Area cooperatives partner with Northeast Community College to address chemical applicator shortage

Nov 15, 2023

Travis Pinkelman, Farmers Pride Applicator Apprentice

Link to original story, as it appeared in the Midwest Messenger
By Kristen Sindelar of the Midwest Messenger

Harvest may be wrapping up, but fieldwork is far from done. Now is the time to apply dry fertilizers or other crop protection chemicals.

The inexperienced observer may see large applicator machinery driving through the wide open fields and naively think that anyone can do that. All it takes is to turn on the auto-steer and press a button to unload, right?

Applying field chemicals safely and accurately is a science requiring extensive training. The operator must know how to drive the machinery, as well as understand the technical aspects of the applicator equipment and the products themselves.

There are a multitude of reasons for the influx in open chemical applicator positions. For one, many of those employed as chemical applicators are reaching retirement age or the point where their bodies are saying “slow down.”

The season for chemical application is compressed in a few short months with intensive hours. Even increased pay and other incentives have not been enough to entice new employees to take on the job.

“To say there is a shortage of ag workers is an understatement, specifically in the chemical applicator role,” said Chad Carlson, senior vice president of talent with Central Valley Ag (CVA). With 80 locations in Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa, CVA is under pressure due to the worker shortage in ag-related fields.

For adults who are already employed, finding time to complete the required training can present a barrier to those who may be interested in becoming a chemical applicator. Technical demands coupled with an already short workforce mean that on-the-job training is not a practical option, either. Students of all ages, whether fresh out of high school or those wanting a career change, may find that the financial means are not available.

Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, has overcome these obstacles through its new Chemical Applicator Apprenticeship program. Launched this August, the program has taken two years to develop.

Three local cooperatives—CVA, Farmers Pride and CHS—are partnering with Northeast in the program’s inaugural year. All three cooperatives are offering free tuition for apprenticeship-related instruction for their employees.

The program is structured around the peak season of chemical application, said Northeast Apprenticeship Director Kimberly Andersen. Chemical applicator apprentices attended an eight-week classroom session beginning in August, then work fulltime two months at the cooperative for on-site training. In-classroom education will then resume in January for another eight-week session.

Apprentices spent two days a week in classroom, then were at the jobsite the remainder of the workweek to build experience on-the-job. Dawn Pochop, human resources manager for Farmers Pride at Battle Creek, Nebraska, said that this arrangement gives in-depth and hands-on training beyond the bookwork they were limited to in the past.

During the two months between college sessions, the apprentices are working five days a week at the cooperative and can immediately put into practice what they learned in the classroom. This benefits not only the student but also the cooperative.

“We don’t have to lose an employee for six months while they go away to school,” Pochop said.

Furthermore, there is a correlation between apprenticeship and employee retention. The U.S. Department of Labor shows a 93% retention rate of apprentices three years after completing an apprentice program. This is great news for cooperatives struggling to find dedicated workers.

Apprenticeship has been modeled for centuries, but the practice is gaining traction across a broadening range of industries.

“Apprenticeship used to be more specific to trades like electricians, lineman and plumbers. Over the past 10-20 years, other industries have started to see what a great platform this is to train individuals,” Andersen said. There are now more than 1,300 apprenticed occupations, from accounting to healthcare to mechanics.
National Apprenticeship Week is being recognized Nov. 13-19. This year’s theme is “Registered Apprenticeship: Superhighway to Good Jobs.” Brent Parton made this announcement through his role as principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration. He considers Registered Apprenticeship a “proven and industry-driven model that paves the way to rewarding careers for all.”

“Apprenticeship is a great way for employees to build their talent pipeline,” Andersen said.

Pochop is grateful to Northeast for opening up the opportunity for apprenticeship in the agricultural world as it becomes harder to recruit and retain employees.

“We feel this program helps the employee because they can learn in a college setting and can focus on the specific application role. We are developing them to become better employees,” said Pochop.

Farmers Pride enhances the training by providing a mentor for each apprentice. These seasoned chemical applicators work with the apprentice at the cooperative to ensure they are progressing and applying their training properly at the jobsite.

“Mentors are a key part in helping the student understand, learn and demonstrate their capabilities,” Pochop said.

With a class size of six, this year’s apprentices are gaining individualized instruction. Next year, the class will be capped at 12, said Andersen. Based on the interest so far from the cooperatives, she fully expects the classes to fill.

At the college, apprentices practice driving on a simulator. Job tasks can be pre-loaded based on the operator’s level of comprehension. Moreover, Northeast created several new classes explicit to chemical applicator equipment.

“We know there is a huge shortage of chemical applicators, and the curriculum at Northeast did not have a specific pathway to chemical applicators,” Andersen said. “This program is specifically geared toward what you need to know for that occupation.”

The program is designed mainly for two groups: high school graduates who want to immediately enter the workforce and adult learners who may be interested in changing careers but do not have the ability to become a full-time student. But it can also jumpstart the training for a current cooperative employee.

“If we have a Farmers Pride staff member interested or new hires in the next spring cycle who are interested in becoming an applicator, and they are committed, we can send them through the program,” Pochop said.

Being accepted into the Chemical Applicator Apprenticeship program initially has very few requirements, said Carlson. It does take attention to detail, but Northeast will provide the education and certification necessary to become a qualified chemical applicator, he added.

“If you want to be part of a great organization to help our farmers be profitable and succeed, the Chemical Application Apprenticeship is an incredible opportunity,” Carlson said.

The first year of the Chemical Applicator Apprenticeship at Northeast is showing great promise. Plans are already underway for next year’s session, said Andersen. Plus, there is opportunity for other businesses or cooperatives to get involved.

“I urge employers and students: if this is something you’re interested in, ask now to get involved with the program,” Andersen said.

To learn more about the Chemical Applicator Apprenticeship or other apprenticeship options at Northeast, go to

At Farmers Pride, reach Dawn Pochop at 402-675-2375.

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