DEVILS LAKE - Two grants worth millions of dollars combined will allow a wide range of people to receive training in the quickly growing area of precision agriculture.
The Dakota Precision Ag Center at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake has received a total of $3.28 million in grants. One grant comes from the U.S. Department of Labor and is worth $2.99 million, while the other grant comes from the North Dakota Department of Commerce and is worth $288,600.
The larger federal grant will fund training for recent veterans or workers who are currently unemployed due to foreign trade. The smaller state grant will provide additional education for workers already employed in the agricultural sector.
Paul Gunderson, director of DPAC, said the ag center was first funded in 2006 as one of North Dakota's Centers of Excellence under Gov. John Hoeven.
"Three of the community colleges were funded initially. We're the only one that's still funded at the community college level," Gunderson said. "And we were funded twice, which was not done at any of the other institutions."
Initially a research program was launched exploring the fiscal and technical impacts of the use of precision ag technologies, which Gunderson said have become more pronounced over the years.
"They'd been in use down here in the corn belt and in the Red River Valley amongst potato and sugar beet growers, but had never been used, for the most part, out here in the High Plains," Gunderson said. "My proposal was very simple - give us a chance to assess these technologies and if they work, I'll do two things for the state of North Dakota."
The first was to produce jobs, which Gunderson said has happened repeatedly.
"We can't claim all of them, but my goodness, just in the ag equipment industry alone, if you were to look on their website you'd see 228 positions listed this morning (Tuesday) for precision ag technologists. Well that was unheard of six years ago," Gunderson said. "So the level of adoption of the technologies has really accelerated as producers have made the discovery for their own operations that indeed these technologies do work."
The second thing Gunderson promised was to provide an entrepreneurial platform for people who wanted to develop new technologies with the ag center.
"That's why we embarked on the slurry manure tool initiative, because one of the things that was obvious to us was we could address synthetic fertilizer, which is in either urea powder form or anhydrous ammonia gaseous form," Gunderson said. "But what about all of our livestock producers, whether they've got turkeys or pheasants or dairy or swine or beef - more beef than anything else. What precision technologies would work, because they're using manure as their fertilizer product?"
To help address this need, Gunderson has designed a slurry manure injection tool that should be completed later this winter and be ready for trials in the spring. If all goes well, it could give producers a new and innovative tool to spread their manure fertilizer in a much more precise manner, similar to what is used for synthetic fertilizers.
The two most recent initiatives of the ag center are the training grants. For the $288,600 state grant, they proposed to bring agricultural equipment dealership employees and agricultural co-op employees to sites where they would receive specialized training in precision ag technologies.
Gunderson said they also knew, based on their experience with answer farms, that they first had to get the employees to a basic level of computer literacy. Answer farms are owned by local producers and have three-year agreements with the ag center to devote some acreage for research and educational purposes.
"It's been fascinating to note how many technicians really have never done much with this," Gunderson said, shaking the computer mouse on his desk. "And if they haven't done this they can't create prescription maps. If they can't create prescription maps, they are somewhat limited when conceptualizing with a producer why something isn't working the way it should be working."
In addition to computer information technology training, the program will also offer specialized direct current electrical training, as well as customer service training.
The customer service training is being offered because of situations that were repeatedly observed on various answer farms. Gunderson said when equipment breaks down, producers get anxious because a deadline is always looming. Often the dealerships don't have enough staff to get on site right away, so a producer can wait many hours before a technician finally arrives to fix a malfunctioning piece of equipment.
"By then, the producer is not only irritated, he's normally animated. And now you're stuck with the situation of how do you handle this customer? How do you deal with this customer in a helpful manner?" Gunderson said. "Because the last things equipment dealerships and co-ops want to do is lose a customer."
The $2.99 million federal grant has an adjacent but complementary focus, which is on returning veterans and workers who have lost their jobs due to competition from foreign trade. Gunderson said veterans generally already have a good understanding of technology such as GPS because it is often used in military equipment like Humvees and tanks.
"Some of them are keenly interested in either returning to a production role in agriculture or returning into a technician role with production ag," Gunderson said. "It's amazing, we've got a large number of vets that are coming into our state looking for training opportunities and employment, and they weren't raised in our state. But they're heard of the economic opportunity here, so that's what they're going after."
Gunderson said examples of people who lost their jobs due to foreign trade would be employees at Bobcat in Bismarck who were laid off when their jobs were moved to South Korea.
The proposal for the federal grant was to provide about a year of training for those workers so they could take positions in the precision ag industry.
To do this a sort of educational boot camp will be developed to offer workers all the training resources they need.
Three modes of training will be used, the first of which is direct current course work, which will take place on campus. Gunderson said technicians often have difficulty servicing DC equipment because of its sophistication and the fact that it usually has to be fixed out in the field, where conditions can be less than ideal, because that's where the equipment has broken down.
In addition to a DC lab on campus, Gunderson said they are also looking at outfitting a mobile lab in a semitrailer or fifth-wheel to bring the training on the road to dealers or local communities. This would be the second mode, and Gunderson said they have already received a lot of interest in the mobile lab from both inside and outside of North Dakota even though it's not even close to being operational yet.
The third mode is online work, which will require teaching students to use the online tools themselves in addition to the regular course work.
Rollout for the federal grant will begin next August with the initial boot camp activity. Funding for this grant ends after three years, after which Gunderson expects the program to be sustainable on its own through course work fees.
As for the state grant, it begins rolling out next spring, with funding set to last for two years. After that, Gunderson said the program will be handed off to the Workforce Training departments of any interested community colleges so it can be sustained into the future, as well.
"It will be our pleasure to do the design and development work, and then other folks can take it," Gunderson said.