Before Preston Winn took over as chair of the agriculture department at Blue Mountain Community College, he began his teaching career at Hermiston High School in 1978. At the time, he said local farmers used flood irrigation to grow famous Hermiston watermelons, producing around 3-5 tons per acre.

Today, Winn said those same farmers are now using one-third the amount of water to grow 10 times as many melons, thanks to advances in precision irrigation — the fine art of watering crops in just the right place at just the right time.

“Water is very, very valuable, second only to the value of human life,” Winn said as BMCC cut the ribbon Thursday on its new Precision Irrigated Agriculture Center. “The need is there for having an educated workforce that can utilize water appropriately.”

That’s precisely what the Precision Irrigated Agriculture program is designed to do, teaching students how to operate and maintain technology such as soil moisture monitors, variable rate sprinklers and drones capable of surveying fields with infrared cameras to detect where and how much water is needed.

“What they learn is how to manage our precious resource of water, and place that resource where it needs to be, when it needs to be,” Winn said.

The Precision Irrigated Agriculture Center is one of three new facilities paid for by the $23 million BMCC capital construction bond approved by voters in 2015. The building is located on the campus of Oregon State University’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, which is home to 15 center-pivot systems.

Classes will begin at the new building in the fall, Winn said, and students will have the chance to work hands-on with equipment at the experiment station through the college’s partnership with OSU.

“There’s no other program like this that I’m aware of in Oregon,” Winn said.

In fact, there may be no other program like this in the world, according to Fred Ziari with IRZ Consulting in Hermiston.

Ziari’s company specializes in helping farmers adopt precision irrigation practices, though he said the development of new technology has outpaced the ability for companies to find qualified experts in the field. Ziari said he approached BMCC seven or eight years ago about developing a curriculum to train the next generation of tech-savvy farmers.

“I can see, with a little bit of effort, that this can become a global center for teaching irrigation technology,” he said. “There’s no place like this.”

The Precision Irrigated Agriculture Center is the second of three BMCC bond projects to be completed this year. The first, the Workforce Training Center in Boardman, celebrated its grand opening in April. It houses the college’s industrial systems and data center programs.

The bond is also funding the new Facility for Agricultural Resource Management, or FARM, on the BMCC Pendleton campus. President Cam Preus said the college should be ready to unveil that building by late September.

Rather than build the Precision Irrigated Agriculture Center next to BMCC’s other Hermiston facilities, it was located at the Hermiston agricultural experiment station through a long-term lease with OSU. Phil Hamm, who directs the station south of town, said they are already using the same irrigation equipment that farmers use commercially in their fields, meaning students will leave the program ready to jump right into the local workforce.

“This is just a tremendous opportunity for OSU and BMCC to partner and provide something that’s never been done before,” Hamm said.

Ziari said he is already looking forward to hiring the program’s first graduate.

“Precision irrigation has been growing dramatically throughout the U.S.,” Ziari said.“This is a great opportunity for students to learn knowledge that is globally in need.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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