As options for quality agricultural education are continuing to expand at Blackhawk Technical College, instructors and students say they are excited for many future opportunities.
“It’s really good for someone who is looking for something really quick, really affordable and to help get them the skills to get a job,” said Dustin Williams, the lead agriculture instructor at the college.
BTC has always offered a farm management program to educate, train and provide networking opportunities for farmers. The two-year agribusiness/science and technology associate degree program has been in place for about five years.
More recently, the college has revamped its offerings to include new courses and expanded short-term technical diplomas aimed at more specialized agricultural education.
Soon, students will be able to earn short-term technical diplomas in livestock technician, agriculture technologies, precision agriculture, farm operations and more. These options will be available in 2022.
Williams grew up on a dairy farm near Hillsboro and went on to study veterinary science before working as a high school agriculture teacher in South Wayne.
He said the college started a new two-year program about six years ago after receiving a $340,000 grant. That money helped pay for a tractor, planter and sprayer fully loaded with precision planting equipment to help students learn to calibrate and drive the technology.
“It’s been a neat opportunity to be able to start a program,” Williams said. “It’s been fun to see that grow and see the success of the students over the years.”
BTC recently built a 3,200-square-foot facility and laboratory in Monroe, where the college has a satellite campus. The college also built an 800-square-foot greenhouse there.
The college also recently purchased a $100,000 sprayer simulator that allows students to virtually spray crops and learn how to maneuver heavy machinery. A real sprayer can cost upwards of $500,000.
“That’s going to be a great opportunity for our students to be able to train and get that experience,” Williams said. “We can put them in this and feel safe that they’ve had some training, and then put them in a tractor and give them some experience, too.”
Williams is also working on becoming a certified drone pilot, which allows him to teach students that valuable skill set for surveying farmland and identifying diseased plants, pest issues or monitoring drought stress. The college has received a $40,000 grant for buying new drones.
“It’s a lot more scientific and a lot more involved than saying, ‘Oh, let’s just go up and look at the crops,’” Williams said.
BTC student Casey Bennett said this past semester, he completed courses on nutrient management and soil fertility. He learned about finding the right balance of manure and fertilizers to meet crop nutrition needs.
“That was a really fun program that I enjoyed. It’s like a puzzle. There’s a start goal and end goal and you move pieces around as you need to,” Bennett said.
Bennett noted that BTC’s agribusiness program is offering 10 scholarships at $1,000 each to high school graduates.
Bennett also had chances this year to operate a tractor and other equipment out in the field.
In one class project, Bennett recalled crafting an entire business plan and had to present how he would go about seeking a loan and launching his hypothetical business.
He also completed an internship with the Green County Land and Water Conservation Department for more hands-on experience.
The experience overall has helped guide him toward pursuing a career in nutrient management planning.
Bennett was a member of his high school’s FFA and later worked in early childhood education before gravitating back toward agriculture.
His father does part-time farm work, and Bennett and his wife recently bought a small farm near Evansville.
“The ag industry right now is looking for people that are willing to learn and grow and step into some of these positions in support of farming and agriculture,” Bennett said. “It was really eye-opening. This was a really big change in a lot of ways for me. But it’s something I needed to do.”
Williams said he teaches between 12 and 15 or more students during typical fall semesters. He hopes to see the program expand its numbers even further.
Further scholarship opportunities, such as the Fund for the Future of Agriculture, launched by local farmers, has raised about $50,000 in the last year. About $40,000 of that total was donated by the Colony Brands Foundation of Monroe.
Williams said he wants his work to help promote multigenerational farming in the future.
The college regularly meets with students in area high schools to drive recruitment efforts.
Less than 1% of the United States population is involved in agriculture. Additionally, the U.S. boasts the world’s most stable food supply, and Williams said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to remind people not to take food security for granted.
“Ultimately, agriculture is the most important thing that anybody does. It is a crucial part of our economy,” Williams said. “American farmers are very good at what they do. U.S. farmers have always been early adopters of farming technology and efficiency.”
In Green County, Williams said about 50% of the economy is related to farming. Each dairy cow in the county produces $20,000 of value, and the average dairy farm has 150 cows. Any time a dairy farm closes, it is detrimental to the community at large.
Williams added that farmers are dedicated to delivering quality foods at low cost to consumers.
“Farmers care about consumers,” Williams said. “They go through a lot to do that.”