When Blair Cummins left the farm where he grew up to go to the University of Saskatchewan and get his bachelor of science in agriculture in the 1970s, he could count on one hand the number of people he knew who were pursuing higher education.
“Out of my generation, I only know two others that grew up close to me who went to college,” Cummins says.
The contrast with today is night and day, both for the number of farm kids going to post-secondary education, and also for the shrinking population of the local farm neighbourhoods that they go back home to after they graduate.
In many ways, Shelby Corey’s story four decades later has become typical. She left her family’s farm in southern Alberta to enter the same program as Cummins at the U of S. Higher education had always been the plan for her and her sisters, as well as many of her childhood friends.
“For me, going to college wasn’t optional,” she says. “My parents were adamant that I go to school, even though I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to take. I just knew that I was very passionate about agriculture, so I enrolled in the agriculture program.
“When I got there, I didn’t know a single person. But the great thing about the agriculture program is that everybody is super friendly and kind of in the same boat — we’re all from rural communities, and no one really knows a lot of people. It was easy to fit in.”
Over the course of a generation, agriculture in North America has transformed itself on all fronts — environmentally, financially and technologically — and today’s farmers are grappling with new challenges with new tools and innovations at their disposal.
In this rapidly changing industry, young people who grow up on the farm and want to pursue a farming career must consider multiple factors when deciding where, how and in what fields to pursue higher education.
Increasingly, though, their thinking also includes not just the skills they hope to acquire, and even whether there will be room for them on the farm at all, but also what the social climate will be like during and after their time away.
Lance Leachman, who farms in Maidstone, Sask., received his MA in animal breeding and genetics from Virginia Tech in 2010. He says his educational trajectory — initially leaving his family’s farm for community college studies, then an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree — helped him build social connections that he has carried with him since returning to the farm.
“I was a shy kind of kid, so it was good for me to go to a community college for the first two years,” he says. “The class sizes were really small, so it was very easy to transition to that environment and meet new people without getting overwhelmed, and then shift to a bigger school two years later.
“So for me the transition wasn’t that tough — I loved it, it was really fun and something I look back fondly on. And I’d say the same on coming home. I came back to the place where I grew up — the same operation, the same family members. The only challenge was that I had just created an independence for myself while I was away at school, so coming back was a bit different. But I enjoyed being able to integrate a lot of the things I’d learned into the farm.”
When it comes to social connection, Leachman says his generation has experienced two major shifts. One is negative, i.e. the reduction in the number of farms, but the second is mostly positive — the growth of social media.
Social media, though, has involved its own learning curve. It’s a great tool for maintaining social connections, even when they’re geographically distant, but Leachman can’t let himself forget that it also takes attention, and careful thinking.
Social media can easily generate conflict and bad information, his generation has learned.
Plus he’s found that with social media, he needs to keep the long term in view, not just the message he might be responding to at that second.
“It does get to be a challenge, as operations get bigger and bigger and the number of people involved in agriculture as a percentage of society diminishes,” Leachman says. “You really need to think about how you interact with everybody that isn’t (in the industry) and try to portray messages when there’s just so much hearsay and stuff people believe that’s not factual.”
But for new graduates like Corey, using social media to stay in touch with their classmates after graduation was never in doubt.
“With social media, everybody’s really able to stay in touch with everybody regardless of where they are,” she says. “I’m friends with a lot of my classmates on social media. I wouldn’t say I hang out with many of them, but we definitely follow each other on social media and we know what everybody’s up to.”
Lucas Ringdal, who farms at Haywarden, Sask., and received his BA in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan in 2012, says staying in touch with the members of his graduating class has been good for more than his social life. They also act as a valuable peer network for information and resource sharing.
“When you’re leaving college, I think it’s just important that you keep in touch with everyone, however you decided to do it,” he says.
“You can use social media or have a get-together in person, but make sure you stay in touch. Those friendships, they last forever. And if you have a question about something, you’ll have the opportunity to talk with someone who knows about it — environment, crop conditions, management, even in other parts of the province.”
Along with friendships and networking connections, university graduates who have returned to the farm say their time at school has benefited them in ways they could not have anticipated during their studies.
Corey remembers a few years after graduation when she and her husband were on the cusp of a major investment and her coursework became directly relevant.
“My husband and I wanted to purchase some land,” she said. “So we went to the bank, and the first thing they asked us for was a business plan. And luckily, business planning was one of the classes that I had taken, so I knew what to do and it definitely helped me. The bank was very impressed.”
It’s how Cummins felt too. He says his education has helped him weather difficult years even when other farmers had to leave the business, but not just because of the lectures and labs when he was a student.
Part of it was attitude readjustment too. “For me, I used to be more interested in growing the good crop as opposed to growing the profitable crop,” he says. “But you can’t do that — you have to do better. Economics forced us into being way better managers, and those people who didn’t become better managers are not in the business any more.”
Plus, his university years became important in the context of ongoing education. “Going to college helped when things got tough, because you’ve got a bigger circle of farming contacts. You know what kind of resources are out there, what the options are, if there’s other things to do.”
One challenge many agricultural BA graduates are facing is that they may not be able to return to the farm straightaway even if they want to. Perhaps their parents are far from retirement, and the economics of the operation may not support another person.
“My wife and I both had older parents — actually, the reason I did come back to the farm was because my father got sick — so for us, it wasn’t a tough generational shift,” said Leachman. “But it gets to be fairly challenging if you have relatively young parents in the prime of their careers, and then another generation already expects to come back to the farm. But it’s even harder when they choose not to get an education because they’re trying to incorporate themselves right out of high school.”
When it comes to succession planning, the fact that a university education in particular can help a young person find work in other areas of the industry can be a big help. Although Ringdal graduated in 2012, he only returned to the farm in 2016, after working in retail and sales.
“When I graduated, there was a shortage of people coming out of the college (of agriculture),” he says. “At that time, there was hardly anyone my age who did the program. I think I applied to five different retailers within 40 minutes of home and had job offers at all of them. I could have gone in any direction.”
And while Corey thinks part of her parents’ motivation for making sure she went to college was so she would have something to fall back on in case ranching didn’t work out, she says none of her peers were too concerned about not having a successful post-graduation career.
“There’s so many jobs in agriculture that even if we weren’t able to go back to the farm, we’d have other opportunities,” she says.
Cummins says that keeping university contacts fresh and connecting with other graduates can help lead to opportunities for young people breaking into the industry. As a former president of the Saskatchewan Agricultural Graduates’ Association (SAGA), Cummins says physical class reunions are good fun with good networking opportunities, and so are digital reunions.
As they get established, though, he sees more young farmers able to put more emphasis on face-to-face.
“When you’re a young farmer and you’ve got cows, you’ve got kids, it’s hard to get away,” Cummins says. “But we’re getting some of these younger grads from within the last 10 years coming back to the (SAGA) reunions, socializing and staying in touch with their classmates. It’s a good forum to pick up a lot of work contacts. You meet folks of all generations.”