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Extension shares high-tech agriculture with students

By Keri Collins Lewis
For the MSU Extension Service

As students toss their caps into the air at graduation, some may be wondering how to combine their love of video games with careers that offer financial independence and stability.

Fortunately, a wide range of careers in agriculture await those more inclined toward advanced technology than previous generations might have experienced.

Several times a year, Mississippi State University Extension associates visit high schools across the state to show students how their love for technology intersects with agriculture, the state’s largest economic driver.

Louis Wasson, a senior Extension associate with the Geosystems Research Institute, is one of these. But Wasson does not just talk tech; he puts unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly called drones, in the hands of young people who may be expert video-game players but cannot tell a soybean field from a cotton field.

“The gamers are natural pilots,” Wasson observed. “I talk about how highly developed precision agriculture is, and how farming is not just riding around on a tractor in a field. Drones allow growers to see hundreds of acres in a matter of minutes, a convenience they haven’t had in the past.”

Before trying out the students’ flying skills, Wasson shared the uses of remote sensing, such as scouting corn fields normally impenetrable from the ground level or assessing storm damage when fields are too muddy for vehicles to traverse. He hopes to inspire students to consider careers in precision agriculture.

“With the convenience of flying over a field at any time, ag professionals can investigate changes in crop canopy color that may indicate a fungus or insect infestation, nutrient deficiency, or damage from wild hogs or deer, or areas that need replanting—all from the images taken by the drone in just a few minutes and seen in real time on a phone or tablet,” Wasson said.

Brennan Beaird, a freshman at New Hope High School who participated in Wasson’s demonstration, was surprised by what he learned. “I thought this kind of technology was only for the military and delivering stuff,” Beaird said. “I didn’t know it was used with the weather, finding people, fighting fires, agriculture and more.”

Freshman Caleb Balloon agreed.

“I never knew drones were used for actual jobs,” Balloon shared. “I always thought they were just for fun.”

Wasson encourages students to investigate scientific and technological careers they may not have considered before and points them to all Mississippi State has to offer. This opportunity includes a precision agriculture certificate program in the MSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Scott Willard, interim dean of the college, said a growing number of students are drawn to precision agriculture because of the technology involved and varied interests in unmanned or autonomous vehicles and their applications in agriculture.
“Precision agriculture is essentially using data and technology-driven decisions to put the right inputs in the field at the right place at the right time,” he said. “Our precision agriculture certificate program, and other concentrations within agricultural and biological engineering, plant and soil sciences, agricultural economics, and disciplines in entomology and plant pathology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are designed to give students the tools within their major to engage these technologies in their future careers.”