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Dr. Xin (Rex) Sun recently proposed a question to students in his precision agriculture class at North Dakota State University.

“Why did you choose this class?” Sun asked. The response: “I am the next generation on my farm. I want to learn this technology, so I can do something beneficial with it on my farm.”

The next generation of farmers is looking to technology for answers to modern problems in agriculture, and NDSU is getting ahead of the curve. The school recently announced a new precision agriculture major in its College of Agriculture, Food Systems and Natural Resources.

“In the big picture — with all of the challenges in farming right now — we need technology to help farmers with better quality and better yields,” he said. “Right now, all of the big corporations like John Deere and even Microsoft and Google really want to get involved. There are so many eager to collaborate with us.”

Sun spoke as part of a panel at the eighth annual Precision Ag Action Summit at Jan. 21-22 at the North Dakota Farmers Union Conference Center in Jamestown. The panel was titled, “Growing Talent: Universities and students that are driving the industry.” Sun took in both days of the conference.

“It’s awesome — this conference really gives a great platform for academia,” he said. “It really creates an opportunity for professors and students to get connected to the industry and farmers as well. I learned a lot from actual growers that I can take back to my classroom.”

Sun figures to stay busy with the new major at NDSU, as seven students have already signed up for it. According to NDSU’s description, the major will “teach students how to manage, analyze and use large amounts of digital data to increase production, profit and better protect the environment.”

One of the classes as part of the major is Geographic Information Systems, which is mapping and can “really help farmers locate soil types and plant health information.” Remote sensing technology and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are also popular aspects of precision agriculture. Sun said he also sees robotics, specifically autonomous vehicles and equipment as being a big part of the future. Other classes include big data management and electronic systems, and each student will have a capstone project and be required to take an internship in the industry.

“Each class has a lab, and we’ll give students hands-on experience and ask them to collect real data from a farm using precision ag technology,” he said. “We’ll make sure they have enough experience.”

Chris Duchsherer, an ag instructor at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, said he asks students to consider looking far into the future at what agriculture might look like in 20 to 50 years. 

“What’s coming down the road?” he said. “These are the things they’ll have to deal with in their careers.”

NDSCS offers precision ag classes as part of its agricultural program, as does Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. Bismarck State College also features precision ag in its agriculture curriculum. NDSCS and Lake Region, in particular, are working with NDSU on a “two-plus-two” option in which students would start a major in precision ag at those schools before transferring to NDSU for their final two years.

“We’ll probably get that up and running later this year,” Duchsherer said. “If students know they’ll want to transfer, we can easily get them done within four years.”

According to NDSU, the college has an agreement in place with Microsoft in which the tech giant will help “guide the curriculum so instructors will be on the cutting edge of the latest technological advances.” It’s the wave of the future, and Sun said there’s no getting around it.

“Nobody can stop it,” Sun said. “If you don’t like it, that’s OK, but somebody else will continue it.”

– Chris Aarhus, NDFU