The first day of school is usually reserved for name games and other light-hearted activities, but at Mexico’s campus of the Moberly Area Community College, it instead became the setting for a high-profile speaking engagement featuring a woman at the center of Missouri agriculture.

Chris Chinn, the director of the state’s Department of Agriculture and a fifth-generation farmer, came to Mexico on Thursday to give her blessing to the brand new agriculture technology program at the college.

About 20 students and several administrators attended Chinn’s address on the department’s work, the state of affairs in agriculture and the direction the field is going. Chinn painted an optimistic picture of the burgeoning technologies in agriculture and the job outlook for students when they graduate.

The agriculture technology program was originally developed using a community-based approach, according to its head instructor, Allan Sharrock. He said the college consulted local agriculture professionals while designing the course, and many said they needed help utilizing and repairing newly-acquired technology.

The courses will teach students to handle all the wiring, maintenance and repair work needed to run a 21st century farming operation, Sharrock said. He added that the program could even prepare students better than their counterparts at four-year universities.

Sharrock said Chinn’s visit likely reassured his students that they had made a smart choice in deciding to enroll in the program.

“Young people think they know what they need to learn a lot of times, but it takes people that have been around a little longer… to say ‘this is really what you need,’” Sharrock said. “Her talking about the technology and the rapid pace of technology and how they’ve picked the right things to study will hopefully make them more determined to be better students.”

Chinn talked about her own family farm in Shelby County and how her father-in-law is intimidated by the new technologies that have entered the farming process in the last few decades. She said the new program at MACC could help prepare students to deal with the technological aspects of agriculture that baffle many farmers of older generations.

“It’s so important for you guys sitting in this room today to get all the experience and knowledge that you can, because you truly are going to be the future,” Chinn said. “As people like my father-in-law start to become more and more intimidated with technology today, you guys are going to be the shining stars that come in and save the day. It’s going to be what you guys are learning right here in this room that is going to be implemented on our farms and our ranches.”

The director also spoke about her strategic initiatives to give Missouri farmers the best chance at succeeding in an increasingly more challenging economic landscape. She said her office is working to loosen regulations, fight food insecurity and ensure that rural Missourians have access to high-speed internet. She said these were all necessary steps to “bring the next generation back home” after college or other employment opportunities have ended.

Chinn’s hopeful tone resonated with some of the students in attendance. Michaela White said her family’s small cattle ranch had fallen on some difficult times, and Chinn’s words had given her some reason for optimism.

“I already know how hard it is to make money on the beef farm, so I guess it’s just more enlightening at the moment to hear [Chinn] talk about it, to hear that things are being pushed to help it more than I thought,” White said. “I enjoyed hearing that there were a lot of actions being taken, a lot more than I expected or knew about, to promote farms and the area.”

White and her fellow students began on Thursday what will be at least a two-year voyage at the college in pursuit of an associate’s degree in applied science.

Despite her positive tone, Chinn also recognized the severity of the problems that face Missouri farmers. Nearly 90 percent of the state remains mired in drought, the prices of many crops and meat products have plummeted and Chinese tariffs continue to hurt pork and soybean farmers.

Chinn said she hopes the state’s recent attempts to make state grass and water available to farmers will mitigate some of the effects of the drought. She said the department is also exploring secondary markets for some of the products hit with tariffs.

“These are challenging times, but farmers have been through droughts before, and we’ll be through another one,” Chinn said. “Farmers and ranchers are resilient, and they will survive it. There may be some who don’t, and that’s unfortunate, but we want to make sure we’re able to support them doing everything we can to find new market opportunities to help them survive the downturn.”