More than a degree
Ricky Hubble, right, operations manager at La Belle MFA Agri Services, advises intern Bryant Gibbons about a field where he will spread fertilizer. Gibbons said he has valued Hubble’s guidance throughout his internship, which is part of his custom application program at State Tech in Linn.
Gibbons sits in the cab of a spreader, ready to apply fertilizer on a field. Before starting his work, Gibbons said he has to check maps, machinery, fuel and arrangements with drivers delivering fertilizer and chemical supplies.
Gibbons waits as the spreader is filled with nitrogen fertilizer coated with N-Guard, which gives it the bright-green color. The applicator-in-training said he’s “amazed at how the chemicals work and what fertilizer can do.”
Halfway through his first internship, Gibbons is able to independently operate a fertilizer spreader on fields such as this one outside La Belle, Mo. According to his supervisor, Ricky Hubble, custom applicators have to “pay attention to the small details and be willing to work long hours.”
It's as close as you can get to row-crop farming without having your own operation. That’s what many say about the job of a custom applicator.
Bryant Gibbons of Shelbyville, Mo., would agree. The student at State Technical College of Missouri in Linn, Mo., is one of the first participants in the school’s Custom Applicator Program sponsored by MFA. The program debuted in fall 2019 and offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on applicating experience, work an internship and possibly earn a full-time position with MFA. Students approved for the program also receive a $15,000 scholarship to help with tuition.
“If you like farming, and you can’t afford it like me, then go be an applicator,” Gibbons said. “You don’t get to work the ground, but you definitely get to go over it. It’s a good opportunity, and there are lots of good people to work with out there.”
Jessica Connelly, MFA Incorporated recruitment and employee development manager, is the liaison between MFA and State Tech. According to Connelly, the two-year program is the first of its kind for MFA. It begins the summer between a student’s high school graduation and first semester at State Tech. The first two semesters of the program are dedicated to fundamentals. Students earn their commercial driver’s license and work through basic operators’ curriculum in the fall semester. During their second semester, students learn more in-depth about equipment maintenance.
Over the summer, participants are assigned to an MFA location, typically near their home, where they work as interns. The internship allows students to apply their knowledge in real-world situations, spraying and spreading products on crop fields with the guidance of full-time applicators and other MFA employees.
“During the internship, students will be doing a variety of things: running the water truck and the spray rig, learning about daily logs and maintenance on the equipment, talking to farmers about the products used and learning from the recommendations made by the agronomist,” Connelly explained.
After completing his first two semesters of the program, Gibbons is now wrapping up his summer internship. He said he enjoys the variety of tasks the job offers, and each day brings him something new and exciting.
“You’ve always got somewhere different to go and something different to do,” Gibbons said. “I might be spreading today, and tomorrow, I might be spraying. And the day after that, I might be helping fill anhydrous tanks or maybe even riding in an anhydrous tractor.”
Following the internship, the students’ final two semesters are spent finishing agronomy and operators’ courses. At the end of the program, each student will graduate with a general technology associate’s degree that is endorsed by MFA and recognized by the Missouri Department of Higher Education. However, the program is meant to do a lot more than provide a degree, Connelly said.
“We have a lot of need for qualified applicators,” she said. “The program is designed to recruit and grow our own talent and then to help our people set their sights on career opportunities with MFA.”
When they enroll, students sign a contract confirming that they will work with MFA for three years following graduation. They may begin in a spray rig, but if their supervisors see potential for other careers, they could be promoted to a different position.
“MFA has plenty of good jobs,” Gibbons said. “You could go through the program and be an applicator and do something totally different with your life after you’re done.”
Although Gibbons said he enjoys operating machinery and working outdoors, custom application is not easy work. As an MFA intern, he’s been mentored by Ricky Hubble, a former applicator who is now operations supervisor at MFA Agri Services in La Belle, Mo. According to Hubble, it is important for applicators to be willing to work long hours and be a little bit picky.
“The hours are the hardest part of it, I think. Nobody wants to work every day of the week, and it’s not the easiest thing to do,” Hubble said. “You have to pay attention to the details, be willing to work long hours and get as much done as you can. That’s the bottom line.”
Because of these challenges, applicators are in high demand and hard to find. And that is the problem this program is aiming to solve. MFA wants to help fill the need for applicators, and State Tech wants to assist students in securing positions in these critical areas of the agriculture industry.
Instructor Tom Giessmann is the on-campus advisor for the MFA program at State Tech, which was ranked by WalletHub as the top community college in the U.S. in 2019 based on cost and overall education and career outcomes.
“State Tech is dedicated to educating students to be prepared for the workforce,” said Giessmann, who teaches heavy equipment and medium/heavy truck technology. “By having the MFA program here, students are able to receive a hands-on education from the No. 1-ranked college in the country. Meanwhile, with MFA having sites in both rural and urban locations, we can serve students from any area of Missouri with job opportunities upon the completion of the program.”
This fall, two students will enter their second year of the program, and eight students will begin the program.
State Tech is not the only Missouri college working with MFA to provide hands-on opportunities to students interested in a career in the agriculture industry. North Central Missouri College in Trenton, Mo., is offering a new Agriculture Operations Technology Certificate program in fall 2020. The program, endorsed by MFA, will allow students to obtain a one-year certificate and potential opportunities for apprenticeship and employment with the company. Through the program, students will learn about soils and fertilizers, plant science, animal science, farm safety, agriculture mechanics and precision agriculture. Five students are currently enrolled, leaving five spots open.
“We want to give students an opportunity to receive post-secondary education and advance their career in agriculture,” said Rustin Jumps, an NCMC instructor and the college farm manager who is the on-campus advisor for the certificate program. “They can go to college for a short time while gaining real-world experiences in preparation for a job with MFA or other agribusiness.”
“An MFA-track student should be passionate about agriculture and have a desire to make it a career,” said Tom Giessmann, State Tech instructor and on-campus advisor for the MFA program. “They need to be prepared to work hard in the industry as well as in the classroom and come to class every day ready to learn.”
Jumps said the ideal student for the certificate program “is someone who has an agriculture background, is wanting to pursue a career in agriculture or agriculture business and is really looking to ride into the industry without pursuing a degree or going to a four-year university.”
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