062718 Hancock Erin Krier

Part-time faculty member Erin Krier, who also serves as coordinator of Hancock College's agricultural programs, works in the college's garden plots Wednesday morning. Applications for the college's associate degree in agriculture science open this fall.

Like many of her agricultural science students, Erin Krier feels most comfortable and at home in Hancock College's garden plots.

"These are designed for student learning," Krier, a part-time faculty member in the college's life and physical sciences department, said after disembarking from a small tractor-mounted tiller. "It's like my living laboratory for all the classes I teach."

Herb and permaculture gardens are planned for a large plot Krier tilled, and several members of the cabbage family will be ready for picking when her students return later this year. In the fall, Krier will harvest stalks of full-grown kale, heads of red and green cabbage, and Brussels sprouts with students enrolled in the college's newly expanded agricultural science program.

After more than two decades without offering an agricultural science program, students applying to Hancock this fall will have the opportunity to pursue an associate degree in the field. The college plans to expand its program by 2019, adding two associate degrees for transfer — in agribusiness and agricultural plant science.

Two years ago, Hancock College was awarded a grant by the Santa Barbara Foundation to explore the workforce and education needs of the local agricultural industry. Speaking with more than 50 growers, industry consultants, support groups and community college faculty, Hancock Dean of Academic Affairs Richard Mahon said industry representatives were receptive to the college taking an active role agricultural education and workforce development.

"There's a lot of need among small and midsize growers ... that is unmet," he said, pointing to shifting demands and regulations, changing technology and new industry developments.

"Our motivation was not to see young people leave the Santa Maria Valley if Hancock could provide the foundation for the education that they would need to stay, live and work here," Mahon added. "Agriculture is a crucial part of our local economy."

The two-part addition begins with introduction of an associate degree in agricultural science. Over the course of the two-year program, students will take four core courses — soil science, integrated pest management, plant science and agribusiness — and a slew of elective classes to satisfy degree requirements. 

Krier, who also coordinates the college's agricultural program, said the two-year degree is geared toward students who want to expand their education and workforce skills for a job with a local grower.

"I have a lot of students who are already working in agriculture and need specific coursework or training to be promoted to a higher position in their company," she said. "I'm trying to provide specific training for them. They're not looking for a bachelor's degree yet; they just need certain skills. We want to take them from the entry-level position they're in now and move them up to a well-paying position locally."

Two associate degrees for transfer will be integrated into the agricultural program by fall 2019, and will be geared toward "students who are working toward a higher degree," Krier said. The proposed degrees will align with predefined degree pathways, guaranteeing students admission to a California State University campus to complete their bachelor's degree.

"When we put both students side by side, transfer students will get more hands-on exposure and experience, and workplace-bound students will get exposed from early on to the potential that transferring provides," Mahon said. "Even if they don't do it right away, we hope transferring will be a long-term goal they keep in mind."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.

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