Despite growing up in one of the nation’s largest farming and ranching communities, Weld high school graduates for decades have had to cross county lines to pursue college educations in agriculture.
That finally changes next year.
In 2013, Aims Community College will begin offering two-year associate’s degrees and one-year certificate programs in agriculture production and agriculture business at its Fort Lupton campus, all of which comes after years of only having ag courses “here and there,” as instructors and officials at the college described their previous ag programs.
Aims will have a groundbreaking at noon Friday for its Fort Lupton campus expansion — a $9 million investment that will provide classrooms and labs for its new degree programs, which, in addition to agriculture, also includes oil and gas energy technology. The groundbreaking event is open to the public.
The overall project will also include renovations to the existing campus building, constructed in 1984.
To date, Weld teens have headed to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado State University in Fort Collins or further away from home to pursue post-secondary ag educations.
“It’s a little surprising that these kinds of programs haven’t been offered here before, considering this is Weld County,” said Aims Community College agriculture instructor Aileen Ehn, referring to Weld ranking as the eighth most ag-productive county in the nation, with the value of its ag production exceeding $1.5 billion annually. “But we’re excited to be the ones doing it.”
And, according to Ehn, there’s no better place to provide hands-on agriculture education than Weld County, with its wide array of crops, expanding dairies, some of the world’s largest feedlots and meat- and milk-processing facilities and local companies developing and testing new technologies.
Ehn pointed out that other colleges in Colorado, too, have been expanding their ag programs recently — a recognition that the world’s growing number of mouths to feed means growth for the ag and food industries, which already account for one of every 12 jobs in the U.S., according to U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Earlier this year, a joint survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University projected that through 2015 there will be 54,400 job openings for college graduates with degrees related to food production, renewable energy or environmental specialities. And, with the number of students in the U.S. currently pursuing such degrees, there is expected to actually be a shortfall of about 900 graduates in filling those openings.
“No doubt there’s plenty of opportunity out there ... not only here in Weld County, but everywhere, really,” Ehn said, adding that, in a tough economy, many students pursuing ag careers are looking at less-expensive community colleges than starting at four-year universities.
Plans call for Aims to have its new building ready for use by next fall, although Ehn said the college will offer two new agriculture classes as early as next semester — introductory animal science and world interdependence courses, the latter of which provides an overview of global food production.
Ehn said Aims will eventually have a website with more details of its new ag programs.
Last week, Aims — founded in 1967 in Greeley, with locations now in Fort Lupton, Loveland and Windsor — hosted an Ag Day Camp to highlight the college’s new ag programs, and also what careers are available in the industry. On hand were veterinarians and representatives of local conservation districts and technology companies, among others.
The nearly 90 high school students and others who attended the event stood as proof of what Ehn had already assumed; “People in Weld County are definitely interested agriculture,” she said.
Seth Willard, a senior at Weld Central High School in Keenesburg, said that after going to college, he plans to return home to take over his family’s farm near Roggen, or pursue an ag career elsewhere.
“It think it’s great what they’re doing here,” said Willard, wearing an Oklahoma State University ball cap, since that’s the college he plans to attend eventually. He said he wants to start his education at a smaller community college, and although he’s had his options narrowed down to a couple two-year schools in Oklahoma, he’s not ruling out Aims. “I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s certainly worth a look.”