NORFOLK, NE - Rob Thomas’ introduction to the Cornhusker State came in the mid-1990s when, as a youngster, he began rooting for the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team. “That’s when I started liking Nebraska,” said the Johnstown, PA, resident. Little did he dream that one day he would be enrolled in the precision agriculture and agronomy programs at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, NE, 1,200 miles from home.
After graduation from high school in Johnstown in 2008, Thomas spent his first year at the University of Pittsburgh studying engineering. He then switched his major to education and transferred to the California University of Pennsylvania.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in technical education, Thomas taught such classes as woodshop, architecture, robotics, and digital media and graphics at a 1,000-student high school for more than four years.
“I enjoyed teaching, but I wanted to be more connected with the agricultural field,” said Thomas, who grew up on a small farm in western Pennsylvania. While teaching, Thomas said he would talk agriculture on a daily basis with a number of students with farm connections.
“That’s one of the reasons I decided to pursue agriculture (studies), to get more connected with agriculture,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to spend another four years working on a bachelor’s degree, so I started looking at a lot of two-year colleges that focused more on hands-on learning.”
Northeast Community College came up on a short list for Thomas, who first set foot in Nebraska when he toured the campus in May 2017. “Northeast stood out from other colleges and universities (I was considering),” he said.
“Here at Northeast, I found a curriculum I really liked with agriculture and precision agriculture,” Thomas said. The Precision Agriculture program is in its second year at Northeast.
Thomas began his studies in August 2017, with plans to graduate with associate’s degrees in precision agriculture and agronomy in May 2019.
Thomas said he feels at home in Northeast Nebraska. “Once you’re out here, you don’t feel like you’re far from home, especially being all around the farms,” he said.
“Precision agriculture is a lot bigger out here (in Nebraska),” Thomas said. “The fields are a lot bigger … compared to Pennsylvania where fields are 10-20 acres.”
For the past four years, Thomas said he, his brother and sister have been involved in growing orchard, tall fescue and timothy grasses on 50 acres. Hay from the two cuttings each summer is sold to area horse, sheep, goat and cattle producers.
Of Northeast Community College, Thomas said he appreciates the small class sizes. “Teachers can really connect with their students,” he said. “In Nebraska, it seems like everybody knows everybody, even several communities over.”
He added: “The ag department seems like it’s really going to grow over the next couple of years, especially in the precision agriculture side.”
This summer will find Thomas back in Pennsylvania fulfilling Northeast internship requirements at a crop protection services firm in Amish country near Lancaster.
Then, during the 2018-19 school year at Northeast, Thomas will be on both sides of the classroom – as a student and a teacher’s assistant.
He’ll also be an agricultural department tutor. “I’ll be using my teaching experience to help other students,” Thomas said.
Upon graduation next spring, Thomas said he may teach agriculture at the community college level – “maybe here at Northeast Community College.”