Like every other industry, agriculture is changing in the modern era, becoming less dependent on labor and more influenced by data, automation and robotics.
The Bedford County Technical Center is helping both existing farmers and students learn about the innovation that is making agriculture more efficient and productive.
BCTC’s administrator Mike O’Dellick said the Technical Center teaches two different courses in Agriscience and Biotechnology.
“Agriscience is our largest program with close to 40 students enrolled this year.It’s a lab-based comprehensive animal and plant science course using a hands-on approach,” he said.
The course prepares students to work in a variety of farming industry fields that can include marketing, merchandising and sales, education and communications, lab assistants, researchers, veterinarians, and even manufacturing and quality control.
The Biotechnology program also uses a hands-on approach in a laboratory and combines plant and animal breeding with the genetic engineering techniques used to develop and modify living organisms.
“Lampire Biological has been a very kind and generous key industry partner over the years, donating laboratory equipment for the program, supporting student needs and taking students on through our Cooperative Education program where senior students can get industry-based experience,” O’Dellick said.
Scott Myers, the instructor who teaches the Agriscience and Biotechnology courses, said agriculture is being influenced by a number of factors.
“We’re in a society now where farming practices are evolving and really changing,” he said. “We’ve gone from farmers having a large number of children to having very few, and a lot of those children don’t want to stick around on the farm when they graduate high school.”
Corporate operations like the Country View Family Farms near Everett, a subsidiary of the Clemens Food Group that raises swine, and employers like Lampire Biological are also requiring more specialized training for their employees.
“It takes a workforce skilled in various areas to support them, and that’s what we focus on here,” Myers said.
The one constant for both of those employers is their focus on animal husbandry.
“Even if my students don’t go to work for them, they usually have animals of their own at home or are involved in animal agriculture somewhere else,” he said. “They can gain valuable skills here either for a career or for their own personal interest.”
There are a number of reasons that technology is gaining ground in agriculture, Myers said, and the labor shortage is only part of the equation.
“Technology in general is expanding and changing rapidly now,” he said. “It’s encompassing agriculture with things like automatic milkers and feeding machines, and automated feed mills and processing plants.”
Looking beyond those changes, Myers said he foresees a need for employees skilled in this technology who can repair and service these systems as well.
“Even our field equipment and tractors now have GPS guided systems,” he said. “Nearly every sector of agriculture is affected by technology.”
Another change he’s noted over the past decade has been an increase in the number of females who are pursuing agricultural education.
“We’re definitely seeing more female students in the Future Farmers of America chapter I advise and it follows the national trend,” Myers said. “In the last couple of years membership has been roughly 60 percent female and 40 percent male, and in leadership positions it’s probably 90 percent female and 10 percent male. Our young women are a little more eager to get out and lead and take charge of activities and events.”
He has also noticed a larger percentage of female graduates entering the agriculture teaching field.
BCTC offers adult education programs through its partnership with the Allegany College of Maryland, O’Dellick said.
“Our most recent program was an Introduction to Beekeeping,” he explained. “Our enrollment took a big hit with COVID, but it is steadily coming back.”
The Technical Center also has articulation agreements with multiple colleges that allow BCTC’s high school students to earn college credits for their studies.
“Bedford County is steeped in agriculture and it’s a great place for anybody to raise a family,” he said. “There is huge community support in everything that’s done here, and the work ethic in the county is second to none, so it’s an attractive place for farming operations and other employers to locate.”
The area also offers a beautiful place to live with proximity to destinations like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and State College, added Myers. “The thing I strive to do is show my kids and my students what’s involved in agriculture and provide them with leadership opportunities and guidance on how to be a better person. This is a great place to do that.”