COLUMBUS — Darrin Dubas took a seat behind the steering wheel.

He watched the computer monitor in front of him while maneuvering a combine through a field of crops. It was all part of a simulation farming game students like Dubas are using to learn about precision agriculture at Central Community College-Columbus.

That learning takes place at the Nebraska Precision Ag Center for Excellence (N-PACE), which was added to the campus in 2015 and hosted an open house last week.

Established through a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor that funded centers at both the Columbus and Hastings campuses, the program gives students the opportunity to major in precision agriculture.

“Central is the only school in Nebraska that offers a degree program in precision agriculture. Other programs offer a certificate, but nothing that is a degree,” said Amy Novak, N-PACE project director.

She said CCC sees a growing trend in precision agriculture, which incorporates technology into farming.

The four-year grant was awarded in 2014 and a curriculum was developed and implemented at the college two years ago. Classes include GPS data collection, water management, GIS mapping, data management and precision ag equipment and software.

An introduction course touches on various parts of precision ag.

Technology has become a big part of farming.

“One thing that’s changed today versus 20 years ago is we do a lot of farming on a computer,” said ag instructor Chase Janssen.

He said computers are used to operate drones and autonomous tractors, as well as collect data to make the best decisions for planting, fertilizer application and tillage.

Precision agriculture tools have been available for 15-20 years and almost every producer has some type of precision equipment on their farm. Janssen said the most innovative farmers use drones, self-driving tractors and computer systems.

There has been a mix of students taking courses in the precision ag program. Some work in the industry, like seed dealers who bring what they learn back to their business. Others are traditional students fresh out of high school who use the knowledge gained in the classroom on the family farm.

“These younger farmers are taking these ideas back to dad and grandpa, who want to try (precision ag) but don’t know a lot about it. So they send the kids to school to learn something about it and bring it back to them,” Janssen said.

Classes in the program are offered at the Columbus and Hastings campuses, as well as online. The Columbus center, located in the North Education Building, is equipped with farming simulators and drones.

Jerry Dunn, N-PACE student success coach and recruiter, said not all of those enrolling in the classes have farming experience. Providing opportunities for those students is another benefit of the program.

“What we try to tell our kids is you don’t have to come from a farming background and you don’t have to be male to get into this kind of an industry and to get jobs,” he said.

Janssen said some of those students experience a side of agriculture they didn't know exists.

“We get a lot of students who have no background in ag. They come into class not knowing a whole lot and it really opens their eyes. They come take a couple classes and next thing you know they are enrolled in a major,” he said.

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