Farming is labor-intensive and increasingly high-tech and, for many companies, that means a shortage of field-level, hands-on workers with industry-specific skills.
Community colleges across Colorado recognize the shortfall and are creating new short-term training and certification programs to meet demand from both industry and from students who are eager to go directly into the workforce with limited class time, according to a panel discussion at the Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture in late February.
The opportunities are so great that Aims Community College, headquartered in Greeley, recently revived an agricultural program that had been dormant for several years.
In addition to an introductory program that offers students a taste of all aspects of the industry, the college identified some new key areas that warrant more specific training, according to Amy McFarland, who chairs the ag sciences and technology department on campus.
"At first, we were the only ones to offer a certification in precision agriculture, but now Fort Morgan is doing it as well," she said. "Students can get training that transfers directly into industry and go out and immediately get a better salary than what I make. There's just a huge demand in this area right now."
The potential is not limited to traditional ag students either, she said.
"Regardless of background, they've all grown up with a cellphone in their hand their whole life, and that's what matters," she observed.
Aims also started offering a 12-hour industrial hemp course.
"It would be similar to an introductory course in animal science," she explained. "It provides a foundation. We've worked hard to develop it with the intent of growing it into an associates degree program."
It costs $6,000 in tuition to complete the course, which has attracted students from Idaho, Washington and other states outside of Colorado.
At Morgan Community College, students in the precision ag program have the option of getting a one-year drone certification, according to college president Curt Freed.
The college also offers a popular agricultural business management associates degree, which works in conjunction with an industry partners program to leverage key ag employers in the region.
Northeastern Junior College in Sterling has a similar farm business management program that recently underwent a complete overhaul, according to Mike Anderson, ag department chairman.
"We completely revamped it," he said. "We recognize that you can do everything right in terms of production, but if you can't do it profitably, it's not sustainable."
At Northeastern, all students are required to do an internship typical of a capstone experience, he added.
"Even if they are going back to the farm, we still require an internship," he said.
In recent years, Northeastern has been putting more emphasis on helping new and beginning farmers tap into available resources and the topic of generational transfer.
"There are so many resources out there, but it's such a hard discussion to have," Anderson said. "The main thing is, you just need to make a plan."
Anderson acknowledged that hemp is also on Northeastern's radar.
"We are dabbling in the hemp deal a little bit, including starting a CSU test plot on campus," he said. "But instead of creating a program that is just about hemp, we are trying to develop an alternative crops program."
The program would make use of a hydroponic greenhouse on campus, where lettuce is being grown to supply the school cafeteria.
According to the Rural Educational Alliance survey, students want to come back to the farm, he said.
"What if, on a small footprint of land, you could build a greenhouse?" Anderson asked. "There's things like aquaculture, like growing millet for food consumption, where we might be able to create some new revenue streams and create new pathways to the market."
It's not just farm kids who are interested in getting their hands in the dirt. McFarland said about half of Aims' agricultural students come from a nonfarm background.
Aims has also started working with area high schools, such as one in nearby Fort Lupton, that don't have ag programs but do have culinary programs.
"We can supplement their curriculum, and I think that's a great marriage," she said.
Freed said Morgan is also looking into farm-to-table and specialty crops, with particular interest in starting a school winery and, possibly, offering a viticulture program.
With rural communities shrinking, Freed said community colleges could play a role in diversifying local economies so that young people can return.
"We know that once these kids leave their community, their chance of coming back is very small," he noted.
Fully half of all higher-ed students nationwide are currently attending some form of community college, according to Northeastern's Anderson.
The higher-ed community in Colorado has made strides improving the system by adopting a degree pathway program that insures smoother transfer of credits between institutions and by passing legislation in 2014 that allows community colleges to begin granting bachelor of applied science degrees in certain key skill areas, Anderson said.
Many specialized technical jobs require bachelor's degrees for career advancement, but instead of transferring to a four-year college, specialized students in areas like wastewater management and certain aspects of healthcare and nursing can now obtain those degrees at vocational schools, he said.
At least 22 other states have also started to offer four-year degrees at community colleges.
Anderson said one of the benefits of community colleges is their ability to develop new curriculum quickly in response to industry changes. He gave the example of the relatively new practice of cover cropping, which is now integrated into Northeastern's ag program.