@griTech: Polk State College has a plan for tomorrow’s farming industry

Florida farmers will have much needed help soon with complex government regulations and technological equipment.  Lakeland’s Polk State College previously operated as a community college offering two-year degree programs until two years ago. At that time, it began offering four-year degrees in a move to ease the load on existing four-year state institutions.  The college is currently developing a new agricultural instruction program to aid farmers and others interested in agricultural careers.
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“We’re building it because they’re telling us this is what they need,” acknowledges Tom Grothouse, project manager for the college’s new Agri Business/Technology Institute.  The institute may include a mobile classroom that will – literally – meet farmers where they are.  Vic Story, a Lake Wales citrus grower who heads The Story Companies, has made his interest in mobile classes known.  He admits it would be easier to get participation when the classes are at the farm at 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m.  “Everybody’s life is more complicated than it used to be,” Story continues, “and farming is no exception.”
Story is a member of the board of directors for Florida Citrus Mutual, a citrus growers’ organization in Lakeland, and the governor-appointed Florida Citrus Commission, which oversees advertising for the state’s citrus industry. So it comes as no surprise that he participated in preliminary meetings on the new institute.
Driving a tractor is no longer like driving a car because of navigational systems, Grothouse points out. Farmers also would be able to learn about how to monitor pesticides and the soil.  “We will always need food. We will always need what the agricultural community produces,” Grothouse states. “We feel we can play a key role in helping the agricultural community.”
Initially the program will focus on three key areas: Homeland Security, Agricultural Safety, and Water Management. It could include safe hiring practices, as well as how to understand the psychology behind terrorism.  Later, the institute is expected to expand into pesticide training, crop hazards like cancer, and crop advisory issues.  “Our goal is not to develop degreed people.  Our objective is to help train [. . .] the current or wannabe workforce within the agriculture business community,” summarizes Grothouse.
Instruction will be provided by a number of experts, including government officials and industry representatives. Their expertise will help farmers make sense of government permitting, provide training and certification for those who don’t have money to pursue a four-year agricultural degree, help those with an agricultural degree continue their education in specific areas, and in general, deal with challenges posed by regulations they don’t know about.
“You almost have to get a permit for everything you do,” notes David Royal, vice president of land management at Clear Springs Farms in Bartow.  Royal grows strawberries, blueberries, watermelons, and grape tomatoes, as well as raises cattle. Clear Farms also runs its own packing house.  “Ag[riculture] is what has carried the state of Florida for years,” Royal suggests. “So we better prepare people to keep doing what they are doing.”
This institute, which is part of the Polk State College’s Corporate College, is to be funded through corporate contributors and grants, Grothouse reports.  The program is expected to act as a conduit for the information supplied by outside experts.  Class costs hopefully will be minimal because of the grants, he adds.  A detailed curriculum is not yet available. Courses, which do not necessarily have to involve credit hours, could start later in July.  Work on the Agri Business/Technology Institute has been underway for about six months.  The programs will target farming, ranging, and nursery growing sectors of the economy.
Grothouse proposes that the institute could partner with the public school system to promote agricultural careers among high school students. Although, he believes, very few currently consider it because it’s not perceived as glamorous.  According to the Florida Agriculture Commission, the state’s agriculture has an economic impact of more than $100 billion each year, so the efforts being made by the institute to support this cornerstone industry is a colossul endeavor that will ultimately help bring public awareness and produce the agriculture professionals of tomorrow.

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