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The University of Mount Olive in North Carolina has launched a new Precision Agriculture minor for spring 2023. The university is partnering with local Case IH dealership B&S Enterprises to help build the program.

The minor will include 6 courses and cover a variety of topics from basic precision concepts to data management, drones, autonomy and more. The plan is to elevate the Precision Ag minor to a major by the fall of 2024.

On this edition of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast, brought to you by Ag Express, we catch up with Dr. Sandy Maddox, Dean of the UMO School of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, to discuss how the minor fills a critical need in the precision ag industry and whether more universities will follow suit.

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Full Transcript

Noah Newman:

We're back. The Precision Farming Dealer podcast returns after a short hiatus. It's great to have you with us for this new edition. My name is Noah Newman, and big thanks to our sponsor, Ag Express. We'll have a message from them later in the program. The University of Mount Olive in North Carolina has launched a new Precision Agriculture minor for spring 2023. The university is partnering with a local Case IH dealership, B and S Enterprises, to help build the program. Now, the minor features six courses, covers a variety of topics, from basic precision concepts to data management, drones, autonomy, and more. And they're hoping to elevate the Precision Ag minor to a major by the fall of 2024. Now on this edition of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast, we catch up with Dr. Sandy Maddox, Dean of the UMO School of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, to discuss how the minor fills a critical need in the precision ag industry, how it could potentially help dealers out there, and whether more universities will follow suit.

All right, Sandy, tell us about the new Precision Ag minor that Mount Olive is offering. Just tell us about it and why you think it fills a critical need for the industry.

Dr. Sandy Maddox:

I'm glad you asked that question because, first off, the university has an ag program, and we offer degrees in agribusiness, in plant science, ag education, ag production systems, a number of agricultural degrees, environmental and natural resources. And one thing that we were beginning to hear from our industry folks down here, and particularly, dealers, was the need for trained individuals, trained graduates, in the area of precision ag. And I say it started with dealers, but as we've evolved into developing this minor, it's become quite evident that many of our agronomic consultants and a lot of our chemical dealers and some of those folks are also interested in having graduates that have some training or some education in the area of precision ag, so it wasn't a hard sell to start developing that minor. And we will be developing and end into a major, but we want to make sure that we're meeting the needs of the industry for what we're trying to develop first as a minor.

What we're hoping to do is combine it with our unmanned aviation degree here at the university and bring those two together for a major. But that's what precipitated it. We have an excellent relationship with Case IH here in North Carolina at the University of Mount Olive. We developed a program where we worked with them and were able to have equipment on site at our student forum that allows us to have some of the most recent and groundbreaking precision ag technology on our campus so that we can train our students, our tractors, and our implements too. We had that relationship, and then we just thought we needed to take it to the next level incrementally, and that's what we're doing with the minor. Also, we are providing a certificate for industry personnel. If we have a dealer or somebody that wants to send their individuals to us to get some education out, outreach education, or continuing education, we're working with a certificate program as well.

Noah Newman:

You mentioned the hands-on training aspect of it. I visited with a precision department at a dealership over the summer, or over the winter, I should say. And they talked about how they like to use hands-on training with their sales department, and that seems like it's the best way to learn. And what other kind of skills or topics are being covered in this minor?

Dr. Sandy Maddox:

Basically, our students have not been exposed to it. I don't know of many programs. I'm sure there are programs, but right around in here, there are not a whole lot of programs that focus on precision ag. So what we're trying to do is introduce our students, number one, to the basics of precision ag, exploring how precision ag is contributing to the industry now, try to let them gain initial knowledge with regard to the equipment, the sensors, monitors, implements, and those types of things. What are the benefits and challenges? Precision ag's not cheap, so they have to understand that. Our entry-level course is the basics of precision ag, getting the history, getting an understanding of just the concepts, and why is it used, what's the advantage of it. Then we move on to what we consider our ag mechanics or precision ag mechanics course, which is a real hands-on definition of the system components, locating, identifying those systems and mechanical components.

Again, a lot of this is hands-on. We've got the equipment there. I have to say again, Case IH has been a great partner in this. Our local dealer, B and S Enterprises, has provided us with implements that we can take, handle, and understand. They've been a good supporter too, and a supplier of information because you're not going to find a lot of people that can credential to teach this either. So they've been a great partner, not only in guiding us a little bit in curriculum but also providing us with the hands-on materials that we need. But with that, they're providing us with the system components and understanding how they communicate with the precision planting, application, and the different systems and how do you troubleshoot, those types of things. So that's the second class.

We've really made the minor into six courses and an 18-hour minor. So those are the first two courses. Then we go into agricultural data, and that's where our companies like, down here, Helena, Nutrien, and some of those companies are actually very interested in having individuals that can come in and understand, not only interpret, but how to grasp the data, how do you collect it, how do you interpret it, and then recommendations. So that's what the next course is going to focus on with data. Then we'll move on to another upper-level courses, which are focused more on the systems, different type of precision ag systems we want them to be able to go into. We won't be able to provide them an opportunity to handle every particular platform, but we want them to be well-versed in understanding the main components of any kind of platform.

If a case or a different dealer has a different platform that they focus on, we should be able to provide a student with enough knowledge that they can go in, have enough basic knowledge to understand how to navigate those different platforms. Then we will be offering a senior capstone project where we will give them scenarios and case studies. One of the things that people always ask is, "How do you get an autonomous vehicle across a road? How do you make it cross the road?" Those types of things. How do you troubleshoot different things that are occurring within systems? So that'll be our capstone project.

Noah Newman:

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Dr. Sandy Maddox:

Finally, we are going to offer them through an unmanned aviation program, a remote pilot certification class, because we know that drones, probably in some areas of the country, they're used far more than they are here right now. But we feel that they're going to be the next step, and we're already behind the curve with precision technology. It changes so much every single day. And with drones and everything else that are coming, we're just trying to give them the knowledge so that if they're hired for sales, service, or technical support at a dealership, or whether they're in consulting, maybe consulting at a chemical dealership, we're trying to give them the basic skills that they can navigate through and have that understanding. And I think, for us, one of the key things was that so many of the folks are looking for these types of graduates say that the greatest expenditure they have is on-the-job training.

Now, we can't do away with all of that, but we certainly can put a dent in it. And most of it, a lot of the data showed that most dealers or a lot of dealers were expending two years on on-the-job training. And once a person gets trained, an individual gets trained, they often lose them to a competitor because they're willing to pay for them and pay for that knowledge that they've earned or gained. So that's how we got into it. That's the focus on which way we're going. And we've got an awful lot of interest in the courses already with the existing students that we have in our programs. As a minor right now, if it's an agribusiness student, an agronomic student, or even animal science, they're able to plug that minor in, and they can do that at the same time that they're getting their major without any more hours spent here or time spent at the university. So we can do it within a four-year window.

Noah Newman:

You mentioned there's been a lot of interest from your students, and it fills a void that a lot of dealerships are looking to fill right now. Can you see this becoming more common with other universities across the country, more universities offering precision agriculture minors and eventually majors?

Dr. Sandy Maddox:

I would think so. I think most of the agriculture industry, the profit margins are so slim right now. It seems that it's, again, an economics of scale here, and the only way to really do that to scale up is to use some of that precision ag and keep that margin or expand that margin a little bit. I feel like, and I think in talking with the people that we've talked to, it's not just case. We've got other partners that we work with, equipment people. They're talking about not only having their service technicians trained and able to go out and do the things that are needed for repairs or education to farmers, but they're also talking about their sales, their parts people, and all of their people in the dealership becoming educated on precision ag regardless of what their role is at the dealership.

I think it was really exploding. You can look at some job data from a few years ago, and you could look at an increase in the number of job opportunities. It is tempered a little bit now, but there's still an obvious need. And I think if the dealers decide that it's going to be important for everyone to understand precision ag, have a knowledge of it, and understanding of it, I think it's going to keep being a benefit to our graduates to go out and have that type of knowledge.

Noah Newman:

And it sounds like the minor is pretty intense in terms of everything it covers, from autonomy to drones. So is it safe to assume that when students complete this minor, they'll be ready to go work for a precision department?

Dr. Sandy Maddox:

They won't know it all. That's the way it is in any job. But they will be better prepared than the graduates. I can say that we've got graduates right now working in precision ag. But again, their knowledge has come from the employer. Generally, we provided information about precision ag in a lot of our courses, but it was incidental. Now it is truly focused towards precision ag. So we may not make up that two-year on-the-job training, but if we make up that first year, we're giving them a real bounce for the dealerships and the agronomic companies that are wanting these graduates. So I think that's a savings to them, and it's a good opportunity for our graduates to have skills that some others may not have.

Noah Newman:

That'll wrap things up for this week's edition of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast. Thanks to Dr. Sandy Maddox for joining us for that conversation. And thanks to our sponsor, AG Express. Until next time, for all things Precision Farming Dealer related, head to I'm Noah Newman. Have a great day.