Rather than sit in a classroom and watch videos of people operating equipment, students in Riverland Community College's agriculture program can experience the next best thing without the safety risks.

Rather than sit in a classroom and watch videos of people operating equipment, students in Riverland Community College's agriculture program can experience the next best thing without the safety risks.

Two weeks ago, the college received a John Deere simulator that provides an "as real as it gets" experience for Riverland's agriculture students. The students receive life-like training operating farming equipment without the risk of damaging actual crops, or ruining expensive machinery.

"If we screw up on an actual combine, then we've ruined the crops and the machine," said Nick Schiltz, instructor for agricultural sciences at Riverland. "Here, if they screw up. It's OK. They can learn from their mistakes

The Post-Bulletin reports that students who take the driver's seat are surrounded with monitors and accurate mechanisms such as the wheel. Schiltz said that the seat and technology from the combine simulator could be installed into an actual combine and it'd be operational. Students learn how to harvest corn and soybeans while driving safely.

"Lots of students grow up not having extensive background in training," Schiltz said while pulling a lever to deposit his collected yield into a virtual wagon. "It really is a tremendous learning tool for growers within the agriculture center without going through the trauma of ruining crops."

The virtual combine also displayed data on the crop's moisture content, how much yield was gathered, fuel consumption, and virtual side mirrors that show drivers if they're close to depositing their harvest correctly into the proper bin.

The Hormel Foundation donated $25,000 to help purchase the simulator, said Dan Hoffman, interim director of the agriculture program at Riverland.

Riverland's degree program prepares students to work in agricultural industries such as food, fiber, animal research, production and processing. Students learn how to experiment to improve yield and quality of crops and improve the resistance of plants and animals to disease or pests.

There are also certificate programs available for precision agriculture and agribusiness, according to Riverland's website.

"The program is both a gateway and pathway into agribusiness," Hoffman said. "It's a pathway into careers and is a great starting spot."

One of the biggest challenges facing the agriculture industry is a shortage of technicians with expertise in electrical engineering, computer engineering and robotics. Technology in agriculture has expanded greatly over the last few years, outpacing the number of workers who can fix it when it breaks.

"We tend to overlook agriculture," Hoffman said. "Without the productive farmer, most of us wouldn't have time to work, and there is a lot to be thankful for, especially for the farmers and growers who work hard to put food in our hands."