Business center targets farmers Technology classes that boost agriculture receive state grant

October 29, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

A transplanted suburbanite could find out how to start growing a specialty crop on a few acres. A fifth-generation farmer could employ the latest software to decide how much wheat to plant this fall.

Both will find high-tech help at the year-old Advanced Technology Center for Agriculture and Business at Carroll Community College, which recently received $272,000 to pay for the center's second year.

In the first year of the program, 353 people from 81 farms or businesses used the center for classes ranging from a free introduction to the Internet to a $50 class on using spreadsheets to analyze farm economics.

On the horizon: a class on how people who own a small property can break into farming, with specialty agriculture niches that don't require acres of crops. Another class will be offered on how ZTC to turn a backyard flock of chickens, raised as a hobby, into a source of income. Another would inform farmers about new export markets.

"We hope to do a lot more customized training on a business-by-business level," said Bruce Wahlgren, director of the center.

For example, Myron Wilhide of Detour, president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, wants to explore using the center for a leadership training course for dairy farmers. Because the center has access to the college's two-way video and satellite hookup, courses can have speakers and teachers from anywhere in the world.

"We would meet at their facilities," Wilhide said. "Maybe you could have a speaker from Cornell [University] and you might beam something in to be a part of it."

The state has provided money over the past three years for nine such advanced technology centers in community colleges across the state, each specializing in an area that would boost economic development.

Carroll Community College conceived a center that would support agriculture, working with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service and community colleges in Howard, Montgomery and Washington counties.

The centers are sponsored by the state as an economic development tool linking community colleges with business -- farms, in this case, are seen as businesses that need training and networking, as do other commercial enterprises.

Wahlgren said farmers, because of their uncompromisingly seasonal work, need a training center that can accommodate their hours. Farmers can take online courses late in the evening, after a day of harvest and a late supper.

"If there was ever an industry made for online courses, it's farming," Wahlgren said. "It's a whole lot easier for someone to sit down at the computer at 11 o'clock at night than to attend a 12-hour course that runs over six evenings."

The center has served not just to teach farmers to use technology, but also to bring classes from other parts of the state or country to Carroll County through satellite hookups and two-way video. Instead of driving hundreds of miles to take a class in the Midwest, a farmer can drive to Carroll Community College and sit in a room equipped with a video monitor and camera, and be in a virtual classroom.

A class on breaking into agriculture will be taught at Montgomery Community College at the same time as at Carroll. Students at both schools will be linked electronically through video.

"It spreads the resources so much because you can have an expert in one part of the state, but be able to provide access to that expert all across the state," Wahlgren said.

The Carroll center is not a freestanding building but a coordination of services through the community college and extension agents. The training might be as likely to be delivered in the fields as in the classroom, said Karen Merkle, vice president at Carroll for extended learning.

Farmers often gain access to training through the extension service, historically an education and consulting resource. The extension service in Carroll has worked closely with the colleges to develop the center.

In other counties, the focus ranges from biotechnology to aquaculture to communications.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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