TRAINING IN THE FIELD

Columbus East High School senior Rhegan Keller wants to be a hog farmer. That is why she joined the Columbus Future Farmers of America at her high school.

Even though she daydreams about a owning a huge piece land …

Even though farming has been in her blood for more than a century …

Even though several of her mother’s relatives are already hog farmers …

Keller needs a range of basic skills to succeed as a modern farmer, skills she hopes to learn though her involvement in FFA.

But with Keller’s background, her dream is achievable, Ivy Tech agriculture chairman Matt John said.

Access to family farmland and jobs is a major help for students such as Keller.

Labor market forecasts show nearly 50,000 new agriculture jobs appearing in the United States every year for the foreseeable future, John said.

Computer impact

Technological changes have created opportunities for anyone interested in farming as a profession, he said.Nearly everything in agriculture today is controlled by computers.Plows are no longer simple pieces of metal dragged through the dirt. Soil scientists use iPads and complex farming programs to determine optimal planting conditions. Lasers measure each furrow down to a fraction of an inch, constantly making minuscule adjustments to the plow as it digs through the soil.

And as technologies grow in sophistication, more people are needed to operate and maintain each machine, John said.

“If one of my students tells me he is interested in becoming a farm mechanic, I could get him a full-time job within an hour,” John said.

John Miller, a Columbus North sophomore and FFA member, said this is welcome news.

Unlike Keller, Miller grew up in a suburban neighborhood. His mother is a psychologist, and his father is a pilot.

He has no background in the agriculture business.

“It’s (farming) just something I can see myself doing long term,” Miller said.

Programs such as FFA are starting to appeal to students such as Miller, said Allison Korb, club advisor and C4 agriculture instructor at Columbus East.

Changing technology and new, leaner business models make farming an appealing career choice, she said.

Miller is already toying with the idea of moving into an emerging area of farming. More farms today are devoting a portion of their property to specialized, non-traditional crops, he said.

Shades of yesteryear

Glick Farms co-owner Roger Glick of Hartsville heads the family’s core seed and row crop business, managing thousands of acres of corn and soybeans.This is farming as his generation — an older one — practiced it, he said.

Even with innovations and technology improving at a blinding rate, Glick said it is basically the same style of farming his father practiced nearly a century ago.

But, emerging from the shadow of the older generation is a younger wave of farmers who are working in a different, smarter way, Glick said.

He points to his nephew, who spent the past decade forming direct partnerships with local breweries and distilleries. Rather than focusing on mass quantities of the same traditional row crops each year, the younger Glick earmarks areas of his farm for specific specialty crops.

For example, Bear Wallow Distillery in Brown County contracts with Glick Farms for specific quantities of specially grown grains such as hops and bourbon corn.

Even as a high school student, Miller has been watching this segment of the market with interest.

Doing that is smart, John said.

After all, land and farming equipment are expensive. For aspiring farmers such as Miller, it is much easier to operate lean, specialty farms on smaller plots of land.

Both Keller and Miller have already taken practical steps toward a future in farming by joining FFA. Keller lives on a farm and recently raised 14 pigs for sale to the market. Miller spends much of his free time apprenticing and working with a local farmer.

These kinds of activities are vital to a future in the farm industry, but they are no longer enough, John said.

Future farmers need to continue their education, he said. As examples, he points to students in his own agriculture program at Ivy Tech, many of whom come from families with a strong tradition of farming.

Sam Lentz is one of those students. His family has been farming for more generations that he can recall. He’s managed to trace his agricultural roots to a farm started by his great-grandfather in the 1940s. He suspects many earlier members of his family spent time working with their hands in the dirt.

With this background, Lentz said he doesn’t worry about a job after college.

His father owns several thousand acres near Hope and, since childhood, Lentz has spent many seasons learning the trade of planting and harvesting rows of soybeans and corn. Like generations before him, he will become a partner and, eventually, own the family farm.

But even a student with Lentz’s background can’t avoid the future, John said.

Agriculture is big business, and every extra ounce of fertilizer and pesticide beyond what is needed is money modern farmers can’t afford to waste, he said.

If generational operations want to remain competitive, it is important to integrate new technologies into their operations, John said.

Lentz agrees, and he’s in school for that very reason.

Right now, he’s working with classmates on rebuilding a new seed planter as part of a machinery-repair class. Even this simple device, which drops seeds into plowed furrows, is a sea change for older farmers, John said.

It now incorporates simple computer controls which automatically detect areas already planted. If the farmer tries to spread seeds in an area already covered, the machine automatically closes all of its hoppers, preventing waste or overplanting.

Technology is not just affecting traditional farm machinery, Glick said. Computers now permeate every aspect of the industry.

Yields are tracked on iPads. Satellites monitor soil erosion and run-off into nearby streams. Accounting is now digital.

In a way, all of this new technology is an equalizer between established generational farmers and emerging, new aspirants in the field, John said.

In a group of 20, Britni McKee is the only woman and she is right there in the middle of it all — hands stained with black grease from ratcheting chains into place on the disassembled planter.

Unlike Lentz, however, McKee does not plan to work in cornfields or manage thousands of acres of crops.

She owns no land and none of her immediate family members are farmers. Her only childhood connection to farms is a horse she owns and rides. But even this animal isn’t in her daily care. She boards it at a friend’s house.

Lack of experience has not dampened her agricultural ambitions. Directly after graduating from Ivy Tech’s agriculture program, McKee plans to start a 15-acre horse farm and training school with 15 to 20 horses.

Eventually, McKee wants to operate a large-scale horse breeding operation similar to thoroughbred racing farms in northern Kentucky.

Diverse career options

Starting from scratch is unquestionably a hard road for students to take, John said. Students like McKee will need not only a background in animal care and breeding practices, but also bookkeeping, accounting, marketing and sales.“It’s about finding that niche,” he said.

For someone like McKee, that means finding creative ways to market her products and services. Successful farms increasingly market directly to customers, John said. As a result, these businesses need people familiar with both the intricacies of farm products and web design, advertising and social media.

Even if McKee can’t pursue her dream directly after college, these are emerging skills for many farmers, John said. Many older farmers lack these skills and actively seek graduates who are able to fill the marketing role within their operation, Glick said.

That should give students a sense of the wide-ranging options available in the growing agriculture labor market, John said.

Far from the image of farming as low-skill, entry-level work, modern farms are now recruiting people with a huge variety of skills ranging from traditional soil science to web development.

Anyone who wants to enter this field, with the right training, should have no difficulty finding a job, John said.

If you go

Columbus, Hauser FFA Week activities

Church with FFA: 11 a.m. Feb. 21, 11 a.m. at The Ridge, 2800 Bonnell Road.

Broken Bucket Basketball Tournament: Columbus vs. Hauser High School FFA, 6 p.m. Feb. 24 at Hauser High School.

Drive Your Truck and Tractor To School Day: Feb. 26, Columbus East and North High Schools

Columbus FFA annual Frank Burbrink Chili Supper: 5 p.m. March 4 at the Bartholomew County Fair Ground’s Family Arts Building.

Hauser FFA Spirit Breakfast: 6 to 9 a.m. Feb. 26 at the Hauser High School auditorium, 9273 State Road 9. Free for students wearing Hauser colorsl $5 per person for non-students. 

If you go

Ivy Tech agriculture open house

When: Noon to 6 p.m. March 2

Where: Ivy Tech Agriculture Building, 4475 Central Ave.

Who: Open only to high school students considering careers in agriculture and their parents.