This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wilson Community College.

WILSON – An increase in computerized and automated farming has created a new salaried career opportunity for people who work on farms. After all, someone needs to know how to work and repair all the machines and be licensed to work with pesticides.

Agricultural technicians – or agri-technicians, as they’re called – can earn up to an annual salary of $40,000, which is above average in much of eastern North Carolina.

On a recent afternoon at Sharp Family Farms, mowers suspended from the ceiling of a greenhouse cut the small tobacco plants floating in their beds of water. No one was pushing or pulling the machines in this high-tech farming scene. Instead, a single person was operating them remotely.

“Cutting the plants now makes them stronger later,” said Pender Sharp, who owns the farm with his father and brother.

Sharp is one of the local farmers in North Carolina who saw the need for an agri-technician, saying that these specialized employees have been almost impossible to find.

“We still need physical labor, [but] what we’re seeking now is full-time persons who know today’s equipment and technology,” he said, noting that it’s not sustainable to use guest workers for these positions.

To meet this urgent community need, Wilson Community College offered the first Agritech program last fall. In one semester, students learn the basics of computers and Global Positioning Systems, pesticide application, how to operate forklifts and backhoes, and basic machinery repair.

At the end of the semester, they become a certified agri-technician. This single semester certificate program is one-of-a-kind.

“To our knowledge, there’s not another program like it,” said Norman Harrell, the Wilson County Cooperative Extension director who champions the program.

Other institutions offer four-year bachelor’s programs or two-year associate programs in agriculture.

“This is the only program that offers hands-on practical learning experience, plus on-the-job training to get a person immediately ready to go to work on a farm,” Harrell said.

Real world experience in job shadowing is 50 percent of the course.

“We’re working to recruit younger people to be more employable,” said Jane Elliott, WCC Workforce Development coordinator.

Wilson Community College Workforce Development Coordinator Jane Elliott

Wilson Community College Workforce Development Coordinator Jane Elliott

The program’s first semester attracted seven students. Six were immediately hired on farms. The course is a 96-hour, 16-week course and teaches skills that practically guarantee employment.

“The Agritech program was created to provide students with training to obtain employment in the agriculture industry and address the needs of local farmers by developing a pipeline of qualified individuals to work on area farms,” Elliott continued.

Today’s farm equipment is very technologically advanced. These expensive machines are equipped with GPS that provide farmers with a wealth of information that can increase their crop yields without any additional labor costs.

To repair these elaborate machines, it takes much more than a screwdriver, wrench and duct tape. This is where agri-technicians come in.

“Agri-technicians have what it takes to be attractive to employers in agri-businesses,” Harrell explained.

Businesses that provide services to farmers, such as equipment dealers, have expressed interest in Wilson’s Agritech program, and the certifications embedded in the program add value.

For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires any employer with 10 or more employees to have someone certified in forklift operation and in pesticide application. The Agritech program offers both certifications.

The complexity of today’s farming is exemplified in the garage of Sharp Farms. In it sits a tractor with an attached planter, waiting for the right time to plant soybeans.

The complex technology of the tractor is more than you’d expect from what you’d assume is simple farm equipment. Take the tractor’s console for instance, which has several screens that indicate what is going on with the planter and with the tractor. An operator can program the self-driving tractor for a particular field, and then monitor the process. For comfort, an ergonomic seat sits in an air-conditioned cab.

Back at the farm office, GPS tells farmers how much of the field has been planted and how much fuel the tractor is using.

Each planter funnel is connected to GPS and knows if it has been over an area before. When the tractor turns at the end of a row, the funnel knows it has been there before and withholds seed. This feature alone has saved the business plenty in seed costs, Sharp said. Farmers have truly come a long way from a horse and plow.

Sharp recalls when he and other local farmers first met with leadership from Wilson Community College.

Every farmer spoke about needing someone to operate and maintain complicated machinery. Several offered to help with fellowships and another said he’d hire everyone out of the class.

“As you can see, the demand is huge,” Sharp said.

The next class will be offered this fall on Fridays from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., beginning Aug. 24 and running through Dec. 7.

This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wilson Community College.