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Xin “Rex” Sun, an assistant professor at NDSU, said a freshman in one of his precision agriculture classes already has a job offer in the precision ag field. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

Precision ag opportunities abound on farm and in industry

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — North Dakota State University just started its major in precision agriculture last spring, but already the course is growing, both in student numbers and in opportunities. Xin "Rex" Sun, an assistant professor at NDSU, said a freshman in one of his classes already has a job offer in the precision ag field.

Sun, along with faculty members from Bismarck State College, Lake Region State College and the North Dakota College of Science, discussed what they're teaching in precision agriculture courses and what their students plan to do with that knowledge during the ninth annual Precision Agriculture Summit in Jamestown. The summit ran from Jan. 20-21 at the Farmers Union Conference Center.

Sun showed a survey of one of his precision agriculture classes from last year, showing that 80% of the students came from farming backgrounds. The majority — 60% — want to take what they're learning back to the farm. A majority — 52% — also want to work in industry, meaning many want to use their education in a variety of ways.

At the other schools, which mostly offer two-year courses or transfer credits to four-year schools, many of the students plan to return to family farms. That could mean a lot of technological knowledge going back to farms in the coming years.

Terry Griffin, associate professor and cropping systems economist at Kansas State University, delivered the keynote address at the summit, largely on generational adaptation of precision agriculture technologies. Tech adoption, overall, went down in the past three years, regardless of generation, he said.

"Prices went down. Farmers quit buying stuff. This is the manifestation of that," he said.

But, at least in Kansas, data shows that millennials and Generation Z who are sole operators of farms are less likely to have adopted precision agriculture than Baby Boomers and Silent Generation (pre-Baby Boomer) operators who farm on their own, Griffin said. That, he said, likely indicates that older generations have more resources than younger generations starting on their own.

The rate of adoption is far higher for farms with multiple operators. Griffin said that might be because farms with more operators tend to have more resources. He also speculated that some multiple operator farms with older farmers at the helm are combining their resources with the technological savvy of the younger generations who return from college.

That technological know-how is what the ag ed courses at the schools in the North Dakota University System are hoping to provide. The instructors talked about hands-on learning from demonstration farms and shops, as well as from internships and classroom learning. The students should be equipped to return and implement precision agriculture solutions on their farms, while also having opportunities to work in agronomy or other fields or assist neighbors.