ST. PAUL — With an aging workforce and pressing labor shortages, a new collaboration among tech colleges will focus on infusing the ag industry with skilled workers.

Educators and lawmakers gathered Tuesday in St. Paul to announce the opening of a new Center of Excellence within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Called AgCentric, the program will address the growing shortage of educated workers in the ag industry and the increasing global food demands through outreach and education.

Program enrollment will begin in the fall semester of 2015 at Central Lakes College in Staples, Ridgewater College in Willmar and Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls. The schools will pool resources to guide students to programs that best fit their talents.

“It’s about trying to provide a clear path for students to find their way into agriculture, because the opportunities aren’t just there for someone who comes from a farm to be a farm operator,” Ridgewater College President Douglas Allen said. “It’s in ag business, ag technology, science, seed genetics. It’s everywhere, all over the map, and it’s our challenge to bring it all together at our center of excellence.”

The variety in programs between the member colleges will bring new opportunities for students, school administrators said. AgCentric will develop shared curriculum offerings in ag studies based off each college’s specialties, opening up increased course offerings at each member school. Northland’s unmanned aircraft program, for example can help enhance precision ag education, said Anne Temte, president of NCTC.

“What we don’t have are the programs Ridgewater and Central Lakes have, and so their strengths tied to our strengths will give us the ability to take an emerging industry and make it accessible to the farmers of Minnesota,” she said.

Keith Olander, the director of the Central Lakes Ag & Energy Center, was appointed director of AgCentric. He said one of the most important tasks the center will have is recruitment.

“Planting those seeds of an agriculture career in middle school and high school is becoming more important than ever,” he said. “When we talk to students in most of our areas, particularly in the urban arena, kids are a couple generations removed (from farming). There isn’t a lot of knowledge of where food really comes from, or the processes involved.”

Olander said he is excited for the collaboration, and the challenges in the ag industry will keep them busy.

“This represents a change in education,” he said. “AgCentric is collaboration with a purpose: it’s getting together … to better serve the industry, to better serve our students and to advance agriculture not only in Minnesota, but across the country.”