Space age technology is opening new opportunities in agriculture for students with a high tech bent.

And West Hills College at Coalinga is on the cutting edge of this emerging technology with a curriculum in precision agriculture.

“Farming is becoming more and more technical,” says Bruce Baker, a retired aerospace engineer who heads the program. “There is going to be an increasing need for people who can walk into a farm operation and know how to use this equipment and software to provide optimum results.”

Speaking at the Salinas Valley Farm Show, he said the school's crop science curriculum includes four semester courses in precision agriculture: Basic GPS, Advanced GPS, Mapping, and Software.

The school has established one of the first courses in irrigation technology and automated systems.

The West Hills precision agriculture program is made possible through a grant from the federal government and the state of California and, Baker says, scholarships and financial aid are available — “in fact, it's some of the most unused money in education right now. Add to that inexpensive tuition and housing, and it offers an outstanding opportunity.”

Engineering bent

Students with an inclination toward engineering are good candidates for precision agriculture, he notes. “With a mastery of this technology, their engineering skills will become even more valuable in agriculture.”

In addition to the on-campus courses, Baker says the school is also conducting outreach short course programs, taking the technology into the field in various communities. These courses consist of 30 percent lecture and the rest hands-on demonstrations.

Course topics include economic examples, GPS systems, field mapping/crop scouting, unit comparisons, geographic information systems (GIS), variable rate spray recommendations, SS toolbox, applications of precision agriculture, variable rate spraying, soil variation measurements, guidance, and inexpensive alternatives.

“We can help agriculturalists with the basic operation of these systems and the software — which is the key to using the technology to reduce costs and improve profitability,” Baker says. “They can gain knowledge of a broad spectrum of precision agriculture. Coupled with the hands-on use of a wide range of equipment, they will better be able to ask informed questions when purchasing precision ag equipment or services.

With mid-line systems starting at $5,000 and going upward, depending on capability, farmers need to carefully evaluate such purchases, Baker says. “They need to know the accuracy of the equipment and what it is capable of doing.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com