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Aims ag program gaining momentum

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By Jeremy Johnson

FORT LUPTON — It’s been only about a year and a half since Aims Community College began offering an agriculture program, and already some anecdotal evidence between instructors suggests it is planting seeds of opportunity.

Success stories tend to be the benchmark by which a curriculum is judged, and a few notable stories are coming out of the South Campus in Fort Lupton.

At least two of the very first three Aims agricultural program graduates have already landed lucrative jobs in their fields, according to agricultural instructor Aileen Rickert Ehn. Aims’ overall agriculture program includes one-year certificates in increasingly popular precision agriculture, as well as animal science, production agriculture and agribusiness management, while the community college also offers two-year degrees in similar subjects and transfer degrees to Colorado State University including soil an crop sciences.

“We’ve really gained a lot of momentum,” said Ehn, who helped develop the ag program for Aims. “I think people are recognizing that there are a lot of opportunities in agriculture.”

And many of those opportunities are nothing like your grandfather’s days on the farm. Ehn said most current agricultural instruction, especially in fields such as precision agriculture, is predictably technology-based. On that front, the South Campus’ new Platte Building facility and the state-of-the-art equipment that came with it – coupled with extensive industry partnerships and fellowships – puts Aims College ahead of the teaching curve in an age-old industry adapting to new times.

“The benefit for us is that we can really push a lot of that newer technology in our classes and try to keep up with it,” Ehn said. “We’re also very fortunate in that we do work with companies … that have that technology and we’re able to ask them questions, we have good rapport with them.

“So, we’re able to say ‘What’s going on in the industry right now?’ or ‘What are your farmers working with?’” she added. “And in turn, we can ask ourselves what we can do to help our students understand, so that when they go into the field they feel comfortable and prepared.”

 

Industry changes
born of better practices

Like so many industries, Ehn said agriculture is always aiming for better practices in hopes of doing more with less. For instance, both agriculture and oil and gas companies are clamoring for precious land and water resources in a very competitive economic climate, and that’s doubly true in Weld County, one of the state’s – and the nation’s – largest producers of both.

So, in this way, Ehn said precision agriculture was born out of necessity. Nowadays, Ehn said precision ag can help farmers guide remote-controlled tractors on exact, computer-mapped courses, or it can provide field and asset data that can help a farmer know what parts of his crop need more or less fertilizer or water.

“Precision agriculture has really streamlined the industry,” she said. “It’s allowed farmers to basically create a prescription for their land and their crops, while saving money, saving time and saving resources.”

And because it’s an evolving field still in its infancy – precision ag is really only about as old as its predecessor, the global positioning system, developed in the late 80s and early 90s – many of today’s graduates won’t just work in the field, they will actually help define its future.

One of the aforementioned first ag grads to come out of Aims, Jason French, was working for a cell phone company when outsourcing led him to focus his efforts elsewhere. This all occurred at about the same time Aims started offering its ag program, and so one thing led to another and in May French walked away with his precision agriculture certificate. And while Ehn said she’s not clear exactly what it is French is now doing for the “fairly large, national company,” she said it is a newly developed precision ag role, meaning French is forging his own path already. 

Another graduate, Zachary Carpenter, is also “doing well” working as a precision ag specialist for another reputable company who has already offered to pay for Carpenter’s continued education.

“The nice thing about the current ag community is that they’re very welcoming to even people with a certificate or two-year degree because there’s just a lot of jobs out there,” she said. “It goes to show our industry is really looking for good, skilled people.

 

Diverse opportunities,
hands-on learning

Ehn describes northern Colorado’s agricultural landscape as diverse in every way, in that it includes both small- and large-scale farming of all manner of livestock and produce.

“The agricultural landscape is very diverse and we kind of tailored our program based on that,” she said. 

And to provide diverse instruction, Aims draws from the experience of former ag professionals who now serve as the program’s instructors. Many of those instructors, Ehn said, have been in the industry for decades and so they understand the roots of the industry as well as the new path it is taking.

“Anybody can read from a book,” Ehn said. “But it’s when you bring in (experienced instructors) that demonstrate hands-on … well, that’s the kind of knowledge you just can’t get from a book.”

It also provides exactly the kind of demonstrated field skills in students and potential employees that companies are looking for, she added. 

“Students are showing up (to new jobs) knowing things that employers didn’t think they would possibly know,” Ehn said. “And to me, that makes me feel like we’re headed in the right direction and really helping provide our industry with a strong workforce.

“And we’re not necessarily just producing students who are going to become farmers,” she added. “It’s more that we’re producing people who are helping those farmers farm better by contributing to different parts of the industry. There’s just so many areas they can go into.”

Ehn added that, despite the rise of oil and gas industry, agriculture remains as strong as ever, particularly in Weld County. 

“There’s always some part of your life that ties in with agriculture and I think, sometimes, people forget that or don’t look that far ahead,” Ehn said. It’s just a matter of providing a workforce that can help keep it strong, she added.

“Who knows what kind of potential (these programs) could have,” Ehn said.

 

 Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.