Ivy Tech Community College Kokomo Region will soon be taking a new precision agriculture program on the road and into the fields, thanks to a $144,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jennifer Vandeburg, chair of the Agriculture Program at Ivy Tech’s Kokomo Region, said the recently awarded grant will support Ivy Tech’s precision agriculture education program by funding a mobile lab to take the high-tech program to area high schools as well as expand opportunities for Ivy Tech students. The grant comes under the auspices of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through the federal SPECA program. SPECA initiatives aim at promoting and strengthening secondary education and two-year postsecondary education in agriscience and agribusiness with the goal of encouraging more young Americans to pursue and complete a bachelor’s degree or higher in the food and agricultural sciences.

Ivy Tech sought the grant to expand its educational programming in “precision agriculture” technologies that improve the effectiveness, efficiency and profitability of farm operations to meet growing food demand worldwide. “Precision agriculture” utilizes GPS, visual sensors, automatic steering and sophisticated computer programs to provide site-customized management of farms, taking in and analyzing huge amounts of data to develop a site-specific prescription for successful farm operations. Using precision agriculture techniques, farmers can determine the optimum number of plants for a particular site, the appropriate amount of fertilizer and water required, tilling options to minimize soil erosion and a host of other factors critical to successful production.

The federal grant will be matched with more than $75,000 in support from Ivy Tech, who is partnering in the project with Daugherty Companies Inc. Daugherty’s Elite Ag Solutions division, based in Peru, Ind., is a precision agriculture dealer focused on providing sales and support to producers throughout Northeast Indiana. They will be supplying a variety of equipment to the project, including a new “Green Sensor” system that can judge plant conditions to determine how much fertilizer to supply and an RTK (Real Time Kinetic) satellite navigation capability that increases the accuracy of the GPS guidance system from about three feet to less than six inches. Additional support is being provided by The Andersons Inc., Maple Farms Inc., Beck’s Hybrids and GeoSilos.

The project addresses three areas of educational improvement in agriculture education at the secondary and postsecondary levels in the region, Vandeburg said.

First, it supports the development of three distinct educational programs – one for Ivy Tech Kokomo agriculture degree-seeking students, one for high school students and one to train high school teachers who wish to use the mobile lab that will be created. Second, it will support faculty development opportunities for Ivy Tech instructors such as one-on-one instruction and job shadowing with industry technicians. Third, and perhaps most important, it will allow for a new type of partnership between the community college and regional high schools to expose secondary students to precision agriculture tools and career options with the goal of increasing the number of students who go into the industry.

Vandeburg said specifications are being developed for the most visible part of the project – outfitting a 30-foot enclosed trailer as precision agriculture mobile lab (PAML) and transport for a Kubota utility vehicle Ivy Tech has equipped with precision agriculture technologies including a GPS monitor, auto-pilot and a crop sprayer with variable rate applications.

“The PAML will be extremely valuable,” Vandeburg said. “It will provide a way to expand the technology available to Ivy Tech Kokomo students, plus make it possible to take this suite of educational tools out of Ivy Tech’s campus and put them into the hands of high school students. Without this equipment, instruction in this field is a paper-and-pen exercise and much more difficult for hands-on learners to master.”

The PAML will be available to high school agriculture teachers to use for one day, with instruction supplied by Ivy Tech Kokomo faculty, or for one-week, with instruction conducted by the local agriculture teacher with support from Ivy Tech Kokomo faculty.

“This will be a new sharing arrangement for the college and local high schools,” Vandeburg continued. “It will support learning how computer-based information systems and agronomic knowledge intersect to achieve refined management of crop production in the field. Through this, students can develop the crop management skill sets needed in this industry, building on fundamental mathematical, chemical and biological learning with computer skills, plant science, plant pathology and complex biological systems management skills.”

Vandeburg, who is director of the project, emphasized the ultimate goal is to meet workforce demands in North Central Indiana. “The use of precision agriculture technologies is expanding rapidly,” she said. “The project will allow Ivy Tech to bring the latest technologies to students from kindergarten through associate degree and help prepare those students to fill the many agriscience and agribusiness jobs of the future.”