New PCC Ag Program to Support Local Farmers, Ranchers

You’d expect a community college agricultural program to offer classes like introduction to livestock or soil management. But drone certification, mycology or business management? You’re watching the Local News Network, brought to you by Cortez airport and Boutique Air. I’m Wendy Graham Settle. The growing movement to build local farm to market food systems has created a demand for more post-secondary education and professional development in agriculture. And Pueblo Community College Southwest has responded to the demand with a new local ag program that will launch in fall 2021. Heather Houk, an agroecologist who will administer the program says the face of agriculture is changing as drought, climate change, and the pandemic have highlighted the growth of food deserts and food insecurity in the nation.

So you are seeing in the last… What was it? 20, 30 years, a movement of younger adults coming in and saying, I want to regenerate land. I want to create a sustainable food source for my community. And so nationally that’s growing. You see it in farmer’s markets where at one point, I think it was 25 years ago we had roughly 3000 farmer’s markets nationally and that was a lot. It’s over 7,000 now. So it’s a growing movement.

50 years ago, the number of local family farms started to decline as large corporations purchased farmland to grow and distribute food on an industrialized scale. Mega-sized grocery chains took over mom-and-pop shops and establish themselves in large economically profitable population centers, creating food deserts, not only in urban areas, but in rural areas as well. While industrialized food production and distribution increased food supply, it also created significant environmental impacts from pesticides, herbicides, fossil fuels and deforestation. Houk said the industry pendulum is swinging back to local environmentally sustainable food production as a new generation of farmers seek to eliminate food deserts and food insecurity in their communities. In the process, they realize they lack the skills they need to be successful.

So many young people will get into farming with an altruistic idea of like, I want to save the world, and that’s a great starting point. But then the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and it’s hard, it is a business, and a lot of people are like, I’m really good at one aspect of it. Maybe I grow the best lettuce but I don’t actually understand how to write a business plan. Or I have run businesses, so I understand how the financial side of running a business but I don’t understand how to set up irrigation. So there’s often these disconnects.

Houk recently completed a survey of new and longtime farmers in Southwest Colorado to determine what types of training they wanted or needed. Responses called for teaching basic skills like driving a tractor or welding broken implements to more complex technological skills like designing irrigation systems or sustainable methods of regenerating soil productivity.

Greenhouse management. That’s a big one for us. Drone technology is becoming more and more popular and more useful. For farmers that have thousands of acres you can’t survey all of your center pivots and make sure that they’re working optimally, but we can’t afford to waste our water so a drone could do that and overview it and see what’s going on. So we’re setting up a drone program now to be able to offer, hopefully in the next year or two, where people can get certified through the FAA as a drone operator. And that’s a career path.

Houk said the college plans to work with area high school ag programs to develop concurrent classes so that ag students can earn both high school and college credits. As the program matures, students will be able to obtain an associate’s degree which can be applied towards a bachelor’s and even a master’s degree in fields related to agriculture. She also intends to work with the Colorado extension service, The Old Fort Farm in Hesperus and other agencies to provide local workshops and certification programs for area farmers, and to create internship programs with area producers. To learn more about the new agricultural program at Pueblo Community College Southwest, visit pueblocc.edu/southwest. Thanks for watching this edition of the Local News Network, serving Montezuma, San Miguel and La Plata counties in Southwest Colorado and San Juan county in Northwest New Mexico. I’m Wendy Graham Settle.

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