Date: Wed Aug 3, 2016
Time: 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM
The industry demands on higher education agricultural students are rapidly changing. New precision agriculture technologies are revolutionizing the farming industry but the education sector is failing to keep pace. This paper reports on the development of a key resource, the SMARTfarm Learning Hub (www.smartfarmhub.com) that will increase the skill base of higher education students using a range of new agricultural technologies and innovations. The Hub is a world first; it links real industry technologies with educator resources and student learning packages. This gives higher education providers and their student’s online access to data and systems from commercial scale smart-farms across Australia and the world.
The SMARTfarm Learning Hub is based around a central landing page which provides links to cloud based technologies that are running over various university properties predominantly across Australia and the globe. Participating universities have farms with a diverse range of enterprises and environmental conditions from highly productive dairy systems in Tasmania to tropical beef production in North Queensland and the arid rangelands of New Mexico. This is real data from real agricultural landscapes, and is matched with learning materials developed to challenge student’s critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Utilization of the SMARTfarm Learning Hub is tracked using the Square Space metrics tools. The SMARTfarm Learning Hub website was launched in mid-December 2015 and since this time has reached 535 unique visitors an average of 107 per month.
Precision agriculture encompasses a set of related technologies aimed at better utilization of crop inputs, increasing yield and quality, reducing risks, and enabling information flow throughout the crop supply and end-use chains. The most widely adopted precision practices have been automated systems related to equipment steering and precise input application, such as autoguidance and section controllers. Once installed, these systems are relatively easy for farmers and their supporting agribusinesses to operate and to benefit from. But a more information-intensive set of technologies that are less automated and more knowledge-based will require a higher level of human capability in order to maximize benefits. All of the parameters that lead to yield, such as soil, weather, genetics, nutrient management, and pests/crop protection must be characterized both spatially and temporally, interpreted, and then managed accordingly. As agricultural businesses invest in precision offerings, their capacity to provide these products and services will depend on their ability to hire and retain employees with appropriate knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA’s).
A 2015 survey of agricultural retailers was part of a USDA-NIFA Higher Education grant to examine the minimum educational requirements that retailers were seeking in their hires, along with the importance of a list of KSA’s for the various positions that they customarily fill. The positions included equipment operators, sales specialists, technical support, and agronomists. KSA’s included specifics such as the ability to install, calibrate, troubleshoot and repair equipment, knowledge of precision agriculture software, and also more broad skills such as effective written and verbal communication and abilities related to making agronomy recommendations. As expected, the retailers expressed different educational minimums and different levels of importance for KSA’s for the various positions. The retailers indicated that a high school diploma provided a sufficient education base for an equipment operator, a two-year associate’s degree was the preferred minimum for tech support and equipment technicians, but a bachelor’s degree was preferred for precision sales specialists and agronomists. Overwhelmingly the retailers indicated difficulty in finding qualified candidates, and a predominance of candidates/interviewees with low or deficient capabilities in areas they rated important. The survey was accomplished using email lists from both CropLife and the American Society of Agronomy/Certified Crop Adviser program.
An accompanying survey of educators at universities and community colleges that offer courses, certificates, or degrees in precision farming provides information on how academics are working to address these educational needs related to precision agriculture.
Knowledge of what precision agriculture (PA) content is currently taught across the United States will help build a better understanding for what PA instructors should incorporate into their classes in the future. The University of Missouri partnered with several universities throughout the nation on a USDA challenge grant. Precision Agriculture faculty from 24 colleges/universities from across the U.S. shared their PA content by sharing their syllabi from 43 different courses. The syllabi were searched for key topic phrases that identified the PA subject matter that was taught. Our review of the content showed a growing need for a more standardized curriculum, emphasizing the need for a better connection between industry needs and university faculty.
Today precision agricultural technologies are limited by the lack of a workforce that is technology literate, creative, innovative, fully trained in their discipline, able to utilize and interpret information gained from information-age technologies to make smart management decisions, and have the capacity to convert locally collected information into practical solutions. As part of a grant entitled Precision Farming Workforce Development: Standards, Working Groups, and Experimental Learning Curricula funded through a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grants Program was to develop a Precision Farming Basics Manual. One goal of the manual is to equip those in or entering the workforce with the knowledge needed to make practical and knowledgeable decisions regarding the use and adoption of precision farming technologies. Each of the 15 chapters in the manual will contain: 1) learning objectives; 2) a descriptions of a real-world problem that the technology is designed to reduce; 3) a discussion of the technology, 4) student problems using the technology; and 5) experiential and team activities. In addition, a glossary of precision ag terms and an online video library will accompany the manual. Delivery of the manual will be made available through the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) on-line digital library. The overall goal of the Precision Farming Basics Manual will be to serve as an updated text for those teaching precision agriculture at the undergraduate level and the education of working professionals through extension efforts.