When Blue Mountain Community College marked its 50th anniversary last year, it not only celebrated its first 50 years of existence, it also used the occasion to look ahead to the next 50 years.
A blue ribbon panel was formed and tasked with casting their collective eye to the future and anticipating the types of jobs that would be in demand and the training students would need to fill those jobs.
Knowing that agriculture is the engine that drives the local economy, the panel created a vision in which BMCC would serve as the training ground for a new generation of skilled workers who could go straight from the classroom and onto the farm and succeed in the kind of high-tech jobs that modern agriculture depends upon.
To provide the necessary training, the panel came up with three training centers the college would need to prepare students for the modern agriculture age: a Center for Sustained Precision Irrigated Agriculture in Hermiston, an Applied Animal Science Center in Pendleton, and an Industrial Processes Workforce & STEM Training Center in Boardman.
But how would the college pay for these centers and the programs that would be taught in them without raising taxes? Timing was on BMCC’s side. A capital improvements bond, passed in 1999, is due to expire in 2014. Taxpayers have been paying off that bond at the cost of 31 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value since 1999. If a bond renewal measure was put on the ballots in November – and voters approved it – taxpayers could help fund the three new centers without paying any additional taxes but, instead, continue paying the same 31 cents per $1,000 for the next 15 years.
And so on Nov. 5, voters will be asked to renew the 1999 capital improvements bond to help fund the $28.1 million project.
So what, exactly, will taxpayers be getting for their money? Let’s take a closer look:
Center for Sustained Precision Irrigated Agriculture
Precision irrigated agriculture uses real-time micro-sensor technologies to measure critical data such as soil moisture, nutrient content, temperature and more. Using geographic information system and global position system technologies, irrigators can precisely apply water, fertilizer and pesticides to their crops and maximize yields and quality. This means individual plants can receive the exact amount of water and chemicals it needs to thrive. This is critical to irrigators seeking to use their resources as efficiently as possible. Instead of blanketing an entire crop with the same amount of water, they can now apply less water to some plants and more to others, depending upon their individual needs.
Fred Ziari, owner of IRZ Consulting based in Hermiston, said this technology is being used today on fields throughout Eastern Oregon, but growers are having a difficult time finding employees with the skills needed to use it. That’s where the Hermiston center would come into play.
“This area is a leader in how to use water more efficiently than anyplace else on the planet,” he said. “Precision irrigation is the future. We need to train people who can do the work needed and we don’t have enough people.”
Ziari said paying for the three new BMCC centers would be a wise investment in the future. While other sectors of the economy have struggled in the past five years, agriculture continues to grow. In Eastern Oregon alone, agriculture has generated $1.8 billion (that’s billion – with a B).
Once constructed, the Hermiston building would include a multi-purpose instructional bay containing a center pivot section and control panel; pumps, piping and manifolds; spaces to design, install and test wireless communication components; and room to design and install remote sensing devices. The center would also feature a remote sensing and wireless technology lab, a soil science lab, conventional classroom as well as administration and office spaces
If approved by voters, the Center for Sustained Precision Irrigated Agriculture would offer an engineering degree in precision irrigated agriculture with areas of concentration in remote sensor systems management, ground water recharge and management, and wireless broadband technologies. The center would also provide an agriculture business degree as well as industry-specific technical certificates. Students trained in precision irrigated agriculture can step into jobs that pay between $45,000 and $65,000 a year.
In short, it would serve as a workforce development center for regional farms and the agri-business support industry by providing family-wage jobs for local students.
Industrial Processes Workforce & STEM Training Center
The Boardman center will train students to fill the new, high-tech jobs being created in the food processing and computer server farm industries. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the food processing industry is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors. Like everything else, the industry is facing a couple of trends that is creating a need for more highly-educated employees. The first trend is a rapidly aging workforce. As baby boomers begin to retire, there is a growing shortage of workers to fill the jobs. The other trend is the new jobs are relying more and more on new technology.
The Boardman center would be designed to train students to fill those jobs.
Computer server farms are a growing industry in Eastern Oregon and require technically proficient employees. With the training provided by the Boardman center, students with server farm technician skills can earn more than $50,000 per year.
The center, which would be built near the new SAGE Center, would provide students with a mechatronics degree with certificates in food processing technologies among others, and a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Studies degree as well as dual credit opportunities for high school students.
Applied Animal Science Center
The Pendleton center will train students for in-demand careers in the livestock industry. It would provide new and enhanced academic options including a large animal veterinary tech/assistant program; equestrian programs; a farrier program; an enhanced feedlot and dairy management program; and swine, sheep and goat management programs.
The center would provide instruction on current best practices on animal husbandry, nutrition, animal health care, reproductive management, safety and environmental controls. The center would also provide for an all-weather practice facility for the BMCC rodeo team, a competition arena, and would allow BMCC to host national livestock judging competitions.
“This will allow us to be a national leader in livestock judging,” said Casey Beard, director of grants for BMCC. It would also enable the college to host 4-H and FFA events, dog shows, and provide a place for the community to ride horses.
Beard said the three centers were designed to provide the degrees and training opportunities specific to the region’s workforce needs.
“We’re looking at how we can deliver education to make it more responsive to the community,” he said.
The bond renewal measure goes before votes on Nov. 5. For more information, take a look at a BMCC video that provides an overview of the three centers.