When Jason French’s job with a cell phone carrier was outsourced to another country, he earned a grant to go back to school.
French began farming hops for beer production near Keenesburg as a hobby, but he decided to use the grant to learn more about agriculture through Aims Community College’s new program, based on the Fort Lupton campus.
“The Aims ag program was brand new, and I thought, well, it was meant to be,” he said.
This spring, French will be one of the program’s first three students to graduate.
In just more than a year, the program went from five students to 20 and from two classes to seven per semester — growth that French and others involved in the program are happy to see.
“I can tell you that I came in with an idea of ag, and (the program has) given me a solid foundation of skills, both of conventional-style farming, precision agriculture and organics,” French said. “It’s allowed me to tailor (my education) to really what I want.”
Last spring, Aims began offering transfer degrees to Colorado State University in soil and crop science, agriculture business and animal science. The program also offers two-year degrees in agribusiness, production agriculture and animal science, along with one-year certificates that include precision agriculture and agribusiness management.
Aileen Rickert Ehn, the program’s only full-time instructor who helped to design the degrees and advises students, said the program’s location in Weld County has been key in helping them build up from scratch.
With access to the state’s largest and most diverse agriculture communities, Ehn said students have been able to gain hands-on experience from locals. “It’s just amazing, the magnitude of what we can produce here in Weld County,” she said. “I love that we have this literally in our backyard. It opens the door to other opportunities for the students.”
Four part-time instructors with strong backgrounds in animal science, crop science, business and technology have signed on since last spring.
Zach Carpenter, who is set to graduate alongside French, said the faculty members played a big role in his decision to attend.
“They just have a great variety of teachers with a lot of different experience, and every one of them is really good at what they do,” said Carpenter, who grew interested in agriculture after working for his father’s fertilizer business in Fort Morgan. He is pursuing a degree in agribusiness.
Ehn said on top of the members of the community who have signed on to teach or who have volunteered to be guest speakers, Weld’s agriculture industry has shown its support for the program financially, as well.
“I get calls almost weekly from people wanting to donate scholarships,” she said. “They’re excited to see what we’re doing.”
Aims is the only program in the state to offer certificates in precision agriculture and all students are required to gain experience in it, Ehn said.
She said even those focused on agribusiness take precision ag classes in order to gain an understanding for why farmers, ranchers and livestock owners need technology.
“I don’t see a part of our industry that does not have some type of technology or precision agriculture,” Ehn said.
French and Carpenter are both working in internships with precision agriculture companies. French is working with Aurora-based Wagner Equipment Co., and Carpenter is working with Broomfield-based Trimble Navigation’s agriculture division.
Both said they’re gaining invaluable experience.
“They kind of point me in the right direction and say, ‘Go do it. If you make mistakes, we’ll fix it,’” said French, who is planning to have his crop production degree with a certificate in precision ag come May.
French said he hopes to continue into a career in precision ag and use his crop-production skills to continue working on his farm, which he hopes to expand to 20 acres by this fall.
Carpenter said he was studying business at the University of Colorado but that wasn’t the perfect fit for him.
He said his experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, have made him even more sure he’s in the right industry now.
“I want to work in probably the most important industry of all, which is the industry that feeds people,” Carpenter said. “It’s a great thing being able to look at a crop over an entire season and know that you had a hand in helping that field grow and helping that farmer be successful.”
Ehn said she’s been very pleased with how far the program has come thus far, and she’s looking forward to helping more students find their way into agriculture.
“Our program is really able to bring students to the table to help them understand ag as an industry and to help them help the farmer farm better, and to be the people who help bring more food to the table,” she said. “If we can help students be better at their jobs, then that’s our ultimate success.”