped lectures and homework sent in by mail. Taking about one class each year, Serfling began to see technology shift.

After the birth of his son Ethan in 1990, many distance education courses shifted to the Iowa Communication Network (ICN), which became Serfling’s favorite educational medium. "You could see the professor, buzz in and interrupt him. Get feedback. I learn best from someone else in situations like that."

"I only went to campus for one class, and that was a computer class were they taught us to use spreadsheets," he said. Then, Serfling took a class on how to use the Internet.

"The early adopters have always been rewarded," he said of his ability to take advantage of web-based opportunities.

Through his course work Serfling has worked with several Iowa State professors including professor of agricultural education and studies Wade Miller, a member of his master’s committee. "Over the years I got to know Dave and have always found that he was doing something interesting and creative with his swine farm operation," Miller said. "He is an impressive individual and has lots of leadership skills. He is not afraid to try something new and different."

Miller who heads the Master of Agriculture distance education program noted that online courses allow producers added flexibility so they can still manage their farm operations full time.

"The Internet, with good courseware like WebCT, has helped to recruit farmers to the Master of Agriculture program in Professional Agriculture," Miller said. "Farmers lead busy lives and often are involved in other occupations and businesses as well. They need a flexible way to take classes and the Internet provides that."

That flexibility was key to Serfling’s success as he enrolled for about one course each semester. "One fall I took three classes because I thought they all looked interesting. I was really overwhelmed with that and harvest that year. But, spring classes go into planting and calving too."

Serfling said the only break he took from his courses was when his father and farming partner, died six years ago. He said this prompted him to take three-years off from his studies to "learn how to farm without my partner."

He said one of the best parts of continuing his education has been to offer Hannah, and Ethan, an important life lesson. "I wanted to teach my kids that learning doesn’t end when you’re finished with high school."

His wife also continued her education, earning an online doctorate degree in physical therapy from a college in Boston.

With a master’s degree, a busy family life and a full-time farm operation to run, it’s hard to tell what might be the next step will be for the newest graduate of the Serfling household.

The College of Agriculture’s Master of Agriculture Degree with a major in Professional Agriculture is designed primarily for the part-time, off-campus students. Most of the courses are offered via distance education, but students are allowed to take courses on campus. To learn more about the program go to


Wade Miller, Ag Education and Studies, (515) 294-0895,
Alicia Clancy, Ag Communications Service, (515) 294-4319,