With its first classes just approved and students already lining up, MTSU celebrated the announcement of its new fermentation science bachelor’s degree program with industry partners and state officials Monday, Feb. 27, in the Science Building.
University President Sidney A. McPhee recognized those who championed the program, which begins this fall, including state Sen. Bill Ketron, professor Tony Johnston, College of Basic and Applied Sciences Dean Bud Fischer, former Provost Brad Bartel and other campus leaders.
McPhee also praised industry, in particular the Murfreesboro General Mills plant and Steel Barrel Brewing Co., in pledging support for the program and the potential for students to become workforce ready.
Fermentation is a process converting sugars to acids, gases or alcohol. Yeasts, molds and bacteria are responsible for fermentation, resulting in familiar foods such as beer, wine, liquor, dairy products including cheese and yogurt, and other many other foods and beverages.
Ketron said because of the rigorous course demands and various collaborations, the degree “will provide real-world classroom for practical experience” for students and “an opportunity for MTSU to do something unique as we recognize the demands of this industry and its economic implications for both our students and our communities.”
Along with General Mills’ processing of yogurt, the rapid growth of the craft beer industry locally and nationwide led Fischer to drive his faculty for a solution. Johnston, already an expert in the wine industry, answered the call.
“Fermentation is one of the oldest forms of food preservation known to mankind,” said Johnston. “As our world population approaches 11 billion by the year 2100, fermentation will be absolutely essential to ensure that we can feed ourselves. … The program is designed to instruct students in the science of fermentation as well as the need to understand the business of commercializing fermentation.”
McPhee said he is “proud that our university has identified yet another way to connect our expertise with a growing segment of our local and national economy. And I look forward to exploring, and perhaps even tasting, the great works that will come from this venture.”
While Johnston fashioned the initial idea, the degree aspect stemmed from a challenge by Bartel and Fischer. Interim Provost Mark Byrnes also threw his full support behind the plan.
McPhee thanked Fischer for “driving this innovation” and Johnston “for his work in building and promoting this new degree.” Johnston also is the first faculty representative on the new MTSU Board of Trustees.
Ketron shared how he and former state Rep. Steve McManus worked “to pass the bill (in the legislature) and make it (the fermentation science degree) legal.” The sticking point with the legislature involved technical tasting — “and this allows Tennessee to keep up with this emerging industry,” he added.
MTSU alumnus David Tincher, head of the General Mills plant, was unable to attend, but said in a statement that his company “is proud to be a member of the Murfreesboro and greater Tennessee communities.”
“We believe we have the best employees and with degree opportunities like what MTSU has created, I believe our talent will only continue to get better and grow,” he added. “Congratulations to MTSU on this achievement and we look forward to meeting these capable and talented students in the workforce.”
An invited guest was Derrick Morse, co-founder and brewmaster of Steel Barrel Brewing Co., which plans to open soon on an 82-acre site not far from the MTSU campus. MTSU alumnus Mark Jones is co-founder of the company. Twenty acres will be used for agricultural purposes, giving MTSU students additional opportunities.
“Steel Barrel will offer space for a working laboratory in this craft brewery, which will allow Dr. Johnston’s students to get practical, firsthand experience in this field,” McPhee said.
In addition to General Mills, other local companies that could gain from MTSU students graduating with the degree include Kroger’s dairy line; Brown-Forman, which produces Jack Daniel’s products; and Diageo, which produces George Dickel brand liquors. There are approximately 28 other distilleries, 52 breweries, 60 wineries and 60 cheese-making operations in Tennessee.
Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Latture was among those attending.
Six classes have been approved starting this fall and designated research space is available in the newly renovated Davis Science Building.
Additional classes will be added for the spring 2018 semester, said Johnston, who added that the program hopes to offer an international study-abroad course later that summer.
The School of Agribusiness and Agriscience will hire a faculty member to join Johnston in the program.
An “MTSU On the Record” interview with Johnston will air at 9:30 p.m. Feb. 28 and again at 6 a.m. March 5 on WMOT-FM Roots Radio 89.5 and www.wmot.org. To learn more about the program, visit www.mtsu.edu/programs/fermentation or call 615-898-2421.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)