Morgan Krizan slowly maneuvered through an empty parking lot at Bismarck State College, tapping several buttons on a GPS monitor mounted to the top of the John Deere utility vehicle.
The monitor stored her location information, which it would later use to tell the four-wheeler where to make the next row.
"You can let go of the wheel and start driving," said her instructor, Brent Horner of RDO, a John Deere equipment dealer. "It should do its thing."
Sure enough, when she removed her hands, the steering wheel made small adjustments on its own, directing the vehicle back along the route she programmed.
Students such as Krizan learned the latest in farming technology and crop production this week at Bismarck State College's Ag Academy.
"I want to be an agronomist," she told The Bismarck Tribune. "Being able to help feed people and helping farmers do their jobs would be rewarding."
Agronomists are crop specialists who answer questions from farmers and address production problems, said Carmel Miller, an associate professor of precision agriculture at BSC. They help plan what crops to plant, make fertilizer recommendations and do disease and weed control.
Agronomy jobs took off seven years ago, when farmers found they needed more expertise in making decisions, she said.
"Especially as the farms are getting larger, they rely pretty heavily on their agronomy center, which is typically their co-op," Miller said.
Karley Volochenko, a sophomore in BSC's agronomy program, finished an internship last week working alongside a precision agriculture specialist at Dakota Agronomy. This week, she helped lead 15 high school students attending the academy.
While interning, she scouted fields, worked on chemical delivery and learned how drones can aid farmers.
"It reassured me I was going into a good field," she said.
The high demand means graduates easily find well-paying jobs. Agronomists beginning their careers make from $35,000 to $60,000 per year, Miller said. Interns in BSC's program also do well, earning roughly $15 per hour.
Nathan Peterson, a sophomore at Ellendale Public School, is considering BSC's agronomy program when he graduates from high school. He signed up for the academy to get a taste of the field.
"I wanted to see what else was out there in agriculture careers instead of just farming," said Peterson, who has found learning about new technologies to be fascinating.
Several years ago, tractors featured only automated steering. Now with the press of a button, they can run implements to ensure the driver doesn't over-plant or over-spray an area, he said.
The utility vehicle and GPS monitor tested by the students mimics that.
Krizan probably will use one again when she gets started on her career. After college, she plans to move east toward Fargo, where cropland's aplenty.
"Call her a co-op," Horner joked as she finished her stint behind the wheel. "She's ready to spray."--Amy R. Sisk,The Bismarck Tribune