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Ag Tech's new ABCs: apps, bees and compost

On May 6, Southwestern Michigan College and Michigan State University’s Ag Tech partnership graduated its first eight students at SMC’s 50th commencement. Italian honeybees moved into two hives on campus on April 29. Stacey Rocklin, coordinator for the MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology at SMC, relies on three phone applications to collect interior temperature and humidity data to monitor hive health.

“We’re looking at (the bees) being part of Ag Club, plus we have an entomology class this fall,” Rocklin said. Ag Club is also considering connecting with Collegiate Farm Bureau.

In addition to Apps and Bees, Rocklin’s new ABCs include Composting, an upcoming joint venture with Environmental Science Professor Deirdre Kurtis.

“Deirdre and I are going to work together on composting,” Rocklin said. “She wants to know if plant-based biodegradable plastics really biodegrade and how long it takes.

“Recycling is only one point on a triangle with reducing and re-using things we bring into our homes. Subaru sending back shipping materials to manufacturers is an interesting way to do it.”

Subaru pioneered a zero-waste factory in Lafayette, Ind., home of Purdue University.

“Reducing food waste has to be part of this,” Rocklin said, “to get the right carbon/nitrogen ratio to get the temperature up to activate microbes. Pig manure would be perfect, but I doubt that will work out. But coffee grounds, scraps and paper napkins would be helpful along with wood chips.”

Two FarmBots join SMC’s new greenhouse this fall.

FarmBots, developed in California, are less ambitious than contraptions that can remotely plant miles of seeds, but capable of managing the greenhouse garden and performing most of the pre-harvest process, including planting, watering each plant on a set schedule, monitoring growing conditions and weeding.

While technology transforms farming, Rocklin said her industry lags 20 years behind where it could be due to two factors.

“We’re wet and we’re dirty and dusty,” she said. “We couldn’t use most technology of the 1990s and ’00s. Every company has its own proprietary stuff, so if you buy a tractor, you better buy their other implements that work well with the technology inside.

“If you like Case tractors and John Deere planters, you’re in some real trouble because those two pieces can’t talk to each other. This new generation is going to step in and figure out how to make all this wonderful individual technology work together so it’s more useful. They need to learn old ways so they can bring in new technology and adapt it. There’s never going to be a tire-changing app. There’s much in ag we can’t automate.”