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5 Top Community Colleges
You’re missing a good bet if you haven’t looked to the two-year community colleges as a source of farm employees. Their associate degree graduates may be more battle-tested for real farmwork than four-year graduates from the big universities.
Community college ag programs always require one or two farm internships, besides work on a college farm. Students get supervised technical instruction in such things as welding, combine maintenance, animal treatments, and organic production.
You can seek out community colleges at the American Association of Community Colleges by visiting aacc.nche.edu. Here are five good ones, with details on a unique ag curriculum that each offers.
1. Kirkwood Community College,
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The Kirkwood ag program is often cited as the best in the country, offering several associate degrees including ag business, ag production, and animal science. One fast growing curriculum is GIS – geospatial information systems, or precision agriculture.
Students get all aspects of GIS training, says instructor James Jordan. “Besides general science and math, they take introduction to precision farming, geospatial data collection, precision ag hardware, software, advanced ag electronics, and machinery servicing and retrofitting. They work with real data from the college’s 700-acre farm, plus a new combine simulator.”
All students complete an eight-week internship during their training, usually on a farm but sometimes at a co-op or retailer. “They leave here ready to work,” Jordan says.
The GIS program graduates about 30 students a year, and demand is strong from farms and industry. Some farmers, Jordan says, prefer to hire precision ag expertise in a Kirkwood graduate rather than learn it themselves.
2. Black Hawk Community College,
Henry County, Illinois
Agronomy professor Andrew Larson says this school was started 50 years ago to train young people to be farmers. Students start the ag production curriculum with an intense 16 weeks on the basics of soil fertility, agribusiness, animal science, and ag mechanization.
Then it shifts to hands-on training. For instance, long-time animal science professor Dan Hoge takes students to real hog farms to learn how to castrate pigs, among other things.
“We expose students to the newest technology, too,” Larson says.
Freshmen get classes in welding, small engines, computers, precision ag, and equipment tune-ups. On-farm internships on cooperating farms occur in the heart of spring and fall work seasons.
Second-year classes include grain drying, computer science, and artificial insemination (if they choose it). “There’s not much in production agriculture that we don’t touch,” says Larson.
Call early in your hiring process to build relationships with potential employees, he suggests.
3. Central Community College,
This program has several ag curriculums, with ag business being its strength, says instructor Brad Lang. “We give students a good background in farm management, ag economics, accounting, even ag sales and service.”
There is a lot of seed production in the area, and Central’s ag business graduates are in demand from those companies. “There’s competition,” Lang says, but about 40% of the ag business graduates get a job on a farm.
“We have a very good farm marketing class. They leave here knowing the basics of cash, futures, and options marketing.”
Central’s ag business curriculum also offers classes in computer science, including all aspects of Microsoft Office. “All farm business jobs require good computer skills,” he says.
Elective classes may include precision ag, field mapping, or others. “Farm employers often ask about precision ag classes,” says Lang. “Contact us early if you’re interested in hiring our students.”
4. Wayne Community College,
Goldsboro, North Carolina
In addition to agribusiness, forestry, turf grass, and animal science, this school offers a unique two-year program in sustainable agriculture. It prepares students to work in direct marketing.
Courses include farm maintenance, computers, agricultural law, small business management, marketing, and organic crops.
“It’s very hands on,” says Gabe Mitchell, the lead instructor in sustainable ag. “In the summer, our students work a minimum of 20 hours per week with a real farmer. We take trips to study local farms.”
Mitchell emphasizes farm marketing. “You can be the best producer or employee, but if you don’t have a firm foundation in marketing, a business will not succeed,” he believes.
Soft (people) skills are integrated into everything taught, he says, and one course is solely on that topic. “Students leave us ready to work!”
Mitchell says employers like the fact that Wayne sustainable ag graduates have a diverse background in alternative crops such as heirloom vegetables, organic crops, and low-pesticide products.
5. Fox Valley Technical College, Appleton, Wisconsin
This school offers several ag majors, including an excellent program in dairy management. There is a one-year dairy technician training program, but few students stay just one year, says instructor and veterinarian Lori Nagel.
“Most take the second year and get the associate degree in agribusiness/dairy management,” Nagel says. “It’s like a light turns on and they want more classes. We enjoy watching that.”
Classes include ration analysis, record keeping, milking systems, ag finances, and more. Students study advanced animal health and reproduction with Maple Leaf Foxy, a bovine simulator.
Students complete an internship on a cooperating dairy farm, which may specialize in calf care, heifer management, or milking systems. “Three cooperating herds have robotic milking systems,” Nagel adds.
Fox Valley Tech enrolls 50 new dairy students a year. Wisconsin has an excellent program to help match students with employers called Wisconsin Tech Connect (wisconsintechconnect.com). Job seekers and farmers can post résumés.
Community College Facts 101
Total CCs in U.S.: 1,108
CC Enrollment: 12.2 million students Part-time students: 62%
First family generation to attend
Average yearly tuition and fees
Community colleges: $3,520
Four-year public colleges: $9,650
Median earnings of full-time employees
Less than high school: $26,200
High school graduate: $36,000
Associate (2-year) degree: $42,600
Bachelor (4-year) degree: $60,100