Illinois News

Ag education adapts as technologies progress

Gary Shupe helps Liz Spaunhorst view the dirt collected in a soil test in a corn field during a crop science course at the Orr Agriculture Center. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
Jake Shane 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Nov. 4, 2017 5:15 pm

CAMP POINT, Ill. -- Jacob Schmidt went from having little background in agriculture to operating his own farm.

His parents weren't farmers, and there wasn't any land to inherit -- the more traditional way people usually enter the field -- but Schmidt was set on becoming a farmer. After high school, he enrolled at John Wood Community College to study ag business. He completed his undergraduate at Western Illinois University.

"Throughout that whole process, it put me in positions that I never could have gotten in if I didn't go to college," Schmidt said.

He was headhunted by a soil testing lab. The position afforded him a good salary and the ability to rent some farmland and jumpstart his farming operation. As the farm grew, he stepped away from his employer, which allowed him to retain his local customer base, and he created Schmidt Agriconsulting. Now 30, Schmidt manages his consulting business while also farming full-time.

"I think my ag classes definitely led me to success," Schmidt said. "John Wood was the building block to where I am today."

In August, Schmidt unveiled his new cattle hoop barn, which is designed for calving, backgrounding and finishing. The hoop barn helps improve feed efficiency, provide a better environment for calving, better utilize manure which saves money on fertilizer and raise more cows on less acres.

"Starting everything from scratch, it's not like a had a big facility to just walk into," he said. "I had to create it."

Schmidt sees the future of agricultural education shifting to focus more on the changing technologies in the field -- a sentiment echoed by many others in the field.

"Even since I started farming, which hasn't been very long, we went from rain gauges at every farm to having it on my phone," Schmidt said.

By the numbers

Data and analytics have begun to play a larger role in agricultural, which places increasing value on accuracy in all stages of farming. The practice is known as precision farming. Seed companies employ technologies to help farmers plot their fields as they utilize various chemicals. The yield map at the end of the year presents the farmer with a sort of report card after harvest.

"It all starts at your soil," Schmidt said. "We've actually taken samples and put them under microscopes to see how many organisms are there."

Schmidt noted that healthier soil translates into higher yields. He believes greater emphasis will be placed on soil health as agricultural technologies continue to progress.

"These technologies were all there when I was in school," Schmidt said, "but they've just evolved so much."

Specialization

As large-scale farming operations expand, fewer individuals are entering the field specifically to crop farm. Larger operations have led people to specialize more in a single aspect of agriculture, rather than the broad family-farm approach of a couple generations ago. This increase in efficiency allows farming operations to cover more acres and maximize productivity.

"The downside is that we have fewer and fewer people in our industry," said Mike Tenhouse, a John Wood Community College agriculture sciences professor. "That's always a little dangerous, because the public is a little less familiar with what's going on."

Less than two percent of the U.S. population is directly involved in agriculture. With fewer people involved, Tenhouse said, the overall voice of agriculture has also diminished.

Tenhouse has seen the number of students entering the classroom with a broad understanding of agriculture decline over the years.

"You used to be able to just assume everybody knew some of the basics," he said. "Now those that understand swine production have no clue about cattle or sheep or chickens."

Farmers have gravitated toward automation with the advent of the GPS, which has allowed for combines to adopt autosteer technologies. Tenhouse said most larger farming operations employ autosteer and GPS-based technologies. Remote-controlled equipment and the use of drones in agriculture are also seeing more widespread usage.

"I think there's other technologies out there," Tenhouse said. "We just need to continue to challenge our students and incorporate more and more technology into the curriculum."

There are still many jobs in agriculture, Tenhouse said, but the nature of these jobs has changed over the years. Two years ago, John Wood saw one of the largest incoming classes Tenhouse has seen in his almost 20-year career. He has also seen the number of females in the classroom increase.

"When I started here, you would have one, two or three females," he said. "Now it's closer to one-third of the class."

New techniques

John Wood has blended new technologies with traditional learning methods to help keep students engaged. John Wood agriculture professor Gary Shupe is preparing to adopt the flipped classroom approach for his ag classes. The flipped classroom is a philosophy that delivers instructional content outside of the classroom, generally online, and uses class time to complete activities with the guidance of the professor.

Shupe said the flipped classroom approach puts information into the hands of the students and makes them responsible for learning the subject matter. Under the flipped classroom approach, Shupe's role becomes more focused on informing the students about what they don't know, rather than teaching the subject matter in its entirety. Shupe believes the approach better prepares students for the workforce.

"You learn your job on the job," he said. "(The students) are learning to be better learners."

Shupe has seen the shift in agriculture toward specialization and the increase implementation of technologies. He believes the shift has had an effect on the job prospects of students but has not diminished the number of jobs in the field.

"It still creates job opportunities through seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and equipment," he said. "There's always a demand for people in ag sales and service-based business."

Eyeing the future

Winchester native Cole Parker has always planned on following in the footsteps of his father, a first-generation farmer, hopefully increasing acreage and adding more cattle to his family's farming operation in the process. The family had sold their land when Parker's father was young. His father decided to re-enter the industry and purchased a plot of land.

Prompted by a visit to the University of Illinois Orr Research Center, Parker enrolled at John Wood to learn more about the business side of agriculture. He is about to graduate and return to the family farm full-time.

"Studying the economics of it and why certain things are done," he said, "it helps you figure out real-life situations."

During an internship at the Orr Center, he participated in nitrogen studies and tested soil samples. He was exposed to the autosteer technology the center has implemented for planting and nitrogen distribution. He also finds the prospects of pairing the genetics of particular seed types with ideal soils intriguing.

"The future is going to be really precise and a lot higher-tech," he said.

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