Among the field days held at water technology farms across Kansas in late summer and early fall, an event in Goodland, Kan., stood out for the large number of college students participating in lectures and demonstrations.
The event staged at Northwest Kansas Technical College combined a water technology field day with the school's second annual Ag Tech Expo, an educational seminar that was open to the public.
The unique set-up was the brainstorm of Weston McCary, who started the precision ag program at Northwest Tech from scratch after developing a similar program at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colo.
Two years ago he decided to create a centralized event on campus to highlight new developments in precision agriculture, and teamed up with the innovative Kansas Ag Research and Technology Association to put it on.
"We've always tried to have an outward facing mindset," McCary said. "If we can't take this technology and scale it across large numbers of acres and large numbers of wells, what we are trying to do all falls down."
McCary grew up at Milliken, Colo., "one of those displaced ag kids from the farm crisis of the 1980s," who started out working on "yellow tractors" used for road and bridge construction before he got into teaching computer-aided design and GPS and then started developing academic programs geared to outfitting the "green tractors" used on farms.
Four years ago he developed the two-year precision agriculture curriculum at Northwest Tech that is now the fastest growing program on campus.
A year and a half ago the college had the chance to sign a lease on a 120-acre working farm nearby, which allowed it to set up its own water technology demonstration farm and offer more hands-on training for students.
From the start, the program has been working with area landowners to install, test and service technology in a real world setting.
"The most important thing to us is workforce development," McCary said. "We are putting actual technology on actual farms, and our students are getting some educational benefit out of it, as we prepare them to go back to the farm or out into the industry."
Students helped convert the school farm over from flood irrigation to subsurface drip. Last year they were approached by Bayer, which now owns Fontanelle, Channel and several other seed companies in the former Monsanto line-up, about conducting a corn hybrid trial.
The trial required them to create multiple zones across the field with different moisture settings and soil pH levels.
Other real-world experiences the students have undertaken include building the customized precision planter used on the farm, putting on educational workshops for area 4-H clubs over the summer and designing and constructing a fall corn maze.
Many precision ag students are also able to obtain internships that pay $20 an hour, attractive money in these parts, McCary said.
Ryan Amen, a student from Hudson, Colo., started out working on an associate's degree in agriculture business at Aims College in Greeley before he transferred to Northwest Tech to complete the precision ag program.
What drew him to Goodland was seeing how involved and supportive agricultural businesses were of the program, and having an actual working research farm associated with the school.
"I just didn't seem to be getting up to speed as fast there," he said. "Here, there's lots of hands-on technology in use."
While he grew up on a farm operated by his dad and uncle, his eyes have gradually been opened to all the opportunities that exist to work out in the industry, he said.
Now in his last year of school, he plans to graduate in May and already holds a paid internship with Climate Corp's FieldView, one of the leading software platforms for analyzing farm-scale data.
"There's a lot of jobs available out here," he said.
Of the seven trade schools in Kansas, Northwest Tech is unique for its residential and athletic programs that mimic a more traditional college experience, according to president Ben Schears.
But until McCary started the precision ag program, there was nothing offered specifically in the agriculture field.
Adding the program was intended to better integrate the curriculum with the needs of the surrounding area, Schears said.
Tim Franklin, a local farmer and a leader in water conservation efforts on the High Plains, served on the college's planning and advisory committee.
"We brainstormed about what does Northwest Kansas need?" he recalled. "And came up with things like we need people to operate sprayers. We need a training program to educate the drivers. And we know they're going to make good money after they graduate."
Instead of being reactive, the college wants to be forward thinking and responsive to the local economy, Schears said.
"We don't want to be slow to respond to the needs of the area; we want to be at the forefront of those changes," he said. "We think of this as kind of a model idea, basically it's a 'grow-your-own' economic development plan."
McCary said demand for precision agriculture expertise is strong, with room for other schools to develop similar programs.
"We're in the right place at the right time with this," he said. "It's been coming for awhile now. At CSU, they recently offered a class on GPS. So we're seeing the universities getting on board with it now too."