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Multiple choice(s) for an ag education

Finding the best way to integrate business studies with farm skills is becoming an educational must

It takes a ton of skilled farmers — and workers — to manage Canada’s 40 million acres of grains, 25 million acres of oilseeds, 14 million hogs and 12 million cattle. And, increasingly, that means not just time in the field and barn, but also in the office, in the meeting room and on the road.

Of course, the technology is huge. Just think of the machinery, genetics, chemistry, and electronics that are part of daily farm life.

And it’s no surprise to talk to Rene Van Acker, dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, who says “There’s tremendous demand for graduates from agriculture and food programs ... The demand is at all levels: diploma, undergraduate and graduate (and) program enrolments struggle to meet demand in the sector.”

But it’s a business decision too, starting with the business idea that ag education is a smart choice. In other words, ag education pays, and so do educated workers. And business fundamentals can be as essential as agronomics.

The idea is certainly catching on. Ag enrolment at Canada’s colleges and universities has soared 29 per cent over the past decade, and it still isn’t high enough. There simply aren’t enough graduates to meet demand.

“Canadian farmers are among the most sophisticated in the world,” Van Acker says. “And it’s not just farmers but the entire sector that supports them.”

Industry watchers — especially those with skin in the game — are grappling with the implications.

In the last decade, says Andrew Agopsowicz, senior economist at RBC, there has been an unprecedented shift toward more capital-intensive, high-tech, data- and science-driven farms. As a result, he believes, “We’re on the cusp of an industrial revolution within the agriculture sector.”

The diversity of farm and ag programs stretches the imagination. Lakeland College has launched a degree in agriculture technology, Bishop’s University is offering a Bachelor of Arts degree with dual specializations in sustainable agriculture and food systems, and Niagara College now has a graduate certificate in commercial beekeeping.

Even legacy agricultural programs at universities have added classes and adapted programs to maintain pace with the ever-evolving sector.

It’s great. But there are challenges too. If you’re a student, how do you know which program you should choose? And if you’re a farmer, what do all those letters on a job applicant’s resumé mean they can do?

College or university?

James Benkie, dean of the Werklund School of Agriculture Technology at Olds College, believes that colleges teach “the practice of agriculture” in two-year programs while universities spend four years exploring the “depth and breadth” of topics in agriculture.

Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at University of the Fraser Valley, puts it in another classic context. “Two-year (diplomas) across Canada really are geared for people to go back to the farm to enter a farm environment,” she says. “(Undergraduate degree programs) keep the door to industry open and that’s where there are exciting jobs.”

But, in a way, that was then. It isn’t today. At least, there’s no longer such a solid distinction between college and university. The lines have blurred.

Several colleges, including Olds College and Lakeland College, offer undergraduate degrees in agriculture along with their diploma programs, while universities like the University of Saskatchewan, Dalhousie University, and the University of Guelph, all well known for their undergraduate degrees, also offer a wide array of diploma programs.

“Colleges have always felt they have more to offer than two-year diplomas,” Benkie says.

At the same time, some universities have abandoned traditional agriculture programs, labelling them “expensive and outmoded,” according to Newman, while others have shifted from science-based agriculture education to programs focusing on the social sciences. The University of British Columbia, for example, reimagined its faculty of agriculture into the faculty of land and food systems.

For students, deciding on the right educational path often comes down to interests, program specifics and career goals.

Read more: Six questions to ask when choosing a post-secondary program

Distance matters, too. Van Acker notes that diploma programs tend to attract local students who want to learn about local crops and management techniques and develop regional networks while more university students are willing to travel farther afield, often to other provinces, to earn their undergraduate degrees.

“Whatever pathway students choose, it’s a good one,” Van Acker says. “Our greatest issue is having enough students to fill open positions in agriculture.”

But how does it look to the students?

Country Guide decided to ask them, and it turns out they’re making strategic school choices. As you’ll see, they may even have this sorted out better than their parents.

Family input

Andrew Manning

Bachelor of science in agricultural business, Dalhousie University

Before Andrew Manning applied to the Bachelor of Science in agricultural business program at Dalhousie University, he also researched diploma programs and trade schools to decide which educational path would offer the biggest benefit.

“I always knew my long-term goal would be too come back to the farm and, eventually, take it over,” Manning explains.

“I looked (at different post-secondary programs) more in depth to see what would give me the best background to take back to the farm.”

Rather than steering him toward a specific program, his parents, second-generation farmers in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, helped him understand how different educational paths would fit in on their family farm.

It turns out that talking about it inside the family proved crucial.

“They were extremely open and that’s what helped me evaluate different programs,” Manning says. “They never limited me in what I should focus on.”

Manning chose a bachelors program because he felt that a degree in agriculture business would provide the background, he needed to eventually take over Manning Family Farm, a mixed farming operation that includes greenhouses, market vegetables, grain and beef cattle.

“The ag business route was the best for what I was interested in and to help progress the farm as well.”

It’s helped on the farm, too. Manning has applied his coursework to better understand baseline financial numbers and offer suggestions to improve marketing and boost efficiencies.

He admits that he doesn’t always get to make the final decisions, but his parents have been very open to hearing his suggestions.

Although it will be a while before he takes over the farm, Manning is involved in day-to-day operations and believes his science training will also give him a broad perspective and allow him to successfully transfer to lead operator of the family farm when the time comes.

And there was another big plus to the ag business degree too.

Before stepping into a leadership role on the farm, Manning also wanted to spend a few years working in the agriculture finance industry and he felt strongly that an undergraduate degree would open doors. The program has already paid off.

The 2021 grad completed summer internships with Farm Credit Canada where he got more insight into how farms (and lenders) use all the financial data captured on the farm.

Together with his classes, this has enabled him to make suggestions about how to better use data on Manning Family Farm.

Says Manning: “Seeing (the information I learned in school) applied on a broader scale outside of my own farm … and getting a general understanding of how we use those numbers is one of the biggest things I’ve gotten from the program.”

Beyond the classroom

Brody Nestorvich

Agricultural management diploma, Olds College

When Brody Nestorvich started looking at options for post-secondary education, his mom offered some advice: Spend at least two years studying business.

Nestorvich took her advice. In 2018, he enrolled in the agricultural management diploma program at Alberta’s Olds College

“I chose Olds because it was an agricultural school that’s progressive and forward-thinking about what the future of the industry looks like. Those were huge draws to me,” he explains. “It gave me a business education that was based in agriculture.”

The two-year program, which included classes in agribusiness technology, livestock breeding, pest management, precision crop systems and machinery, also provided Nestorvich with skills he could put to work on the family farm in Innisfail, Alta.

“I took a lot of what I learned and used it,” he says. “I had a lot more knowledge on the farm business management and financial management.”

After his 2020 graduation, Nestorvich decided he wanted to continue his education. He considered a one-year, post-diploma certificate in agriculture technology integration at Olds but opted for two years earning his Bachelor of Science in agribusiness.

The program included eight months of classroom instruction and an eight-month practicum. Nestorvich is working as a research technician in smart agriculture at the Olds College Centre of Innovation, testing the latest high-tech soil sensors, weather stations and autonomous equipment.

“I’m not a fan of sitting in a classroom for an entire school year,” he says. “For me, coming from an agriculture background, the in-industry experience is where I’m learning a lot.”

The degree experience has been much different than the diploma course, though. “The degree is much more corporate-based. I’m getting a lot more industry knowledge and experience,” he says.

He calls the program “intense,” adding, “It’s definitely worth it.”

A better way to learn

Marc-Olivier Dufour

Agricultural business management and technologies, Collège d’Alma

After high school, fourth-generation dairy farmer Marc-Oliver Dufour enrolled in a CEGEP course at Collège d’Alma to develop the knowledge and skills he needed to be successful on Ferme Rayline, his family dairy farm in Saint-Gédéon, Que.

“I wanted to gain a better understanding and skills in family farm business management and learn everything I could to be successful from finances to the field,” he explains.

Dufour considered a one-year certificate program but felt it was better suited to future farm labourers, not future farm operators.

Despite growing up on the farm (and spending countless hours in the milking parlour milking the herd of 220 Holsteins), Dufour learned a lot about dairy farming in the three-year agricultural business management and technologies course. He credits the combination of classroom instruction, field trips and comparing notes with other “farm kids” enrolled in the program.

“It really expanded my horizons,” he says. “We did a lot of site visits to other farms to see how they operate and there was a lot of synergy among the students. We really stepped outside our comfort zones.”

Dufour attended Collège d’Alma with his twin brother, Jean-Michäel. For the pair, learning to create a business plan and gaining a solid foundation in farm management were integral to bcoming more active participants in farm decision-making.

It’s made a real difference. “My twin brother and I were better able to participate in decision-making with our parents,” he says. “We express our opinions more, because we learned a lot.”

Author: Jodi Helmer


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Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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