ccDaily > Agriculture sheds its dated image of career opportunities

Agriculture sheds its dated image of career opportunities

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Redlands Community College faculty member Scotti Charmasson demonstrates an ultrasound procedure on a goat.

​Agriculture education at community colleges has moved way beyond the traditional image of “cows, sows and plows” and now embraces such disparate trends as high-tech farming, genetic research, sustainability, humane animal handling and food security.

Take Kirkwood Community College (KCC) in Iowa. Many community colleges incorporate the latest technology into their agriculture programs, but KCC could be the only one that offers an associate degree in agricultural geospatial technology.  
 
Students who complete the two-year program will be prepared to work on high-tech farming machinery such as combines that use sophisticated devices to continually record moisture, speed of harvesting, grain yield and other measures using geographical reference points, said Scott Ermer, KCC's dean of agriculture sciences. Farmers can use this data to determine why a particular area isn’t producing enough and make adjustments.
 
There are employment opportunities at companies such as John Deere or Trimble selling or installing these systems or training farmers to use them. According to Ermer, geospatial technology has become commonplace on large- and medium-size farms, but it’s expensive and farmers need extensive training to use them effectively, as well as new equipment with automatic steering or emerging remote-controlled crop vehicles.
 
A greener approach to food
 
Other community colleges, far from the agribusiness-focused economy of the Midwest, are embracing a different trend—sustainable farming and local food advocacy.
 
Greenfield Community College (GCC) in Massachusetts is preparing to launch a new liberal arts associate degree with a specialty in farm and food systems. The interdisciplinary program covers ecological, economic, political and social systems as they relate to food and farming, said coordinator Abrah Dresdale.
 
In addition to introductory courses on sustainability and food systems, students take courses on soil science and either botany, horticulture or permaculture design, a relatively new field that involves creating a garden that replicates patterns from nature.  Students can also select courses from a “re-skilling series,” in such areas as beekeeping, four-season farming, mushroom foraging and cultivation, and creating a cooperative food economy.
 
The program, pilot tested during the current academic year, drew an intergenerational mix of students interested in running small farms or food-related businesses or creating a more productive and sustainable backyard garden.
 
The University of Massachusetts is helping GCC create a permaculture garden on campus, and the two institutions are working on an articulation agreement, Dresdale said.
 
Goat-focused research
 
Several community colleges have programs on dairy or meat goats, but Redlands Community College (RCC) in Oklahoma is taking it a step further: The college is incorporating a research component that teaches students how to carry out artificial insemination and embryo transfers aimed at breeding prize-winning show goats. 
 
Show goats, generally raised by youths in 4H or FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America), cost only about $150 a year to maintain but can be sold for upwards of $10,000. Those profits, along with the scholarship programs associated with agriculture fairs, can help students pay for college.
 
Working under the supervision of lab director Sam Nusz, students remove fertile eggs from superovulating female goats and transfer them into another female. The artificial insemination process results in healthier embryos and faster-growing goats. The skills students learn in the research lab can be applied to any animal, said Laura Gruntmeir, division director and professor at RCC.
 
All RCC students working toward an associate of science degree in the agriculture program must take two semesters in undergraduate research, she said, and many of them plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree in animal science or agricultural research.
 
RCC’s other agriculture programs include dairy goats, show horses, livestock, and a viticulture and wine-making venture.
 
Keeping food safe
 
Dodge City Community College (DCCC) in Kansas has its own crop science lab and cattle pasture and is ramping up a new certification course based on the concepts of noted animal expert Temple Grandin, who advocates low-stress procedures for handling cattle.
 
When professor Monte Hampton took his students to a facility designed by Grandin at a Cargill Meat Solutions packing plant, they witnessed a different working atmosphere.
 
“When the chutes are more open, and guys aren’t yelling and screaming at them, the cattle were much calmer and less stressed,” Hampton said. “Calmer cattle are less likely to get sick.”
 
DCCC created a new associate degree program about five years ago on food security that combines agriculture and criminal justice courses, although it’s hasn’t been as popular as anticipated, and only a handful of students are enrolled.
 
The program is aimed at protecting the food chain and local cattle industry from bio-terrorism, contamination, disease and other threats. DCCC has articulation agreements with Washburn University and Kansas State University, which is developing a biosecurity research institute.
 
Rather than offering an academic program on food safety for students, Monroe Community College (MCC) in New York is focusing on community outreach. It provides training and workshops on food security to law enforcement agencies and food producers through its Agriculture and Life Sciences Institute.
 
The institute covers such topics as food contamination (due to careless practices as well as malicious intent); handling recalls; physical security measures and preventing and responding to attacks by animal rights extremists, said Bob King, director of the institute and senior agriculture specialist for MCC. In some cases, animal rights activists have made false accusations about inhumane conditions or antibiotic contamination at a meat and dairy facility because they want customers to boycott those products, King said.
 
The training offered by the institute responds to the unique needs of Monroe County, such as contamination caused by the failure to maintain the “cold chain,” which refers to the need to keep food refrigerated during transport, and the need to prevent “co-mingling,” which refers to the transport of food in the same truck as hazardous substances, such as cleaning products.
 
“You can’t totally control for everything, but you can help manage the process,” King said. “The better we are at managing unintentional contamination, the better we’ll be at managing intentional contamination.”
 
Healthy job outlook
 
The agriculture sector is one of the brightest spots in employment. The 2011 Agribusiness Job Report by AgCareers.com documented an 18 percent increase in job postings in the U.S. and Canada from 2010 to 2011.
 
The top three agriculture-related jobs with the highest demand for people with associate degrees are diesel mechanics, science-focused positions such as lab technicians and people with GIS certifications, said Ashley Collins of AgCareers.com. She is also seeing expanding opportunities for community college-educated people who can work with wind turbines, biofuels and grain elevators.
 
“The biggest challenge is helping employers understand these are viable candidates and they don’t need people with bachelor’s degrees,” Collins said.
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