MSU students brainstorm tech to help aging farmers

MANKATO — In a course introducing them to careers in the agribusiness field, college students recently brainstormed ways to help aging and disabled farmers remain in their fields.

Minnesota’s 110,000 farm operators were 55 years old on average in a 2015 analysis by the state demographic center. The average age was expected to keep rising both in Minnesota and other Midwestern states.

With this aging trend in mind, Minnesota State University’s Ag in the Modern Economy class focused recent units on developing assistive technology to aid farmers who want to prolong their careers.

“There’s definitely an older workforce,” said Shane Bowyer, class instructor and assistant professor of management at MSU. “So it’s about how do we make new technology to help the farmers?”

The class’ brainstorming workshop last week started with a video call from Goodhue farmer Ryan Buck, past president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Buck, paralyzed from the chest down since a 2008 snowmobile crash, told them aspects of his job do require assistance from others.

He isn’t able, for example, to hop out of a stalled tractor to inspect what’s wrong. The group discussed whether a drone he could launch off his tractor would help.

Buck said he’d be open to trying it, along with any other ideas the students had. The class then broke into small groups to start brainstorming.

Area farmers shared their time among the students. Lucas Arndt took the course in the past and returned to lend his expertise growing up on a farm near Owatonna. After offering the students real-world examples of limitations he knows farmers face, he said he appreciates how the course highlights careers within the agricultural industry that people wouldn’t typically associate with farming.

“What this class teaches you is there’s so many avenues of lines of work that relate to agriculture, that can help agriculture, or that agriculture helps,” he said. “No matter what you do in life, there’s probably a connection to agriculture.”

Sam Ziegler, GreenSeam president, said opening up students’ minds to careers in agribusiness is an overarching goal for the course. And it’s much needed, he added, because the number of people who grow up around farms isn’t enough to fill all the jobs available in the field.

“So how do we share this cool exciting industry with people who never got the chance to grow up with it?” he said. “That’s where this class really has been awesome.”

Arndt said agriculture should be seen like most other industries, as in you don’t need to grow up around it to pursue a job in it.

“You didn’t have to be taught it when you were 6 years old in the combine with grandma,” he said. “You can be taught it once you train just like any other job.”

Although her grandparents on both sides were farmers, student Lexi Schoper said she came into the class not knowing how many careers are available in agribusiness.

“I never really thought of agriculture as having a lot of career opportunities besides farming,” she said. “So this kind of opened my eyes that there are business aspects of it I’d like to go into.”

Her group brainstormed a ramp to help farmers with disabilities lift themselves into their tractors. Other group ideas included a wearable heart-rate monitor that would alert emergency services during medical episodes and a surround-view camera for tractors.

Aric Pask, a student from the Twin Cities, said he appreciates how the class tied in assistive technology development to agribusiness. His group’s idea for the alert monitor came after the group heard about a farmer who’d had a medical emergency while his tractor was on auto-pilot.

The students could win funds for their ideas through a university partnership with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and Mayo Clinic. The class continues through the rest of the semester with new units and field trips centered on agribusiness.

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