Buzzy phrases like “regenerative agriculture” and “precision farming” are gaining traction among younger farmers looking to produce more sustainably. But implementing newer practices can require education and training.
Some schools in Nebraska are embracing the interest in specialized agriculture degrees, and want to make them more accessible to students across the region.
At Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, a sleepiness coated the hallways. It’s nearly the end of the semester, and for students in the Grain Harvesting and Handling Systems class, that means examining lab results. And cramming.
People huddled around iPads lit up with candy-colored maps. On first glance, the soil zone app the students use looked more like a video game than data from a soybean plot. Using data to see how crops thrived—or didn’t—is a core feature of precision agriculture, a trend Dustin Turnus calls a “management philosophy for a farm.”
Turnus is a second-year precision ag major, which is a relatively new addition to Northeast’s agriculture department.
He said monitoring parameters like plant moisture, population per acre, and soil health can help producers better calculate the resources they need to turn a profit and avoid harming the land with overuse.
“It will benefit our farm, and also, it benefits environmentally. That's something that's also looked at with precision, is to be able to help the environment by more precise applications, less applications, just getting exactly what you need when you need it,” Turnus said.
He wants to bring precision farming to his own family’s row crop business and plans to take over the family farm once his dad retires. He’ll be the fourth generation of his family to do so.
The college’s pivot toward sustainability-focused curriculum doesn’t end there. Northeast is currently raising money—about $50 million when all checks are written—to renovate livestock and ag education facilities over the next few years. Part of that plan includes building “The Agriculture and Water Center of Excellence,” a building devoted to teaching students to farm around water and soil issues.
Corrine Morris, Dean of Agriculture, Math, and Science thinks there’s no getting around the environmental challenges young farmers face. But teaching the next generation to tackle them?
She said that requires as much education in business sense as agronomy.
“So many aspects of agriculture are interdependent. A student comes here to study agronomy, for instance? They're not walking out just knowing about soil and plants and crop production. They have to understand the interdependence of livestock production, and agribusiness concepts and technology,” Morris said.
Chris Burbach, who teaches precision ag at Northeast, thinks the producer role is becoming more complex.
He said some farmers are feeling the pressure to tailor their practices to increasingly sustainable-conscious consumer markets.
“We have to make sure that we're doing a better job of not having negative environmental impacts,” Burbach said.
And, of course, there are forces outside anybody’s control that impact how farmers organize their businesses: turbulent trade markets, and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.
“From a profitability standpoint, we have to make sure that we're maximizing every bit of efficiency that we can to minimize risk.”
He’s noticed more producers pursuing different kinds of degrees and training resources.
“That stereotypical farmer that we all thought of growing up or that a lot of people still think of is, is really going away. Farmers are really becoming pretty highly-educated people now,” Burbach mused.
Tiffany Heng-Moss, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, thinks education and ag career guidance should be accessible to those wanting to expand their horizons, especially for rural students.
That’s partly why UNL signed a deal with five other schools in northeastern Nebraska—the first of its kind in the state—so more transfer and dual-degree agreements can be negotiated, like the pathway they have with Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska.
“We can have students focusing on a degree in biology or chemistry through Wayne State, and it's a dual-degree option where they can also be focusing on an agricultural education platform through the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” Heng-Moss said.
Many students have already found success starting their degree in community college and finishing at a four-year institution. That’s how Javier Murillo will pursue his dream of becoming a livestock veterinarian.
“Both my parents are from Mexico, they came here when they were both very young, the highest level of education they got was I think, eighth grade, seventh grade,” Murillo said.
Murillo spent two years living on a livestock feedlot as a young child, which he said inspired him to consider a career in animal medicine. Next fall, he’ll transfer to UNL for two years and end his Bachelor’s with two more at Iowa State University through a similar compact between the schools’ animal science departments.
School was not always easy for him. But Murillo said starting his education at the local level gave him the confidence and flexibility to try for a Bachelors, and eventually, a graduate degree.
“I had a few teachers tell me that I will not be successful in high school. And I kind of took that to heart and I wanted to prove them wrong. And here I am with an Associates’ under my belt, and moving forward,” Murillo said.
Dean Corrine Morris thinks stories like Murillo’s show how expanding school collaborations could benefit local ag economies and keep talent in rural communities.
“He’s going to bring all of that full circle … it really just acknowledges our commitment to work together as the educational institutions in the state to provide the right avenue for every single person who wants to go into agriculture.”
Follow Christina on Twitter: @c_c_stella