By ETHAN SIMMONS
CHAMPAIGN — Custom application might seem too hands-on for a degree program.
Custom applicators are the ones spraying pesticides and fertilizers on the fields atop massive agricultural equipment.
In reality, the job requires plenty of skills beyond driving a spray vehicle, skills that may be learned best in a college setting.
This fall, Parkland College will offer the first custom-applicator degree program in the U.S., driven by industry feedback and involvement.
"We've had industry partners — Growmark, Helena, Nutrien — that have had a hard time finding custom applicators, especially with the skill set that's needed," said Jennifer Fridgen, agriculture program director for Parkland. "They are looking for the future of their retail business."
Many custom applicators have certificates. Graduates of Parkland's two-year program will leave with an associate of applied science degree and the title of advanced applicator technician.
Brian Mattingly of Helena Agri-Enterprises said there is a generational shift happening in the position, one that Parkland's program hopefully helps to alleviate.
"The industry has lots of baby boomers, folks at the end of their careers," Mattingly said. "For economic reasons, the talent pool has shrunk in the ag business."
Despite the need for applicators, many new agribusiness employees are leaving after two or three years, said Josh Rund, assistant operations manager at United Prairie.
Along with industry demand, the job's specifications have changed with advancing technology.
"Applicators used to just have a sprayer where they'd set the pressure and go a certain speed. Now you have computers, mapping programs, software telling what chemicals you're using, a whole complex system," said Dan Schaefer of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association. Mixing and loading pesticides and fertilizers, running equipment computer systems and communicating to clients requires a strong body of math, mechanical and interpersonal skills, Mattingly said.
"He's your last chance of having a screw-up. He needs to be a real good communicator," Schaefer said.
The degree program will help students troubleshoot on the job, understand the chemistry of their work and manage the public perception of agriculture — all skills the agriculture industry desperately needs from their applicators, Rund said.
"They're the first person a farmer or grower comes out and sees, they're our first interaction with the community," Rund said. "They're the heartbeat of our industry, for sure."
Industry partners will steer the education of Parkland custom applicators. The program will use a robust sponsor system, where students will sign commitments to work for partnering companies post-graduation in return for significant tuition aid.
"We'll sponsor either half or all of tuition based on how many years they promise to work for us," said Rund of United Prairie.
Besides scholarships, companies will provide equipment for applicators to use in courses, and will help coordinate the three work-study internships students must complete to graduate.
So far, agronomics companies United Prairie and Helena Agri-Enterprises are on board to sponsor the Parkland program. Parkland is in talks with a few more, Fridgen said.
The Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association is working out an annual sponsorship as well, said President Jean Payne.
Parkland created four new courses for the degree — Ag Equipment Safety, Intro to Retail Operations and Ag Equipment Operations I and II— that outline the unique skillsets industry partners desire from incoming applicators.
IFCA partner Asmark Institute will bring Parkland students to its Applicator Training Center in Bloomington for a four-day training and obstacle course, Payne said.
Parkland agriculture is targeting a few graduated seniors for its first class of applicators. Prior to the 2020-21 academic year, Parkland will ramp recruiting to "extreme levels," hoping to get a freshman class of 20 to 30 custom applicators, Fridgen said.
Ag industry representatives speak highly of the opportunities the Parkland applicator program offers. Applicators are vital to the life of agribusiness, and a degree shows a level of ambition companies love.
"The degree shows a sense of commitment, that they want more than being put in a sprayer, want to grow into to something else," Schaefer said. "Being a plant manager, salesperson, a degree lends to that."
Mastering the ground-level work leads to a valuable understanding of the industry, one that managers can draw on decades after an application job.
"When you think about the success of ag in Illinois, a great deal matters about having pesticide applied in a timely and safe manner," Payne said. "The person ultimately responsible for this success is the person in the spray rig."