Technicians play major role in precision agriculture

Last month, I noted that operators of agricultural enterprises needed to concentrate on making decisions and avoid getting bogged down with a mountain load of data and the necessary analysis.


That is normal procedure in the business world. The chief executive officer and corporate management receive reports and data filtered through various levels of management to provide a distilled version, which provides clear choices on which to base a decision.


But if a grower is to rely on somebody else to do this analysis and interpretation of data, where are these people?


The question could apply to all types of precision technology. Who is the manager to rely on to troubleshoot a control device that is not working? Is the owner going to download imagery from a drone to process it?


As an instructor at West Hills College in California developing a precision agriculture curriculum, I see these as a perfect example of the relationship between decision makers and technicians, and the difference between a four-year and a two-year degree.


I am a proponent of technical or community colleges and two-year technical degrees.


I have bachelor and masters degrees in science, so I know the value of advanced degrees. But sometimes people tell me that a four-year degree is a requirement for everybody. I’ve talked to parents who are disappointed that their child wants to go to get only a technical education.


I have also seen enough TV shows that belittle community colleges so I feel the need to defend the value of a two-year degree.


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Not everyone needs a four-year degree and I believe that a two-year degree gives a person a practical entry into agriculture and technology. In comparing managerial and technician jobs, they must work together, but differ in their tasks and their knowledge and skills. 


Concerning the decision-making process, the manager must know what questions to ask. The technician needs to know the data and the analytical processes to answer the question. The technician needs to know enough about management and agronomy to understand the question. The manager needs to know enough about the technology to trust it.


I believe that this difference is reflected between four-year and two-year degrees. To me, it seems many four-year programs teach about the technology, while technical colleges teach the use and operation of the technology.


This is related to how these individuals will use the technology in the workforce.


I’m not going to address the specific course work at universities, but after teaching 30-plus years at community colleges, I can speak well on the skills gained by technical school graduates.


I have spent almost my entire teaching career at the community college level, maybe because no university would hire me, but more because I enjoy teaching these students who will become the boots on the ground for precision farming.


I’ve always thought that these students really drove the advancement of precision farming, providing the technology services that growers needed.


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That means repairing wiring harnesses that broke under continual use; using a field GPS data logger to collect soil or tissue samples; or interpolating, reclassifying, and calculating raster data to answer questions from the grower.


University graduates may work these jobs also, but they are more likely in management and professional positions. 


Universities may teach the breadth of technology, but are too busy teaching agronomic and professional skills to get the depth of technology that can be taught at community colleges.


When the auto guidance system stops working, the owner, agronomist, or manager’s time is too valuable for troubleshooting and fixing the problem.


That’s when the technician with a two-year degree with course work that concentrated on telemetry, setting up the RTK base station, and construction of wiring and connectors will check and repair the problem. 


When software, sensors, and various data loggers are creating layer upon layer of data, it will be the technician that has specific skills in data management, programming, and analysis that will provide the owners and managers with the interpretative maps that distill the data into useful information. 


As colleges such as West Hills College develop and expand the precision agriculture curriculum, technicians with these skills will assist owners, allowing the managers to manage and the growers to grow.


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When people see the continuum of educational opportunities from two-year to four-year and beyond, and they can see the value of technicians working with professionals, precision can happen.


Terry A. Brase is an agriculture consultant, precision agriculture educator and author. BrASE LLC. Contact him at precision.happens@producer.com