Kankakee Community College (KCC) Agriculture-Horticulture students are growing their own education.
With a hands-on approach to teaching agriculture and horticulture, students are learning valuable job skills. From hydroponic (no-soil)/Aquaponic gardening to growing and harvesting tilapia, the Agri/Hort Technology program is designed to broaden student experiences while tailoring it to their interests.
KCC students have their choice of two degrees and 13 certificate options. Students can earn an Agri-Hort Technology Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in one of four specializations, which are Horticulture, Manufacturing Technology, Production, and Business. Certificates are also available in each of those specializations. In addition, the agriculture transfer degree allows students to transfer to a university.
“We have four, brand new pathways to earning a degree,” said Katelynn Ohrt, director of the Agri-Hort Technology program at KCC. “For those who decide to pursue a certificate, they are stackable and credit hours can carry over to earn a degree.”
All the degrees and certificates in the program provide classroom, laboratory, greenhouse, and field instruction for practical experience. The program is flexible and offers a range of options.
Lyn Nitz-Mercaeant, right, of Kankakee, is one of the current students in the program who provided student feedback for the updated curriculum. While Nitz-Mercaeant is a master gardener with the University of Illinois Extension, she originally enrolled in a certificate program to brush up on her skills. The flexibility to keep adding on to the program will culminate in a degree from KCC this spring. She plans to transfer to a university this fall and pursue a bachelor’s degree.
“Growing up in a farming family, I’ve always enjoyed agriculture and gardening,” said Nitz-Mercaeant. “I raised my family, and it was time to do something for mom. I was pleased by all the options KCC had to offer.”
Nitz-Mercaeant cites all the hands-on opportunities and lab-based curriculum for making the program her own. “I didn’t know what to expect when I started this program, but I’ve learned so much,” said Nitz-Mercaeant. “I’ve had so many unique, hands-on opportunities.”
One of the hands-on opportunities included setting up the aquaponic tanks in the greenhouse. One of the tanks is a closed-system tank where students raise tilapia. Over the top of the tank sits foam where herbs and vegetables grow on top. The plants’ roots are immersed in the tank and help to nourish and filter the water for the tilapia.
The other 500-gallon tank is an open system tank that is hooked up to a bed with a flood and drainage system. The goldfish that live in the tank help filter and fertilize the water for the plants (herbs, vegetable and strawberries) growing in it.
“Getting the aquaponic tanks up and running and producing food was a huge milestone that we are all proud of,” said Ohrt. “Because the class sizes are small, everyone has an opportunity for in setting up and maintaining the tanks.”
In addition to tilapia, the students also grow plants, herbs, fruit, and vegetables in the greenhouse. To support a farm-to-table initiative and the college’s sustainable practices, Ohrt hopes their efforts can provide food for a salad bar on campus.
“Currently, we grow enough food for the students in the program to take home what we produce,” said Ohrt. “Soon, we hope to offer our harvest to the college’s cafeteria. It’s an exciting, in-the-works project.”
Other technologies include drones, GPS
Ohrt also is teaching the students the latest ways to use technology in the field. Drones, which are flying devices that carry cameras and can be navigated remotely by smartphones or controllers, have grown in popularity. While companies like Amazon are exploring using drones for delivery, farmers are using drones for mapping to increase yields and reduce crop damage.
“Mapping the fields provide farmers with a blueprint of their crops, and drones are helping to revolutionize the industry,” said Ohrt. “We hope to purchase and incorporate a drone into our curriculum as soon as this spring.”
Another piece of technology Ohrt has recently purchased is handheld GPS units. These devices can give farmers information to make better decisions to plant, map, sample, scout, and harvest fields.
Many of the new technologies that Ohrt plans to use and is currently using are a direct result of collaboration and suggestions by the advisory committee.
Local employers - partners in curriculum development
KCC partnered with area businesses to design and revise the Agriculture-Horticulture curriculum. The advisory committee is composed leaders from local agriculture and students.
Matt Perreault, sales/research and development manager, at Shoup Manufacturing in Kankakee, is on the advisory committee. Shoup Manufacturing markets and distributes quality replacement parts for farm equipment directly to the American farmer. Shoup approached KCC about internship opportunities available for students, and the relationship between the two entities blossomed.
“Our relationship with KCC has allowed us to suggest ways their program can benefit the industry,” said Perrault. “The KCC is an affordable way for those who want to get hands-on experience and learn best practices to get a jump start on their career.”
The new curriculum fulfills the need for businesses to hire new employees as well as retain current employees.
In addition to providing internship opportunities, Shoup has also supported a scholarship for Agri-Hort Technology students. The Gerry Sikma Scholarship funds two full scholarships, which includes tuition and books.
“Katelynn invited us to the scholarship banquet so we could meet the recipients,” said Perrault. “It was rewarding to meet the students and learn how our support helped them achieve their goal of getting education in the field.”
Other scholarships opportunities are available for KCC Agri-Hort Technology students.
“Students need to apply online at the college’s foundation website to be eligible for all available scholarships by March 1,” said Ohrt.
The benefits of Agri-Hort Technology at KCC go beyond those enrolled in the program. Students who have an interest in the field can join the Horticulture Club.
“The Horticulture Club hosts monthly meetings, sponsors farmers’ markets, and organizes a community garden for KCC students and staff,” said Ohrt. “We also sponsor an annual trip to the Chicago Flower and Garden Show.”