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May 15, 2012
It’s common knowledge that agriculture is an important part of South Carolina’s heritage. Today, it’s more important than ever.
According to the South Carolina department of agriculture, farming generates over two billion dollars a year at the farm level, but the impact on the state’s economy goes far beyond the farm gate. Agriculture has a direct and indirect economic impact of $33.9 billion a year, provides $7.5 billion in labor income and creates and supports almost 200,000 jobs across the state.
Over the past few years, many of the counties within Piedmont Technical College’s seven county service area have seen dramatic growth in agriculture-based businesses—from the expansion of Louis Rich, to new businesses like SPF. This growth, in a region that’s already rich with agribusiness, led PTC to launch a Diversified Agriculture program in the Fall of 2009 to support the industry’s continuing growth.
The Saluda Center was chosen to house the new program because of Saluda County’s rich agricultural history, and the number of working farms in the surrounding area.
For Joshua Nicholson, that made the new program a perfect fit.
“Originally, I was enrolled at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia, which I loved,” he says. “But when I found out that Piedmont Technical College was offering an Ag program in my hometown, I was excited, because one of the disadvantages of being out of state is being away from your family, so I decided to come back here to Piedmont Tech to finish my program.”
"This program is ideal for people who want to make working with the land their livelihood and their life’s work. We give them an opportunity to stay in the area while they learn about how technology has changed modern agriculture."
Nicholson’s ultimate goal is to use the hands-on training he’s getting at Piedmont Tech in combination with a bachelor’s degree in English or marketing to work as a Public Relations representative for an agricultural company.
Melvin McClellion, a student from Hickory Tavern, saw the program as a logical next step to build on the interest he’s had in agriculture since his childhood. “I was in FFA for four years, and I’ve been in 4H for most of my life. I took all the agriculture classes that Laurens High School had to offer,” he says. After completing the program at Piedmont Tech, he’s planning to transfer to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College to major in Fish and Wildlife Biology.
Although their goals are different, they have one thing in common: a love for agriculture, and a desire to stay in the field.
Hugh Bland, the instructor for the Diversified Agriculture program and a well-known face throughout South Carolina’s agriculture education community, knows from experience that these kinds of students are exactly the ones that can benefit most from the PTC agriculture program.
“We try to bring students in who feel like they’re a part of the earth,” says Bland, “the kind of people who want to make working with the land their livelihood and their life’s work. This program gives them an opportunity to stay in the area while they learn about how technology has changed modern agriculture.”
He sees several distinct advantages for students who choose to begin at Piedmont Tech.
Bland thinks it’s critical for students to get direct experience with what’s going on in the modern farming community. “I want them to see it. To handle it. To touch it,” he says.
This direct experience is important because of the dramatic changes in agriculture over the past few decades. PTC’s Diversified Agriculture program devotes a significant portion of time to giving students a well-rounded view of how modern, precision farms work. Bland regularly invites some of the younger crop of farmers who are involved in production agriculture to speak to his classes about the influence of computers and information technology.
Students also spend a large part of their time on working farms. “You can’t stay in the classroom to fully understand the dynamics of the agriculture industry today,” says Bland.
For those who are interested in a specific facet of agriculture, the program can be tailored to meet the needs of individuals. “We’re small enough to structure the program around each student’s goals to make sure they’re getting the training they’ll need for whatever direction they’d like to move in,” Bland says.
The program consists of a Diversified Agriculture associate degree and a Basic Agriculture certificate. The certificate can be finished in about a year. Bland says the certificate is enough to get an entry-level job in any area of agriculture, but that he encourages students to go beyond the certificate level.
The second year course provides a more immersive experience. During the summer of the second year, students participate in an internship on a working farm or in an agricultural business. Because of the additional depth in this second year, the college prefers students to complete the entire two-year program.
Although students can finish in two-years with an in-depth understanding of agriculture, Bland pushes all of his students to achieve at the highest levels they can.
Because PTC has a wide variety of courses approved to transfer to any state college or university in South Carolina, students have the option to transfer after they receive their associate degree. For students interested in agriculture, this is the ideal path to a bachelor’s degree. They graduate from PTC with real-world experience in production agriculture and enter a four-year institution after saving thousands in tuition and fees.
Piedmont Tech has the lowest tuition rate of any institution within its service area and offers lots of financial aid options to help students lower the cost of attendance. And in general, South Carolina’s technical colleges have a much lower cost of attendance than their four-year counterparts.
PTC is working very hard to make additional transfer options available to students, particularly with Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia, as well as Clemson University here in South Carolina.
For Bland, who’s spent the past 33 years of his life teaching agriculture to high school students in Edgefield and Aiken counties, the job is ultimately all about seeing his students succeed.
“When a student contacts me, I want to work to get them where they want to go,” Bland says, “What we do in this program is to take small family farm students who love it and to give them the skills they’ll need to continue in the field and succeed in the modern marketplace.”