$400K to grow Clark State precision ag program

Clark State Community College’s fledgling precision agriculture program will likely grow more quickly with the award of a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

One in seven jobs in Ohio are related directly or indirectly to agriculture, said Aimee Belanger-Haas, Clark State dean of business and applied technologies, and the state faces a shortage of skilled agriculture workers.

The No. 1 goal for the new grant is to create a pipeline for recruiting students for the program entering its third year, she said. Of the 100 students in the agriculture program, 15 are studying the field of precision.

“It’s really getting the word out about what it is,” she said. “The high school ag teachers really don’t have a good understanding.”

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Starting this summer teachers from a nearly 50-mile radius will be invited to attend workshops designed to educate them about precision agriculture so they can include the concepts in their curriculum.

Student recruitment will also focus on veterans and a summer hands-on session starting next year for high school students.

Precision agriculture is a rapidly evolving high-tech side of farming that uses geospatial equipment such as GPS, geographical information systems and remote sensing to gather and interpret data.

One of the ways data is collected is through drones flying over fields. The attached cameras allow for early detection of disease and insect problems to create prescription maps for treatment with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer.

“We’re not targeting a field, we’re targeting a plant,” Belanger-Haas said.

Students with precision ag degrees will find jobs on large farms, as consultants, in park districts and in higher education, Clark State professor Larry Everett said.

Logan Dyer is a Clark State student from Waynesville who’s getting hands-on experience this summer through a co-op with Ohio State Professor Jim Jasinski. Dyer is learning to program drone flights over research fields to gather data at Ohio State’s Western Agricultural Research Station in South Charleston.

The next step in his education is learning how to interpret what the colors in the photos represent.

“I don’t even know what’s going to happen the next day because this is all new to me,” Dyer said. “It’s exciting to do something different and to be on the forefront of precision ag and getting jobs and being trained for it.”

Dyer wasn’t raised on a farm, like many of the students Clark State wants to reach.

“There aren’t enough farm kids anymore for all of these jobs,” Everett said. “So we’re hoping to attract students not necessarily from the family farm, but to convince people like Logan that it’s a good career.”

The second primary use of the new grant money will be for increasing retention by supplying students more career and transfer options. In addition to Ohio State and others, Belanger-Haas wants to develop better relationships with area ag programs at Urbana University, Wilmington College and one being developed at Central State University.

The third major goal is to keep faculty educated on the constant changes in the precision agriculture industry. This includes learning to install, maintain and troubleshoot sensors on all farm equipment from drones to sprayers to plows.

Clark State has one of only three community college precision ag programs east of the Mississippi River, according to Everett. One of the other plans for the grant money is to assist two out-of-state community colleges with program development.

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