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When college grads come home to the farm

If your kids come back from college and just end up behind the wheel of a tractor, you're missing some serious opportunities

On a sun-dappled morning in mid-September, 80 young men and women assemble in a large auditorium at the University of Manitoba’s campus. They’re here for a day of orientation as they begin two years of study towards their agricultural diplomas.

Among them is 18-year-old George Meggison. He’s following in the footsteps of two sisters, as well as his parents and grandfathers, who all earned university degrees and diplomas here.

Meggison’s parents, Coral and Steve, farm near Goodlands, Man., and are happy to see their son choosing to study agriculture. His older sisters, Sheena and Katie, are both recent graduates with four-year agricultural degrees.

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“We’re excited for George, too,” says Steve Meggison on the 2,600-acre mixed farm he operates with Coral in the southwestern corner of Manitoba. In part, Steve is remembering his own early days when he began his post-secondary education.

“Maybe one of the most important things is just to get out of here for a while, and go have some fun,” he says. “You’re meeting new people and starting to be in charge for yourself.”

Of course, he adds, that time away is an opportunity to broaden perspectives, too, and to learn to think independently and to problem solve while absorbing the content of the two-year ag diploma program.

“What we want him to learn, aside from the technical, practical information in each course, is how to develop contacts and to network with people,” Steve says. “People you meet at university can be important to you later in your life.”

All of the above is why parents across Canada invest in sons’ and daughters’ educations. They share the Meggisons’ hopes. They want their children to thrive and prosper.

They also know, though, that a good education for the next generation helps advance the family farm enterprise too. It adds a highly trained farm manager to the farm team and brings new ideas, perspectives and skills.

Further education also opens up a world of opportunity for off-farm, ag-related careers and good-paying employment in a sector awash with challenging new jobs.

Agricultural schools like this one, and others across the country have a long history of producing, generation after generation, the right fit for those jobs. Thanks to their efforts, Canada has world-class farm managers and great business heads.

But oh, the times are changing, and with them, the skill sets and competencies the next generation needs.

The new strategy

In the crowd this fall day is Michele Rogalsky, director of University of Manitoba’s School of Agriculture’s diploma program. She is also president of the Canadian Association of Diploma in Agriculture Programs (CADAP), representing 15 post-secondary institutions across Canada that offer ag diplomas. If anyone understands the challenge of keeping up and ensuring their programs are meeting the needs of this rapidly changing industry, it’s her.

Here’s the strategy. At the University of Manitoba the focus is on teaching farm science and technology, but their students are also being equipped with management skills, Rogalsky says.

Yes, students will head back to the farm competent in a broad set of technical areas, with real insights into modern best practices.

But they’ll also be able to think on their feet, to problem solve and to score points as team players.

Plus, they’ll also bring a valuable understanding of agricultural and food systems.

Michele Rogalsky.
photo: Supplied

“They become critical and independent thinkers and mature responsible citizens,” says Rogalsky.

University of Manitoba’s program is recognized by the Agronomists of Manitoba as qualification for a technical agrologist’s designation, and the diploma in agriculture is regularly a gateway to two more years of study in the faculty of agricultural and food sciences degree program, too.

Re-thinking “school”

The University of Manitoba recently completed an extensive review of their program offerings, says Rogalsky, leading to a new focus that it implemented last year. The emphasis now is on teaching the principles that underlie modern farm production and agribusiness management practices, not just the how-tos.

The goal is to expand students’ opportunities to develop and apply higher level decision-making skills. It’s to help them excel at assessing a farm business, and at assessing the impact of current agricultural issues on individual farm operations and on the industry as a whole.

For students, this means new core courses, such as one on how integrated agri-food systems expand the focus from the farm gate to the consumer’s plate. The U of M has also replaced a farm machinery course with one focused on precision agriculture and on how technological tools feed into decision-making. The goal is to help students better understand technological applications and their potential value in terms of the farm’s management targets.

“They become critical and independent thinkers,” says the University of Manitoba’s Michele Rogalsky, and these students know their business.
photo: Lakeland College

What the two-year program ultimately enables each student to produce is a detailed farm management plan, which they take before a panel of financial and producer organizations and industry representatives.

“It’s comparable to a thesis defense,” says Rogalsky.

Developing a farm management plan has been a component of their program for decades, with students using it to demonstrate they’ve learned a broad range of skills, like knowing how to calculate costs of production, how to evaluate the information that informs their decisions, and how to communicate clearly.

Why Olds College is changing

Like the other colleges that Country Guide checked in with, Alberta’s Olds College has reviewed its ag programming, doing extensive engagement surveys on what skills are most important for their graduates.

What those surveys have shown Olds, says college president Stuart Cullum, is the value of soft skills.

Stuart Cullum.
photo: Supplied

“The graduates coming out of Olds College need to be effective communicators, they need to understand business, they need to know how to collaborate, and be systems thinkers,” Cullum insists.

Olds College has been adding significant new programming to its offerings, too.

But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s all bookwork and theory. “Technology integration is another important skill set we’re always talking about,” says Cullum.

The Alberta school’s Smart Farm, a giant laboratory for its agricultural technology students, is a unique offering in Canada, giving students access to innovative new technology, and a place where something known as “design thinking” is emphasized, enabling students to engage with ag tech in innovative, reflective ways.

Cullum says students are challenged to think about problems to solve, opportunities to seize, and how agricultural technology can be used to optimize productivity and environmental sustainability.

Olds College has recently launched major new programs to equip students with new ag tech skills. These include its new precision agriculture — techgronomy diploma and its agriculture technology integration post-diploma certificate, both starting in 2020.

The courses will prepare grads to work in a fast-paced environment disrupted by technology, and they will explore how to link emerging technologies with existing farm infrastructure, Cullum says. “It’s a role and a skill set that will be valuable on-farm as well as in other parts of the industry and the service sector for agriculture.”

Olds College also unveiled its new Werklund School in the autumn, and part of its longstanding commitment to building Alberta’s position as a global leader in agriculture and technology.

The college sees a need for graduates with a strong understanding of the connections between agronomy, technology and data sciences. That, says Cullum, includes knowing how to integrate technology on-farm.

“We want to develop graduates who can come into an environment where they’re going to be experiencing different levels of technology and working with equipment that in some cases may be older,” says Cullum. That will mean sorting out problems and opportunities with an uneven technology platform, and it will be a pivotal role on the home farm.

In their background research, the Olds team heard parents underscore how essential it is that their incoming generation be confident in new technologies.

“But they don’t want to see their kids just become efficient in the use of tech or how to practice agriculture production,” Cullum says.

“They want to ensure that they have skills to solve some of the problems that they (the parents) don’t know how to solve themselves, and to have that new generation of expertise and insight.”

Student-managed at Lakeland

Lakeland College at Vermilion, Alta., has pioneered the Student-Managed Farm, a model that sees students fully engage in either an animal science or crop technology unit, managing and making decisions and running the 2,000-acre farm with its beef and dairy herds and flock of sheep.

The students set goals, budgets, prepare reports and do the work, all with the goal of operating a profitable and sustainable agribusiness.

All the various enterprises of the farm are managed by the students who look after marketing, finances, and public relations.

Josie Van Lent.
photo: Lakeland College

“The students take everything they’ve learned… academics and skill-based, competency-based learning and apply it to a real-world business,” says Josie Van Lent, dean of Lakeland College School of Agricultural Sciences, who has made increasing student enrolment, expanding student-managed learning opportunities, and developing key connections with industry her key priorities.

“That business, for us, happens to be our farm right outside our back door.”

Van Lent says colleges are evolving to include more agri-business topics, and they aim to foster skill sets around managing and leading and being involved in businesses and farms that are multi-layered in terms of their employment structure. They also want their students to be skilled at new communication vehicles.

This generation of farm managers and agriculture overall is under scrutiny in ways unimaginable not so long ago, she says. “We actually have curriculum around social media, and how to make sure that you are an agvocate.”

What students learn is that social media is best used to educate and share what’s going on in a farming operation, and that a professional way of communicating is the best approach, rather than being reactive and defensive when confronting the public.

“Each of our students should have competency around social media and addressing how we present ourselves as an industry,” Van Lent says.

Ridgetown, and far beyond

University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus in Ridge­town, Ont., offers a two-year associate diploma in agriculture, where students learn the science, technology and business of agriculture focussing their studies in areas such as agribusiness, crops, livestock, or fruit and vegetable production.

Campus director Ken McEwan echoes his colleagues across Canada, emphasizing the need to keep curriculum up to date with developing technology but also the importance of skills such as strong communication, strategic thinking and business management.

McEwan also talks of the importance of incorporating a global perspective on agriculture into the mix, so in addition to their studies in production management, ag economics and marketing and others, students in the agriculture or horticulture diploma programs can add international trips and study abroad for credit towards their diploma.

In the Guelph program, this can mean anything from trips to the midwestern U.S. to see a variety of farms and agribusinesses, or to Belize in Central America to tour citrus farms, banana plantations, beef and dairy operations, and other development projects.

This comes on top of one of the benefits for students in colleges anywhere in Canada, i.e. the exposure to people from different backgrounds. On today’s campuses, this means interacting with a wider group of international students and a more diverse student body.

Rogalsky agrees. What all these programs aim for is to produce graduates whose competencies and skills give them an ability to anticipate and work within a fast-paced and rapidly changing industry, and it makes her liken the arrival of every year’s first-year students to the first day of spring seeding.

“Convocation is the harvest,” she says.

Parent expectations

Not every student will end up on the farm. Maybe that’s one of the strengths of these programs. For instance, in that orientation session at the University of Manitoba this September were Chris and Charlotte Unrau.

The Winkler, Man. couple do not farm but own an agribusiness, Precision Land Solutions, installing drain tile on farmland. The morning’s session about what their son, Adam, 19, enrolling this fall, will be studying brought back a lot of memories for Chris. He graduated from the program in 1996.

He has continuously applied the skills from the diploma program, he says. “You come into a program like this and you will learn very, very practical skills, even skills that will carry you through the rest of your life,” Chris says, adding that you learn to be a lifelong learner, and how to look for answers and solutions to the problems and challenges that come your way. “That for me is the bigger piece.”

“Just broadening your horizons, opening your eyes that not everything is done the way you think it’s done. There are alternatives, new concepts. Being able to know how to come to a solution. You may not know the solution but you’ll know someone who does know, or you’ll know how to get there. That I think is very, very critical for people coming out of this program.

“And I don’t think I realized this until fairly recently, but also to be able to know how to work with other people. and being able to get along with others being able to negotiate, collaborate, co-operate,” he adds.

Unrau remembers the farm management plan he put together more than 20 years ago.

Ultimately, he went an entirely different direction. His own background was a family in the construction business, so he’d compiled a plan that involved using the family business to build barns and expand into hog production.

Operating their company turned out to be exactly what he wanted to do.

“I’m looking forward to this for Adam. He has ideas and hopes and dreams and some of it involves working with cattle. I’d love more than anything for him to use the farm plan project to put together a business plan to figure out what he wants to do, and through that process he’ll learn a lot about himself, he’ll learn about the industry, and he’ll make contacts. It could be one of those things where it just propels him into success, or maybe, like me, he’ll decide, no, that’s not what he wants to do, too.”

The Meggisons have the same aspirations for George. Their older daughter, Sheena, has recently married and is now farming with her husband, while Katie, who graduated this past spring, is headed for New Zealand for some career exploration. George will make his own choices over time, too, his parents say. “If he chooses to come back to the farm, that’s all good,” says Coral.

“But this may trigger an interest in him to do something else that’s going to lead him away from the farm. And that’s okay, too.”

This article was originally titled ‘Report Card’ in the November 2019 issue of Country Guide.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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