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Do parents really recognize the skills their children are bringing back from college and university, and how those skills can make the farm stronger?

Skip the smiley faces and the acronyms. In the new age of digital soft skills, agricultural schools are embracing the same modes of electronic communication as their students, albeit with a dose of finesse, professionalism and, at times, trepidation.

“Don’t use emojis, they’re cute, but they’re not professional,” Mark Fournier of Alberta’s Olds College tells his students. The school offers applied degree and diploma programs in agribusiness and agricultural management, respectively, and has made the decision to include texting skills and strategies as part of its curriculum.

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Like many post-secondary instructors, career counsellors and professors, Fournier has found it isn’t just students, it’s also industry that is increasingly relying on electric communication.

Texting is changing Fournier’s teaching patterns. “If we were to go back even 10 years ago, students would come into the instructor’s office to talk to the instructor to get a little extra help or get some clarification on some issue. Then we moved over to email, so students became more comfortable with emailing instructors, and now we’ve actually found that phone conversations have almost dropped off. I think I could probably count on one hand the number of students over the last three years that have actually phoned me,” says Fournier. “Text messaging is taking over.”

But the important point for Fournier is that industry is also shifting to texting for its communication needs, and agribusinesses want employees who can communicate effectively in short bursts of text.

Texting isn’t just a teenage way of keeping connected. Increasingly, it’s a business strength too, and it’s creating a communications environment that farms will need to excel in as well.

The pressure will only grow, he says. “A producer will text message their supplier or text message the dealer to say they are having a problem, so more and more industry members are working with the general public through text messaging.”

Other technologies, like video conferencing and FaceTime, are also becoming invaluable tools for farmers, Fournier says, and they too require soft skills or “people skills” to be effective.

Just because two people are speaking over a video link or text, it doesn’t mean they can stop paying attention to social cues, be vague about important details or let professionalism slip.

Is this technology right for this farm? Such questions are at the heart of today’s ag education.
photo: Supplied/File

Even educators, however, are trying to figure out how these new skills contribute to success, versus when they may be a distraction, or actually get in the way.

“Maybe I’m old school, but I refuse to believe I’m old,” says Pascal Thériault, a lecturer with McGill’s faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences. Even so, the 40-year-old Thériault finds himself leaving phone messages that aren’t returned, and counselling students against communicating through Facebook.

“A student, instead of leaving me a phone message in my office, will actually send me a Facebook message when we’re not even Facebook friends,” Thériault says. “So I’d open up my Facebook message from such and such and it says, “I won’t make it to class because I am sick.” Of course my first reaction is to say, ‘send me a real email.’”

But while Facebook remains taboo in business communications, the text message has become an acceptable, if not favoured, form of communication. Thériault adds that the convenience of texting has now won him over, but agrees that professional text messages must be kept short, concise and free of abbreviations.

“How can you manage a business with just text messages?” he asks. “I’m slowly trying to get there. Even for our internship businesses, because (our students) all do internships over the summer, we found over the years that even if we don’t want to give them our personal cell phone numbers, it’s just so much easier to do that. Text me if there’s something, I’ll text you. They reply to us right away and it’s done.”

What texting can’t do is replace face-to-face communication, something that many — if not most, students — need to work on when they begin college or university.

Fournier agrees that some of his agriculture students are genuinely unnerved by having to speak to people in person.

“The students that are coming into post-secondary now are very used to having their cell phones out, are very used to communicating in very short bursts through text messages, and we’re actually finding that there is almost a level of being uncomfortable when they are forced to engage for too long a period face-to face,” Fournier says, adding that giving or receiving critical or constructive feedback seems to challenge them the most. “They haven’t had that as much as they’ve had in the past, because of the technology being a buffer, that’s some thing that we as educators are trying to adapt to and overcome.”

At the Ontario College of Agriculture at Guelph University, students are pushed to expand their soft skills by organizing events, networking and participating in the larger community. Melinda Vanryn, program counsellor for the school’s bachelor of science in agriculture degree, says that soft skills are often developed on campus, but outside of the classroom.

“We have a job fair for students and in some ways it’s not about getting a job… these opportunities give students the soft skills that people are looking for, they go to the job fair and come back saying, ‘Oh, hey, I learned to network a little more, I felt a little more comfortable walking up and introducing myself to a stranger,’ so I think a lot of those opportunities are important… and I’m hoping students are recognizing what else they are gaining from those experiences.”

Andy Robinson is the college’s professor of teaching excellence and has been involved in a number of new experiential learning initiatives at the school, working to integrate real world lessons into an academic setting.

“Basically, I’m identifying areas where students have a significant learning opportunity that’s outside of a traditional classroom type of environment,” Robinson says. It’s a different education than their parents had, and uses independent-learning course codes to allow students to get credit for some, perhaps, non-traditional activities, Robinson explains.

A simple example is an event called College Royal, the largest student-run university open house in North America. It started as preparation for the Royal Winter Fair and is in some ways an expansion of the 4-H model.

Students who participate learn to show livestock and display forages, while also honing their time-management and leadership skills.

Maybe it sounds like old-fashioned school projects, but there’s more to it than that. Students must also write a reflective piece on the experience that outlines what they have learned and gives advice to next year’s participants. Importantly, too, they must formulate a decision-making timeline which they present to their peers.

“In this particular example it’s primarily leadership skills they’re taking away, and it also gets at how to train others to do a skill that you’re very familiar with,” Robinson says, adding that these skills are important for those who hope to manage their own farm business one day.

The initiative also gets students sharing information through in-depth writing projects, and away from the short bursts of text they are so often accustomed to.

Basic agronomic facts are still important, but complex decision-making gets more emphasis.
photo: Olds College

“We’ve put an emphasis on making sure they can write reports,” said Paul Gumprich, an associate professor of agriculture at the University of the Fraser Valley. “We feel it is important that they are able to communicate to their staff, to employees or other businesses they deal with… in detail.”

The school also works to prepare its agriculture students to be their own public relations managers, as consumers become more interested and outspoken about agriculture and food policy.

“We teach classes on how to handle the media in less than ideal conditions as well,” says Gumprich. Whether it’s responding to zoning changes or animal welfare issues after an undercover video surfaces, the professor says today’s farmers are called on to have a public persona and public response like never before.

“I’d like to say that they’ll never have to deal with conflict… but we all know that’s not true, so we try to put some focus on that,” he says. “We try and put them into those situations, or at least get them thinking about those things, things like GMOs and animal welfare. If they are growing those crops or raising animals… they will have to deal with consumers and their perceptions.”

Students at Fraser Valley also practice speaking on camera and do test runs of audio interviews to gain the confidence they need to become leaders in representing their industry.

Thériault says responding effectively to criticism or concern, both in person and online, has become an increasing focus of skill development for McGill’s agriculture students as well. He says students benefit from stepping back from their family farms and looking critically how they operate and how some of their practices might be perceived by those without an agricultural background.

“Because if you were brought up on the farm and all you do is farming, then what you’re doing is right… but you need to be able to express it in a way that consumers understand,” says Thériault.

However, this also means our young farmers need the soft or fluid skills to listen to other points of view — even if they find them offensive — and then build a discussion around them, rather than a confrontation.

“I had one student who is vegan and is a supporter of PETA and 60 per cent of the class are dairy farmers… to her milk is murder,” Thériault says. “But my dairy farmers claim that you’re going to die if you don’t drink milk, of course because that’s what they were brought up to believe. So there’s lots of belief being challenged.”

But the students in his course handled the situation with more aplomb than he anticipated.

“I was surprised because they are more polite than I was expecting them to be. I was ready to walk in with a fire extinguisher to put down those fires,” he recalls, adding that even with two fairly entrenched views, there is room for debate and understanding. “The more food information you know the more you can communicate to the consumer what you’re doing. And that’s not technical, you could be running a campaign, you could be running things that might or might not work.”

Robinson also stresses that communication with folks off the farm has become an increasingly important soft skill for agriculturalists.

“We do have a course in communication and they definitely cover how to use social media effectively and other techniques for communicating the agriculture message,” he says. “We also, certainly within the 4H program we’re running on campus, have guest speakers that talk about using social media effectively to get the message out. And not just social media, but other media as well.”

Critically analyzing and interpreting incoming information is also key for students looking to return to the family farm, start their own enterprise or work at another agribusiness. Just as consumers can be targeted by misinformation, so are farmers.

“We are teaching them various critical thinking skills — how you conduct analysis — and throughout the program they will build their skill in complex decision-making in all their courses,” says Michele Rogalsky, director of the School of Agriculture at the University of Manitoba. Students get exposed to new technologies in agronomy, livestock and business management, for example. But once they learn what the technology can do, they also look at whether it would be a good decision to integrate it into a particular farm or agribusiness.

With agricultural research evolving so rapidly, it’s more important than ever to be able to critically evaluate such opportunities, Rogalsky adds.

“We are no longer just looking at seeding rates and soil fertility practices,” Rogalsky says. “Those will change, so we need critical thinking skills to assess new information… What are the biases? How do you determine where you are getting that agronomic information from? Then, more importantly, how to you make sure it applies to your farm specifically?

“I think all of our courses are recognizing that production information and practices are changing so quickly, we’ve got to prepare the students.”

The ability to carefully and critically evaluate new information and claims is also something that employers are looking for, she adds, noting it has come up repeatedly in consultations with industry.

“So three years from now, whatever that new crop is, they are going to have the skills and resources to gather that information and make appropriate and effective financial management decisions,” says the director.

Thériault agrees. To him, at the end of the day, teaching agriculture is about bringing well-rounded, thoughtful people onto the farm, into the workforce and into the community.

“We are teaching them to manage multi-million dollar businesses, so it’s not just about having the skills to milk a cow or deciding the right machinery for you,” Thériault says. “I like to think it’s about life in general.”

About the author

Field editor

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist for Country Guide.

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