UMPI agriculture students benefit from knowledge of local farming business experts

3 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Students in UMPI’s agricultural science and agribusiness program are learning from real-life experts just how much modern technology will impact their bottom lines as farmers.

With UMPI’s program being the only one of its kind in Aroostook County, professors have expressed a commitment to helping students forge connections with local farmers, researchers and agribusiness professionals. Through those connections, students learn firsthand how to operate farm equipment they will likely use in the field.

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, students from Richard Brzozowski’s Agricultural Technology, Operations and Safety course visited with Gary Nadeau, solutions specialist for Theriault Equipment in Presque Isle. Nadeau demonstrated how GPS-equipped John Deere tractors, like the one UMPI purchased for its program, can save farmers time and produce better quality crops.

Unlike traditional tractors, the GPS tractor allows farmers to give the machine directions and maneuver through fields without steering the tractor themselves. One benefit, Nadeau noted, is being able to plant, spray and plow rows of crops, also known as “passes,” within one inch of each other.

“It’s impossible to make passes one inch apart by hand,” Nadeau said. “[The GPS method] makes it easier to cultivate, spray and harvest. Instead of having 25 passes you get 28, which gives you more crop that will come out of the fields.”

Though not all farms in Aroostook County and surrounding regions use GPS-based tractor models, students in UMPI’s agriculture program learn about various technologies that they could potentially come across in their careers.

Alex McQuade, a student from Grand Falls, New Brunswick, hopes to take over his family’s farm after graduating in 2023. He said that UMPI’s program has allowed him to learn about the latest farming techniques from experts in the field.

“It really opens your eyes to what’s out there,” McQuade said. “It helps you think about your own farm’s set-up [for technology] and how you might want to set things up.”

UMPI’s investment in an agriculture program, which includes a research greenhouse on campus, has also benefited Aroostook youth looking to enhance the knowledge they’ve gained on their family’s farm.

Grant Hemphill, whose family owns the potato farm Hemphill Farms in Presque Isle, is majoring in applied science with a minor in agriculture. He said that Nadeau’s visit was an important one for students looking for the best future farming strategies.

“Having GPS [on a tractor] gives a farmer one less thing to worry about,” Hemphill said.

Nadeau’s visit is one of numerous ways in which UMPI’s agriculture students take part in real-life learning experiences, noted UMPI’s dean of arts and sciences, Jason Johnston.

Since launching the agriculture and agribusiness major in 2018, the program has grown to include courses on food and agribusiness management, plant and crop science, soil fertility and marketing. 

The completion of the Zillman Family Greenhouse in 2019 has allowed students to test their knowledge through research projects in collaboration with UMPI and UMaine Cooperative Extension faculty and local agribusiness and crop consultants. 

“Many of these projects are directly related to issues that local farmers face, including potato disease, yield in barley and oats and nitrogen and phosphorus management,” Johnston said. 

Currently 22 students are enrolled in the program, with eight of those students having entered the program this fall. In addition, eight students from the university’s environmental science program are taking courses through the sustainable agriculture concentration.

“We are optimistic that many of our currently 30 agriculture students will stay in Aroostook County and provide the next generation [of agricultural workers and researchers],” Johnston said.

Brzozowski, who serves as UMaine Cooperative Extension’s food system program administrator, said that continued partnerships with Aroostook and Maine’s agricultural sector will remain crucial to students’ future success.

“The purpose [of having guest speakers] is for students to build a network of experts from across the state,” Brzozowski said. “Those in the business world [like Nadeau] are often ahead of universities when it comes to the latest technologies. It gives students even more ideas to work with.”