Students Get Cutting-Edge Agriculture Technology Experience

This fall, Redlands Community College will offer new courses and two new agriculture degree options focusing on agriculture technology, thanks to a five-year grant totaling nearly $1.5 million dollars by the U.S. Department of Education.

Designed to expand opportunities to students interested in both agriculture and technology - Native American and low-income students especially - the courses will delve deep into tech that translates to agriculture, like applied automation, robotics and drone operation. New advancements in technologies like computer vision software, drone technology and automation are transforming modern agriculture to address major issues like farm labor shortages, the rising population and healthier growing methods, and Redlands is on the forefront of training the new wave of tech-savvy farmers.

Dr. Julie Flegal-Smallwood, director of the NASNTI STEM (Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution) program, said two degrees at Redlands Community College will address the burgeoning Ag Tech field this fall.

Agriculture Technology will be included as a degree option for an Associate in Science in Agriculture, as well as an Associate in Applied Science in Agriculture Technology and Sustainability. Key features of these degree tracks include the development of new courses in Drone Technology, Coding/Robotics, and GIS Mapping, along with other existing courses in sustainability, including Vermiculture Technology and Aquaponics. 

“We will also be offering an embedded certificate in these degree plans. Individuals who are interested in Ag Tech are likely to be interested in non-traditional agriculture applications, urban farming, vertical farming, or working with technology instead of more traditional applications,” she said.

Redlands Community College identified Ag Tech as a rapidly developing market, particularly as farmers and ranchers try to find new and more efficient ways to meet a growing need for food production as the population increases while still maintaining solid conservation principles for soil and water. Total investments in Ag Tech exceeded $4 billion in the first half of 2021, and by 2025, the market is expected to surpass $25 billion. An understanding of these technologies and possibilities for technology allow students to work in the emerging industry, said Flegal-Smallwood. 

“For example, drone technology can be used in crop mapping, moisture sensing, and pest control in a more efficient manner. Most tractors have GPS technology, where the farmer can program a route and the tractor makes all the adjustments, needing little intervention from the driver,” said Flegal-Smallwood. “Even irrigation is more sensitive to providing just in time, just the right amount of water in monitored sectors.”

Careers in the Ag Tech field are also expanding, spurring a demand for agronomists who can optimize quality and output of a crop, agricultural technicians who can use data to improve crop yield, quality or resistance to disease; and software engineers who can use digital technologies to optimize farming operations and output. Other career paths stemming from Ag Tech could also include crop systems specialists, food production supervisors, irrigation specialists, process engineers, drone mapping specialists and farm business managers. Starting salaries for Agricultural Systems Technology (AST) graduates, for instance, range from $38,000 to $67,000 per year, depending on location, employer, type of job, and internship experience. Salaries for a Precision Ag Tech drone pilot average between $44,000 and $77,700 a year.

The new degree offerings at Redlands will benefit students who do not have access to traditional, family-based agriculture operations but who are interested in the overall area and contributing to its success. This includes urban students who don’t have land, but want to provide for their families. 

The grant is part of the Department of Education’s Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution (NASNTI) program, and is a capacity-building grant designed for Native American and first-generation, disabled, or lower-income students.

As part of this, the NASNTI-STEM grant already works to blend traditional sciences like chemistry and microbiology into the agricultural field through aquaponics and vermiculture. The college is also partnering with Native American groups around the state, and Flegal-Smallwood said she hopes the new agricultural technology courses will expand those relationships.

Ag tech is a growing field, as there is a global need to do more with less. Decreased use of water and pesticides and other chemicals has become desirable, but the need for access to affordable and culturally appropriate food sources increases. The demands of handling the global food supply is only growing, creating a need for more technology to make farming and livestock production more efficient.

“Agriculture has been a sector relying on traditional practices, many of them handed down for generations. But with ag tech, new inventions and techniques can be employed to keep the next generation ‘on the farm’ and successful,” Flegal-Smallwood said.

“At the most basic level, crop and livestock monitoring provides better decision-making tools.”