At the individual producer level, few operations exist which do not utilize Global Positioning System (GPS)-driven crop production equipment, Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping for efficient irrigation and chemical application, automated temperature, humidity and feeding controls in livestock barns or computer-based records management.
At the processor level, an increase in robotics and automation in processing lines and use of predictive analytics for scheduling and distribution are additional examples of dependence upon technology-based tools.
The tools provide many efficiencies; however, they are vulnerable to hacking and ransomware attacks, essentially putting the nation’s food safety and security in jeopardy. A new project at Northeast Community College is designed to address the concerns. The Ruraltech+ Training Program to Boost IT and Cybersecurity Skills in the Agricultural Workforce project will create a framework for educating incumbent workers in rural agriculture cooperatives on data analysis and information security as well as developing a pipeline of ag-tech workers for growing industry needs.
“Use of short-term, flexible training options to provide training is cornerstone to the success of this project,” said Cyndi Hanson, dean of Workforce Development at Northeast. “Offering upskilling and reskilling accessible opportunities to geographically dispersed audiences of the rural workforce will elevate the practice of information security measures essential to minimizing disruption of operations.”
The major goal of the project is to bring technical knowledge of information security within agriculture-based employers. Training will be provided to at least 40 individuals annually via synchronous, virtual, short-term training and fifteen industry-recognized certifications earned by program participants will be offered annually. Additionally, a general agriculture competence course will be coupled with a cybersecurity bootcamp to equip five entry-level workers annually for integration into the agriculture-technology workforce pipeline.
The project will be conducted using multiple efforts, each with distinct evaluation strategies. For example, curriculum that is relevant to incumbent workers will be developed through conversations with agriculture
coop managers. Hanson said they are also welcoming conversations with agriculture-based businesses that would like to participate in training.
“Providing opportunities for those currently engaged in our agriculture workforce access to foundational cybersecurity principles to protect our nation’s food supply is the focus of what we are doing,” Hanson said. “The opportunity to provide training virtually increases access for those geographically distant but critical components of agriculture.”
To develop the curriculum, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded Northeast Community College a grant totaling $450,000. Nebraska US Senator Deb Fischer is excited the project will connect the state’s future agriculture and technology workforce with skills to succeed.
“I have had the pleasure of working closely with Northeast Community College over the years on increasing adoption of precision agriculture technologies,” Fischer said. “I look forward to seeing this project come to fruition and create opportunities for our students.”
Leah Barrett, president of Northeast, said the funding is important to help increase the efficiency and productivity of food production, as well as to guard against cyberattacks targeting the nation’s food supply.
“We are proud to partner with agricultural cooperatives across Nebraska to grow their IT workforce and create pathways for entry-level workers as well as incumbent workers to upskill and get the critical skills they need to support our agricultural system,” Barrett said.