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Ag program could open more local jobs in industry

042518progressagriculture

Brandon Smith demonstrates how his John Deere tractor discs land during the recent Heritage Farm Day event in Edenton. Area officials are bullish on the potential for more job opportunities in agriculture and agriculture-related fields, particularly if College of The Albemarle is able to get an agriculture degree program approved by its accrediting agency.

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By Rebecca Bunch
Chowan Herald

Thursday, April 26, 2018

EDENTON — Officials supporting establishment of an agriculture-based curriculum at College of The Albemarle say there always will be opportunities for the program’s graduates to find work in the agriculture industry.

Among them is Chowan County Cooperative Extension Ag Agent Matt Leary who says farmers and agriculture-related businesses in northeastern North Carolina are always on the hunt for skilled labor.

“In the northeast alone, there are chemical and seed dealers such as Triangle Chemical, Virginia Fork Produce, Doeblers, Pioneer, Dow and Monsanto,” Leary said. “There are also farm equipment companies such as East Coast Equipment and B&S Enterprise, grain elevators and grain buyers such as C.A Perry and Parkway Ag, crop scouting companies such as Tidewater Ag.”

Leary added that the popularity of local plant nurseries such as Leary Plant Farm, Green Leaf Plant Farm, and vegetable growers could create other opportunities for employment.

“There are also farm operations,” he said. “Farmers look for skilled labor as well to help with the day-to-day workings of the farm and to help operate the large equipment needed to farm.”

Will those opportunities translate into job growth in the local ag industry? Leary says that could happen but the level of growth will depend on crop prices.

“With low crop prices, a lot of farmers will be unable or unwilling to hire any help due to the fact that their farm's income may not be high enough to support the hiring of any help,” he said. “Other ag-related businesses will be in the same position because their business depends on the farmers. If the crop prices are higher, there will be more job opportunities for the graduates of the new ag school at COA.”

With COA officials hoping to win an accrediting agency’s approval to launch the new ag curriculum as early as this fall, hopes are high the program will help students either transfer to North Carolina State University to complete a four-year degree or graduate and go directly into the workforce.

John Dole, assistant dean of NCSU's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said last summer that while university officials would like to see COA students transfer to NCSU, he realizes not all of them will need or want to complete more than a two-year degree program.

He said the job outlook in agriculture remains strong. Employment opportunities waiting for students who graduate from the program include positions as growers, managers, propagators and tech support staff, Dole said.

But working for others isn't the only option for those who graduate with a degree in agriculture, Dole said. Past experience demonstrates that “a fair number” of them start their own niche businesses in areas such as organic farming, specialty crop or specialty animal production. A number also open their own plant nurseries, he said. He cited Avoca, a Bertie County company that processes clary sage for a chemical found in perfume and other items, as one successful example.

According to Emily Nicholson, assistant director for the Northeastern Workforce Development Board in Hertford, there are 2,369 jobs within the 10-county region that are classified with the industry code of either agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting. Washington and Chowan counties have the largest number, 388 and 304, respectively. Next are Gates and Tyrrell with 272 each, Pasquotank with 233, Camden with 177, Perquimans with 156 and Currituck with 109.  

Chowan Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Smith, who farms for a living, also sees the potential for many other types of job opportunities in agriculture, something he describes as “a big, broad thing.” Those who are highly skilled in agriculture can now do much more than just operate a tractor and plow, he said. They also can compete for jobs as inspectors of grain and other commodities or work in pest control and food safety, Smith noted.

The new curriculum could be implemented as early as this fall if COA is able to receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges at its June meeting. If that doesn’t work out, the next opportunity for approval would come at SACS COC’s December meeting, according to COA President Robert Wynegar. A positive vote then would allow the program to get underway in time for the start of the 2019-20 school year.

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