Taking the opportunity: North Dakota Precision Ag Center

Farm Forum

Students working with Lake Region State College’s Dakota Precision Ag Center won’t have to worry about finding job opportunities after graduation – opportunities have already found them.

“We were just down to the Big Iron Farm Show (in West Fargo, Sept. 10 to 12),” says Brad Mathson, assistant director for the North Dakota Precision Ag Center. “A few of them had already had job offers, and have two years left in the program. The number of jobs out there is huge. We do not only of two-year program for an AAS (associate’s in applied science) degree, but we also do workforce training for equipment dealers, farm supply cooperatives, those types of things.”

“We structure our training program around some of the conventional coursework that one would expect from agriculture; the principles of soil science,” says Paul Gunderson, program director for NDPAC. “Our students have to master chemistry, college algebra, introduction to wheat science, principles of crop production.”

Working with Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D., Gunderson has been developing NDPAC since 2006. Much of the coursework within the current NDPAC program is born out of a 2006 project at Lake Region State College that explored the benefits of precision ag.

“We put ‘answer farms’ together in our program; these are operating farms, and we initially evaluated the payback for agricultural producers if they implemented precision agriculture technologies,” Gunderson says. “We wanted to make certain that this program was anchored on real-life production agriculture.

That meant that as our answer farmers worked with us, they shared their data with us so that we had a substantial amount of instructional material from which we could draw as we prepared to implement the training program.”

Skills in demand

As an instructor, Mathson keeps the students of NDPAC’s inaugural semester focused on training, but he also keeps them focused on the bottom line. “I think in North Dakota alone, there’s something like 190-some openings in this field; nationwide, it’s substantially more,” Mathson says. According to Mathson, one of his students is being sponsored in NDPAC by Gooseneck Implement, a Minot, N.D., equipment dealer. When the student graduates from NDPAC, he will be hired on a multi-year contract.

One Canadian implement dealer offered to sponsor six students, Mathson says. Mathson thinks the program is comprehensive enough in preparing his students for the many opportunities awaiting them.

“They’ll have a wide-base of information on agronomy, so they’ll be able to understand not only how to install equipment and how to troubleshoot the equipment, but how the equipment relates to different agronomic functions, so they’ll be able to understand, looking at an agricultural or agronomy problem, what type of precision agriculture equipment can best be used to manage or be helpful to solve those types of problems,” Mathson says.

“We work a lot on soft-skills, business ethics, appearance; a lot of character building.”

“We work a lot on soft-skills, business ethics, appearance; a lot of character building … in addition to technical knowledge, we want to make sure they have the soft skills to be successful.”

NDPAC hasn’t had much involvement with other North Dakota state colleges in the past, but they are now working on an agreement with NDSU which may guarantee NDPAC graduates placement within NDSU for four-year degree agronomy programs.

NDPAC also hopes to have academic articulation agreements with as Colorado State University and the University of Minnesota. NDPAC hopes an articulation agreement with other North Dakota colleges will give their target audience of veterans, displaced workers and recent high school graduates even more options for advancing through the job market.

“We’re working with service organizations to get the word out to veterans and the opportunities for them, because it’s a natural fit as they’re being discharged from the service, most of them have GPS in one shape or form or otherwise, some technical experience, so it would be easy for them to transfer their skills from the service into civilian life. As of right now, we haven’t got a veteran enrolled, but I expect that will change very soon,” Mathson says.

In fall 2014, NDPAC plans to publish an e-textbook based around their research from 2006 to 2010 titled Basics of Precision Agriculture in North America.”