It's a fact of agricultural life: things are moving away from small-scale farming. Farmers working 40 acres with one tractor are gone. Crop production has evolved to large-scale operations. Producers micro-manage all aspects of their operations, increasing yields and reducing production costs to net decent returns on their sizable investments.

As farmers have had to become more and more productive, so have the machines they use to produce crops. Equipment engineers have developed increasingly complicated machinery to meet the challenges of today's marketplace, and the support structure of maintaining this equipment has gone through an evolution as well.

The days of training a service technician "in house" are fast going the way of the mule and 40-acre farms. Sophisticated electronic and hydraulic controls on modern equipment warrant the need for a professionally trained service technician. In this new era of micro-management, producers cannot afford long periods of downtime which result in lost revenue. Instead, they insist that a dealer's service department change with the times and keep abreast of the increasingly complicated changes in technology.

The Ag Tech program at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Miss., and others like it are John Deere's answer to service training. The two-year associate degree program is the industry leader in technical education for young people seeking a career in the equipment industry. With an inventory of over $1 million in new equipment, $500,000 in training components, and its Deere-trained staff, the Ag Tech program is equipped to take training into the new millennium.

"I've been involved with John Deere service for over 20 years - with the company and with the service department of multi-location dealers - and I know that the quality is there. Ag Tech students have the unique opportunity to train on the latest technology in the industry and get hands-on experience while they learn," says Ag Tech instructor Terry Schumann.

"Thanks to Deere, I can walk out to the equipment lot and roll in a new tractor to use for my classes. Last week I used a new 8410 to introduce the diagnostic system to the freshman class. Young people today have had more exposure to computers, and that's a plus in this business. Fixing a machine that costs $250,000 is not a task for the uninitiated, and everyone has come to realize that," says Ag Tech instructor Shane Louwerens.

Drawing students from the Delta states and Alabama, the Ag Tech program is the only Deere-sponsored program in Mississippi, and is one of 20 in the world. Deere realizes that as equipment becomes more sophisticated, qualified technicians become more valuable and are essential to the success of agriculture. Training in traditional subject areas is important, but the technician of today must be prepared to function in a world where computers monitor and control machine operation.

"Pro Tech training, which is simply continuing education for existing John Deere technicians, has really taken off in this region. We've taken Pro Tech to another level," says Pro Tech instructor Jimmy Presley.

Pro Tech started off with certification classes in basic electronics and later added hydraulic certification. Air conditioning certification is a new offering for this spring, and the Senatobia campus was recently selected as one of five sites in North America to deliver training on Deere's 4710 and 6710 sprayers. Technicians will be coming to Pro Tech sprayer classes from Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Texas to receive this training.

Pro Tech classes, staggered throughout the semester, are based on the need in the area. Deere does the registering and scheduling, the faculty handles the setup and delivery of the training information. Students typically stay four days for the certification classes and go back to the dealership with greater knowledge, expertise, and confidence.

"I enjoy the challenge of working with experienced adults. These guys are sharp, and they keep me on my toes. When you stand up in front of a group of professional technicians to deliver training, you better have done your homework," says Presley.

The biggest change to the Pro Tech training curriculum has been the Service Advisor diagnostic computer system. This system has the ability to perform diagnostics on Deere equipment by analyzing information read from the machine on a laptop or desktop computer. Currently the system looks at over 400 pieces of information and compares the actual readings to a diagnostic knowledge base in the software.

The system houses a library of technical information on DVD disks and will direct the service technician to the correct section within a manual to effect repairs. The DVD disks contain a full complement of manuals for all current production Deere equipment. Monthly updates on DVD disks keep the system current with changes and developments within the industry.

"Paper tech manuals are going the way of the dinosaur. They're too big and bulky, too easy to destroy and not portable enough. Service Advisor puts hundreds of manuals on three DVD disks," says Presley.

A new building to house the John Deere service training programs at NWCC has been in the planning stages for several years.

"It takes time to plan and organize a project of this size," says Terry Schumann, who served as the building project manager for Ag Tech.

The proposed new building will house both freshman and sophomore Ag Tech classes and Pro Tech and will have room for future expansion.

"We hope to break ground within one year and move in the new facility within two," says Presley.

Incoming Ag Tech students are required to have a sponsoring Deere dealer. This sponsorship should be done prior to attending classes but can be delayed until the middle of the first semester.

The sponsorship is necessary because the student needs a dealer to provide uniforms and a place to work during two mandatory eight-week internships that are a critical part of the learning experience.

If a student candidate shows promise, the dealer may be interested in entering a contractual agreement with the student and pay part or all of a student's educational costs in exchange for a term of employment. This agreement varies and must be worked out between the dealer and the student.

"Most of our freshmen students have a contract with their dealers, and the dealers have taken good care of these students," says freshman instructor Louwerens.

Ag Tech students are challenged from the first day they arrive. The instructors strive to encourage critical thinking skills.

"If I can get a student to think critically and use a logical approach to problem solving, I've won the battle," says Schumann.