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June 6, 2018
Summer is celebrated for many things, among them the amazingly plump and colorful fruits and vegetables that grace our tables this time of year. Not everyone is aware of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes before that fresh abundance is delivered to grocery stores and farmers markets. In celebration of June as National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month, Piedmont Technical College (PTC) gives a nod to those who devote their life’s work to agriculture. For those who aspire to work in agriculture or horticulture, the PTC School of Agriculture has programs to support that goal.
During a time when technology drives our economy, you may be surprised to learn that one of South Carolina’s oldest industries – agribusiness – is also one of its fastest-growing. And you also might be surprised at the number of farmers who drive their tractors with a laptop by their side.
“Precision agriculture is really getting to be big,” says Roger Estridge, diversified agriculture instructor at PTC. “Think about how much we use smartphones and computers.”
South Carolina agribusiness – farming, forestry, horticulture and related businesses – has grown by 23 percent over the past decade, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. Its annual statewide economic impact is estimated at more than $41 million, and it accounts for approximately 98,000 direct jobs, including approximately 2,000 created in 2017.
“Sometimes we kind of take that for granted,” says Rusty Denning, interim dean for engineering and industrial technologies at Piedmont Tech. “You see the fields, but you don’t see the technology and businesses behind them.”
The Piedmont Technical College School of Agriculture offers certificate and associate degree programs in diversified agriculture and horticulture. The certificate and degree programs in diversified agriculture are based at the Saluda County Campus, while the horticulture landscape management certificate and horticulture technology degree are offered in Greenwood. All feature hybrid courses, where students view lectures online but come to campus for labs.
The basic diversified agriculture certificate provides students with technical knowledge of everything from animal science to welding.
“It can help you get any kind of entry-level job,” Estridge says.
It can also lead to the associate degree program, which, in turn, can lead to the job market or a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college.
The horticulture landscape management certificate takes two semesters to complete, while the associate degree takes five.
Horticulture associate degree graduates can earn $25,000-$35,000 per year right out of school, according to Daniel Greenwell, PTC horticulture program director. Nationally, the median annual salary for an agricultural worker is $22,540, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In South Carolina, the median annual salary for farmworkers or laborers is $26,050, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, while supervisors can earn more than twice that amount.
“A turfgrass superintendent’s job can pay six figures,” says Greenwell.
The carefully landscaped grounds at Wyatt Farms in Greenwood include a retail garden shop and nursery, an art studio, and a landscape design and installation firm, all surrounded by 30 acres of forest.
“We’re going through a hiring phase right now,” says Wyatt Thompson, who owns the business with his wife, Bess. “The past four to five years have seen a lot of growth as far as our industry and our company.”
“We want to bring on industrious and hard-working people,” Thompson says. The Piedmont Tech students he’s interacted with “are seeking a lot of knowledge and trying to soak it up. It’s good to see that hunger.”
Technical knowledge has become a big part of agribusiness. Estridge describes a farm with high-tech chores such as flying a drone across distant fields to gather data.
“You’ve got to have people who are able to read all of that,” he says. And once the data is crunched, farmers use smartphone apps to regulate things such as fertilizer and irrigation.
Piedmont Tech taps into the latest trends by maintaining advisory boards comprised of South Carolina agribusiness leaders for both agriculture and horticulture.
“Our students in agriculture and horticulture can feel comfortable knowing they’ll be up to date on the knowledge and skills that local employers are looking for,” Denning says.