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Poised for Precision

By   Mikkel Pates, Agweek Magazine

By Mikkel Pates, Agweek Magazine

Published in Agweek September 28, 2015

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — A new crop of young people is entering the business of agriculture, and one new entry point is the Dakota Precision Ag Center at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake — a program that touts an up-close and personal approach.

The Dakota Precision Ag Center also is responsible for some workforce training conducted by LRSC.

LRSC’s precision agriculture majors were among the throngs of ag-related student groups coming to the recent Big Iron Farm Show at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo, N.D.

Samantha Koetter, Glenburn, N.D., says she wants to get a precision agriculture degree so she can pursue a career as an agronomist. Her uncle, Rod Erber, farms in Glenburn and she’s enjoyed helping with grain harvest.

“Soil sampling — there’s a lot of new technology there,” Koetter says. “There is an opportunity to create a lot of maps,” that can help farmers become more precise and effective.

Reese Jones of Fessenden, N.D., another freshman, says he is impressed with the latest in planters — especially ones that can plant more than one variety at a time.

“The money these guys put into them — the technology is unreal, fascinating,” Jones says.

He hopes to farm with his father, Darin, and grandfather, Richard, in Fessenden.

Typical students

Koetter and Jones are the kind of students incoming program director Preston Sundeen is trying to attract at LRSC.

Paul Gunderson, Dakota Precision Ag Center director, revived LRSC’s ag degree program with a federal grant. Gunderson is expecting to retire in December. This past August, LRSC announced internally that Sundeen, an instructor in the program, would become the new director.The two-year program is in its third year and one class of 16 students has graduated, Sundeen says. Program participants earn an Associate of Applied Science degree. The students are primarily local, often from North Dakota within a 200-mile radius.

Classes have been about 20 students each. About half of the students are going back to a home farm. Another quarter of the students are heading toward employment in an implement dealership or an agribusiness, such as an electronics hardware supplier. The last fourth of the students are hoping for a career in agronomy services, Sundeen says. Five of the recent graduates have gone on to North Dakota State University to pursue a four-year degree.

“I think the appetite (for graduates) in the market is still very, very good,” Sundeen says. “There may be a slowdown in commodity markets, but when it comes to the data management or precision side, people are trying to improve and there are opportunities out there.”

Agronomy focus

The program includes a coordinator, electronics specialist, a software specialist and an agronomy instructor. The program is 67 credits and requires an internship between freshman and sophomore year.

“We do focus on agronomy, electrical and software, and we have some management classes along with general electives,” Sundeen says.

Students take statistics and college algebra, as well as a speech and a “contextualized chemistry” course, which is “tweaked a little bit for agriculture,” he says.

“They come out with a foundation in today’s agriculture,” Sundeen says. “Everybody has a different attitude about what precision agriculture actually is. Some think it’s hardware, or prescription (farming) or software, but it can be a variety of things.”

The course focuses on teaching software from GK Technologies of Halstad, Minn., and a national software system called SMS, an Ag Leader product.

Sundeen, a native of Lakota, N.D., is still involved in his family farm. He holds a 2006 bachelor of science degree in farm and ranch management from the University of Minnesota Crookston. Before coming to LRSC, he worked in the precision agronomy retail world, helping farmers make choices for seed, chemical and fertilizer, as well as farming computer hardware and precision agriculture mapping.

Small advantage

North Dakota State University has an Agricultural Systems Management degree, and South Dakota State University in Brookings is planning to launch a four-year bachelor of science degree in precision agriculture, starting in the fall of 2016. SDSU currently offers a precision agriculture minor.

Sundeen says smaller state schools like LRSC have certain advantages.

Classes taken in a semester beyond 12 credits have free tuition. The institution offers students laptop computers for a $150 lease fee. The program enjoys “tremendous industry support,” often attracting regional speakers from local implement dealerships, chemical companies and other agribusinesses, Sundeen says.

“We do a lot of hands-on work.”

The classes often go to the fields with ATVs and trailers, purchased through grants, to work with new technology close-up. The institution does about a three-week course on unmanned aerial vehicles — an introduction to ground school and flight characteristics of quadcopters and fixed-wing drones.

Sundeen says LRSC sent the class to Big Iron to study new technology and introduce students to businesses with which they might seek internships. The program also has taken students to the Precision Agriculture Summit in Jamestown, N.D.