Summer AgTech Youth program takes off at the Agricenter

If you were to throw out a shortlist of emerging technologies that are quickly gaining mainstream appeal, drones could easily make a lot of people’s top five.

They are commonly used by the military and police. You can spot them hovering over ballfields. Photographers use them, likewise hunters. If you want a birds’ eye perspective, they are an affordable tool.

Their use is also becoming more common in agriculture.

Starting on June 19, a dozen high school juniors and seniors began to learn more about this growing trend. They are taking part in the AgTech Summer Youth initiative at the Agricenter International. The pilot program presents career opportunities in agriculture and business technology.

“It is a really hands on class and they will even have a drone company coming in. They will build their own drones and learn how to control them, which they get to take home at the end of the program,” said John Butler, CEO of Agricenter International.

The teens will learn how drones are used in agriculture.

“The technical expertise of the program is at the highest level. A lot of the presenters are Ph.D.s and are experts in the industry,” said Butler.

While drones are cool and trending, they are just one part of a larger five-part program hosted at the Agricenter, which covers 1,000 acres just south of Walnut Grove Road. 

The six-week curriculum explores the business of agriculture and highlights what is increasingly becoming a technology-driven sector of the economy. Memphis-based venture capital fund Innova Memphis recently launched a $31 million investment to support technological innovations in farming and agriculture. 

The AgTech Summer Youth initiative's goal is to present agriculture as an option for young people as a growing career field. Kids also receive $12 an hour from participating in the program.

“The summer program is a trial for the Agricenter since they’ve never done a program like this. They’re paying the kids a stipend to participate. It’s a very professional environment,” said Bob Wilson, CEO of H.Saga International/Port Alliance. Wilson is also an investor in the innovative summer program.

In addition, First Tennessee is prepping the students on how to open a bank account, balance a checkbook and put a budget together.

“They talk about credit, how it can be used well and how it can put you into the hole,” added Wilson.

The program’s primary aim is about building skills that will increase the student's viability in the marketplace.

The Agricenter International mission centers around the big picture ideas of research, conservation and education.

“It feeds a STEM initiative, and there are great jobs out in that field that can be achieved on those different education levels – high school, trade and college," said Wilson. "It also promotes important life skills: how you present yourself during an interview; how to accept and maintain a job."

Centered around agriculture, the program won’t be bereft of opportunities to spend a little time outdoors.

“It keeps them involved in positive activities during the summer,” said Wilson.

Weekly field trips will also be held.  For example, a trip to Hardin County is in the works. Students will visit a new 4-H camp at Lone Oaks Farm.

“It certainly is a class but it gives them the opportunity to do something a little different than a regular classroom. They make sure that the class is a great outdoor experience and the students will be outside a lot and will be walked through different crops,” said Butler.

A couple of years in the making, the program getting off the ground is due, in large part, to the passion of Wilson and Butler.

Wilson spearheaded funding for the initial cohort of the AgTech Summer Youth initiative. Wilson's personal contributions and fundraising through the Kiwanis Club of Northeast Shelby Co. garnered $22,000 to get the program off the ground. 

The entire program is being made possible by an alliance of sponsors including H. Saga/Port Alliance, Kiwanis, 901 Drones, and First Tennessee among many other contributors.

Following the program, evaluations will be made to help shape the following year.

But the ultimate impact of the program may be something less tangible and not easily measured.

901Drones teaches the students to build and operate their own drones, which they get to take home at the end of the program.

“So often we seem to lean back on the idea of go to college and get a degree as the only option. That is not the only option, nor a realistic option for everybody,” said Wilson.

And those seeking degrees sometimes look outside of Memphis to gain their education – and don’t return to their hometown. This essentially leads to a brain drain that siphons off intellect to larger, seemingly more appealing markets.

There are options for youth to earn good money right here in Memphis, Wilson stressed. Opportunities that are accessible to those right out of high school. Others may require some time at a trade school. College grads are always welcome.

And yes, there are opportunities in agriculture.

“If we want this community to continue to grow and have the positive feedback with the new millennials wanting to move to Memphis then we as business and civic leaders need to make sure our youth know there are plenty of options here for them. I think this program does an outstanding job toward that goal,” said Wilson.

If everything is up to grade, the program will be expanded to more students next year. The hope is to double the size. They are also working on accreditation for those pursuing college credits.

Fundraising has already started. Plans are in the works to take it to the national level with the Kiwanis Club. If it’s a go, grant money would recur every summer to sustain the program into the future.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.

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