Prime opportunities for ag students

By Tabitha Whissemore

As Congress begins working to reauthorize the Farm Bill, lawmakers may include federal assistance to two-year colleges to develop and scale agriculture programs. That assistance could help students prepare for high-quality jobs in the agriculture industry – whether they work on a farm, in a processing plant, as a truck driver or as an agricultural loan officer – and bolster the nation’s agricultural output.

Oregon’s Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) offers programs in animal science, equine science and ag business. The college also hosts the only John Deere diesel construction/forestry program on the West Coast, which supports ag transportation, and it has a livestock judging team that travels across the country to compete against other colleges and universities.

These programs are vital to the region, says LBCC President Lisa Avery. There are more than 220 crops in the region, and Linn County is considered the grass seed capital of the world.

Despite that, there’s a consistent need to “remind everybody how much our colleges serve the greater community,” Avery says.

Residents in LBCC’s service area showed their support for LBCC and its programming in May by voting to support a new $16 million agriculture education center. The center will house LBCC’s programs, create a community arena and house a new veterinarian technician program in collaboration with Oregon State University. Employers are “clamoring” for more large-animal vet techs, Avery says.

On June 2, LBCC hosted five U.S. House members and the community for a listening session on the Farm Bill.

“With the graying of the agriculture workforce, students like ours are the future of agriculture, and we are proud to be part of it. Community colleges are educating a key part of the ag workforce,” Avery said in her introductory remarks at the session.

And the college is providing that education as technology, opportunities and perceptions change.

“Ag education is wider and more multi-faceted than most folks are aware,” Avery says.

Looking to the future

At Klamath Community College (Oregon), agriculture students also are studying for various careers, with an eye to the future. Program Director Isadora Peres De Souza is working to revive the college’s agriculture program. The college currently offers a degree in agriculture science and a one-year career pathway certificate in farm and ranch management. Much of Klamath’s on-campus property is dedicated to agriculture, including an alfalfa field, greenhouse and cattle pens.

Students in the degree program get an expansive education, learning about marketing in agriculture, soil ecology and environmental science, as well as environmental economics. And students gain not only a national perspective, but an international view since markets abroad set prices and exportation regulations often change.

De Souza has formed partnerships with area high schools for student recruitment and with local businesses for internship and employment opportunities. She also seeks industry input to learn what technology employers use, which is constantly changing. The field, for example, is relying more on drone technology. And some tractors now use artificial intelligence, so some ag students are learning computer programming or can continue on to get a degree in mechanical engineering.

De Souza says Klamath isn’t just training for today’s jobs, “but preparing people for the future of agriculture.”

When helping students determine their careers, she has them consider, “Will this be the reality 10 years from now?”

That’s something LBCC’s Avery echoes.

“We have to focus on what we think are going to be the most-needed jobs in the future of ag,” she says.

Meat-ing demand

The region served by Central Wyoming College (CWC) has “more cows than people,” says Amanda Winchester, an agriculture and meat science instructor.

Having an agriculture program at the college is a service to “not only our students but our community,” she adds.

The college’s ag program was cut in the early 1990s, but now it’s back and growing. CWC offers education in ag business, animal science, equine science, range management and meat science.

On August 26, the college will celebrate the opening of its new agriculture and equine center. Along with two professional arenas, the center will include classrooms and a complete meat processing complex.

CWC is one of the only colleges in the nation to have a hands-on meat science certificate. The semester-long program provides training in food safety, harvesting and fabrication (or cutting) of beef, swine, sheep/goat, poultry and wild game animals.

Students can also earn an associate degree in food technology and meat science, which includes internships, and is intended for transfer to a four-year institution.

Program graduates can end up managing or running their own plants, being an inspector or going into research – to name just a few options. All of these occupations are needed, Winchester says, especially now.

“When Covid hit, meat supplies stopped coming to shelves. Customers figured out they need to know where their food comes from,” she says. There are now more processors in the state and Winchester often gets calls from processing plants needing workers.

“Covid taught us a lot about not relying on general supply funnel,” Winchester adds. There’s more demand for locally produced and processed food.

CWC also is developing a bachelor’s degree in agricultural leadership, which would allow people to stay in the community while earning a four-year degree. The degree program would teach students, in part, how to be an advocate.

“We need more leaders to advocate for agriculture,” Winchester says.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Tabitha Whissemore

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.