Precision Education In California

Clint Cowden

The shortage of skilled talent in agriculture cuts across the industry as one of its most significant challenges. From the largest manufacturer to the local agronomy consultant, professionals everywhere are saying that the talent pool is dangerously shallow and must be more aggressively replenished.

Educational institutions are playing a key role in generating the next wave of agricultural specialists with interesting and regionally responsive programs to help meet the demand.

At the 2013 World Ag Expo in Tulare, CA, we caught up with Clint Cowden, Ag science and technology instructor at West Hills College in Coainga. He has been the program instructor for 10 of the 15 years it has been in existence, and he shared some thoughts with us on the program’s evolution and value.

What drove initial push to create a precision program at West Hills?

At the time, more complex tractors were coming out in the market and growers really needed people to come in and help them get into precision ag. So we started out with a lot of generic “What is precision ag?” courses – they were more like day courses for growers. And from that we rolled it into what is now a one-year program where students take 18 units over two semesters and the get their degree in precision ag.

When did students start coming in?

Most of our students came from family farms. Growers were seeing the increasing use of technology, so they were sending their kids to school so they would not have to hire a consultant. That peaked about seven years ago at our highest enrollment time period. About half of the students had a bachelor’s degree from somewhere else, but they were missing that precision ag component.

What are kids learning?

Of course we have plant sciences and soil sciences, your general agronomy courses. It our Introduction to Precision Ag course we focus on the basics, like what is GPS, how does it work, etc., and then we get into GIS. The biggest thing is getting them out to do field scouting and gathering data and then bringing it back into the computer, and tie the two components together.

Students have to work with one of our local ranches and must solve an agronomic problem. We expect them to map a 4000 to 5000 acre area, and pull soils or do whatever that grower is wanting to do and get that student immersed in the precision ag cycle.

The second course on advanced GPS focuses on applications. So the students are going to run a Veris machine, work with guidance equipment, run a variable-rate sprayer … really get inside equipment and understand each side of precision technology. The students will generally be working with a different grower during this course, and will also focus on the business side of technology use. Precision offers some potential methods for solving a problem and there are always dollars associated with it. Students need to be able to help the grower with those situations.

Most of my students are going to go to work as a consultant, and their focus will be on putting data together to help guide a decision. Here in the Central Valley, the equipment works so well that the emphasis is on making it work right every time, and on data management. Students must understand the agronomic side and what opportunities precision ag technology provides, then be able to tying those things together.

Students can come in and in 10 months come out with almost 30 units in agronomy courses and precision ag. One more year in general education and they can get their AA. But a lot of students come in and take the precision ag course for one year, and in second year work toward becoming a California certified pest control advisor so they can write the field prescriptions that are required in California.

Any changes coming in the near future?

Right now we have basic instrumentation and basic hydraulics, but we are going to start offering a four-unit class that is just instrumentation and hydraulics for those students that are more going to be on the install and service side of the business. That recommendation came out of our last advisory committee. We’re always looking for new ways to grow and evolve.

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