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‘Super Keen’

Ag education is hot, and enrolment is booming from coast to coast

The associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan says that for more than a decade there have been more women than men in the ag programs.

It’s inspiring for anyone in agriculture to talk to the principals and deans at ag-related academic institutions across the country. More than ever in history, young Canadians are pursuing careers in ag.

In a nutshell, it’s because there are jobs in agriculture after school — good jobs that offer exciting and interesting career paths for young graduates. They are jobs that mix high levels of responsibility with the use of cutting-edge technology. Even better, they offer opportunities to help protect the planet and more.

At McGill, one of Canada’s oldest ag programs, more students are signing up than ever, not only for the hands-on side of agriculture where they can implement new technologies, but also for business decision-making as well.

Canada’s ag sector will be in good hands, says a confident Dr. Jim Fyles, McGill’s associate ag dean, who notes that the ag students he meets “are driven by an entrepreneurial spirit of innovation, on one hand, and by a desire to help feed the world in a sustainable manner on the other.”

The story is the same at Canada’s newest ag university.

“It’s unbelievable how many jobs there are in agriculture,” says Dr. Tom Baumann, associate professor in the agriculture technology department at the University of the Fraser Valley in Chilliwack, B.C.

His university is new — only six years old — and it has Canada’s newest bachelor of science in agriculture (B.Sc.Agr.) degree, open only since 2016. It’s small, of course, but enrolment has already doubled to about 25 students this year and they feel they’ve got a tiger by the tail. Plus, their diploma program is booming too.

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Employment opportunities are regional, they’re national, they’re in the field and in the barn, and they’re in the boardroom. “There are jobs at Farm Credit Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, so many in sales and extension,” says Baumann. “Our grads are in demand at greenhouse operations, at dairy farms… They are especially looking to fill mid-management positions.”

And the students are up to the job, says McGill’s Fyles. He describes them, as they describe themselves, in one memorable phrase: “super keen.”

The following snapshots across the country aim to capture that excitement. As I said, it’s inspirational.

University of Manitoba

At the University of Manitoba, enrolment in ag programs has been maxed out for quite some time but those days may soon be over.

“Our enrolment over the last five years has remained steady — around 720 students in our undergraduate degree programs and 150 students in our two-year diploma program,” reports Dr. Jared Carlberg, associate dean (academic) of the faculty of agricultural and food sciences.

Now the school thinks it can double its intake.

U of M has hit its admissions cap for both degree and diploma almost every year, and the school, which offers diplomas and five B.Sc. degrees (agriculture, which includes agronomy, plant biotechnology and animal systems, agribusiness, agro-ecology, food science, and human nutritional sciences) will be petitioning to increase its number of admissions spots.

Says Carlberg: “We believe our faculty has the potential to double in size in the intermediate term as we complete our ongoing curriculum renewal, update our promotional and recruitment efforts, and consider new programs that could include areas such as food justice and sovereignty and sustainable food systems.”

University of Alberta

The University of Alberta is another institution with capped and maxed out ag program enrolment. The institution offers several B.Sc.Agr. degrees (agriculture and resource economics, animal science, crop science and sustainable ag systems), a B.Sc. in animal health and B.Sc. in agriculture/food business management, in which students access a range of courses within the Alberta School of Business.

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Women account for three-quarters of ag students, and international enrolment in its ag programs sits at about 15 per cent. Many of these students transfer from partner universities in other countries, notably China.

Jim Bohun, assistant dean (academic and student programs) in the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences, says the B.Sc.Agr. animal science major and the B.Sc. in animal health have the highest enrolment due to factors such as professor expertise, industry support and institutional infrastructure (U of A has cattle, swine and poultry facilities).

“Applications to our ag-related programs have been steadily increasing,” says Bohun. “As we have a mandated enrolment target, we are unable to increase enrolment to meet this demand. As a result, admission averages have been rising. Increasing applications are largely based on efforts to promote employability of agriculture graduates along with interest in pre-vet programs.” Incorporation of new technologies is also attracting students to the U of A.

University of Saskatchewan

The University of Saskatchewan has one ag program already capped, and Dr. Fran Walley, academic associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, says the institution has seen “a pretty dramatic increase” in enrolment in the college over the last five years. In the last year, it’s exploded from 850 students to just shy of 1,300 this year. Some of that, she says, is due to the launch of new programs related to land and resource management, but also due to the great career opportunities for graduates.

“There are a lot of jobs in Saskatchewan in agriculture and resource management,” Walley notes. “Agriculture is a big industry in the province. Ag business is very strong as well. Our students do well getting summer jobs and our graduate surveys show that they get really good jobs in their areas of study.” The college doesn’t need to do much promotion, she says, as prospective students living in the province are quite aware of opportunities that exist in the ag industry.

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U of Sask offers three main ag degrees and two diplomas. The B.Sc.Agr. is the main degree, but a B.Sc.Agr. business was introduced several years ago, as was a B.Sc. in animal bioscience (which had 150 applicants this year for 90 spots). The ag-related diploma programs are available in agronomy and ag business. Walley notes that for more than a decade now, there have been more women than men in the ag programs, and that the percentage of international students has stayed pretty steady at about 10 per cent.

University of Guelph

In Ontario, the University of Guelph has seen steady growth in enrolment across all agricultural programs over the last five years, with a B.Sc.Agr. offered at the main Guelph campus and diploma programs at its Ridgetown campus. Dr. Jonathan Schmidt, associate academic dean in the university’s Ontario Agriculture College, attributes growing student numbers to a general increase in the awareness of agriculture and food in the population at large.

Schmidt believes society today values learning about food production and is excited about producing food in sustainable ways. He also thinks awareness of all the opportunities available in the ag sector has grown, with a large number of careers inside and outside the farm gate, including many professional opportunities and cutting-edge jobs with exciting futures.

“We promote agriculture as it is today, technically demanding and sophisticated, and that resonates with young people,” Schmidt says. “Agriculture includes running significant-sized businesses. I think there’s a positive feeling about the sector these days… it’s the largest economic sector in Ontario, so that creates an attraction to being involved in it or at least exploring it.”

Schmidt says that farm kids wanting education before they return to the family farm account for only a minority of their total student numbers.

Like other long-established ag institutions, U of G’s offerings have evolved and are quite different now compared to decades past. “Topics are much more spread out now among various programs,” Schmidt says. “For example, the food and agricultural business program is offered in the bachelor of commerce degree now, and things like pest management and soil science are included within the B.Sc. in environmental science.”

Schmidt believes the number of women in almost all of the programs has stayed steady for the last seven or eight years, at about 60 per cent (except the equine programs, which are about 95 per cent women).

“We would like to grow our international student enrolment, which has gone down a bit in recent years,” Schmidt says. “It’s one of our goals as a college and one reason for this is that interactions with international students are very enriching for domestic students.”

Like many other institutions, the U of G promotes ag programs to students in high schools, and Schmidt says the university’s website is also very important in promoting programs and graduate job opportunities to high school students, teachers and guidance counsellors. He adds that other organizations such as AgScape are also doing very proactive things to drive interest in agriculture sector education.

As to whether more farm business management content has been added over time to various programs, Schmidt says no, as it’s been there the whole time. “We’ve been pretty rigorous all along in including a lot of it,” he says. “Farm businesses require understanding the soil, plants, animals and so on, as well as financial management, operations management, economics, marketing. So we’ve always strived to provide a balance for the B.Sc.Agr. students who study everything from breeding and agronomy to commodities markets. The description in the academic calendar makes this very clear.”

Eastern Canada

Dalhousie University’s faculty of agriculture, in Truro, Nova Scotia, reports that animal-focused programs like bioveterinary science, animal science and pre-veterinary science remain popular and that they have stable enrolment across ag programs.

In fall of 2017, McGill University in Montreal enrolled over 2,100 students in the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences, 1,455 being female, up about eight per cent over the last five years. One diploma (Farm Management & Technology) is offered, along with s everal B.Sc.Agr. environmental science degrees (such as agricultural economics, agro-environmental sciences and global food security).

Jim Fyles, associate dean of student affairs in the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences, says he and his colleagues are “delighted” to see enrolments in agriculture programs rebounding after many years of decline, a scenario which he says has been experienced across North America.

“Our enrolments in agricultural degree programs have increased almost 90 per cent since 2010, which is remarkable enough, but particularly when the demographic trend in university entrance-aged students has declined 20 per cent over the same time,” Fyles says. “Enrolments in bioresource engineering, which has a strong foundation in agriculture, have increased by over 40 per cent.”

While Fyles says the content McGill offers in its ag programs “seems to be working well,” he adds that his faculty has several new professors, and that their new perspectives and expertise may result in some changes.

Like the other ag department leaders, Fyles believes ag program enrolment is growing at McGill because of an increasing emphasis on the cutting-edge science and technology in modern agriculture, from genomics to remote-sensing driven precision management. He also agrees that there is a broader understanding of agriculture these days, and the fact that McGill’s ag programs include urban, international and organic production contexts for food production draws a wider cross-section of students, many of whom are from an urban background.

“We have diversity of students with a diversity of motivations, but on the whole it seems that they are looking for a balance,” Fyles observes, “A career path certainly, but one in an area that is interesting and exciting to them.”

However, Fyles adds that while “students, parents and surveys tell us that getting a job is very important in enrolment decisions… some programs, such as agricultural economics in which a job at the end is almost certain, are undersubscribed.”

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