Alot of young people — and their parents — weren’t so keen on farming’s prospects 15 years ago.
“Fifteen years ago, enrolments were low in ag programs across Canada,” said Josie Van Lent, dean of agricultural sciences at Lakeland College.
“Farmers didn’t want to send their sons or daughters into agriculture because they thought there was no future. But I think that’s really changed.”
At the time, Alberta’s agriculture industry was grappling with major challenges, including the BSE crisis and farm income at its lowest in a decade, while the oil and gas industry was booming, offering farm kids a way to make good money.
But that’s changed in the years since then, said Van Lent. Enrolment in agriculture programs has been steadily increasing over the last 10 years, with roughly 80 per cent of colleges seeing growth in their student numbers and Lakeland alone more than tripling its enrolment.
There are a few reasons for that, she said, including farming becoming more profitable while the energy sector has seen a downturn.
But more importantly, agriculture has become more mainstream.
Young people who grew up on farms began to see the job opportunities across the industry — not just on the family farm. And for those returning to the farm, the scale and scope of farming has changed over the past decade, requiring more specialized skills and training for workers and owners.
“Those things all affect our programming. Whatever happens in agriculture affects what we do at Lakeland,” she said.
“We’re constantly evolving our programs to where the industry needs us to be.”
It’s a similar story at Olds College.
“It’s caused us to take a good, hard look at our programming, both in terms of the content that we’re delivering in our curriculum and the way we utilize the learning environments that are available to us,” said Stuart Cullum, president of Olds College.
“It’s allowed us to keep pace with industry and its expectations.”
Advances in technology
And thanks to technology, the industry is advancing at a breakneck pace, said Cullum.
“There’s a lot more technology involved in agriculture than there was even 15 years ago,” he said. “Our students and our graduates need to be able to adapt and be successful within an environment that is changing faster than it ever has.”
That adaptability piece is key, he said.
By the time today’s students are out of the classroom for even just a few years, technology will have already changed significantly. So Olds College isn’t just teaching students how to be tech savvy; it’s also teaching them how to adapt in an ever-changing industry.
“Ensuring that our graduates are able to respond to that kind of changing environment is really important now, and that’s probably a bit different than 15 years ago,” said Cullum.
Van Lent agrees.
“Technology has driven our industry, and without a doubt, we’re going to continue to see technology evolving,” she said.
In the past, Lakeland College has embedded technology in its programs. But now, it’s focusing on developing new programming that puts technology at the forefront.
“We’ll be putting students out there who can work in a really detailed way with the technology,” she said.
Olds College is also developing diploma, certificate, and degree programs that will focus specifically on up-and-coming technology.
“This is a direct response from Olds College to our industry saying there needs to be a whole new program steam in ag technology,” said Cullum.
Both colleges now place greater focus on hands-on learning — Lakeland through its student-managed farm and Olds through its business enterprises and Smart Farm.
“Those kind of practical learning environments are very important for our students,” said Cullum. “It gives them a real-world understanding of what the industry looks like and how the industry is being challenged by ever-changing technologies and business practices.”
That’s become increasingly important as farms have grown and farming has become more intricate.
“We’re involved in a big, complex business, and there’s a lot of risk. So in every ag program, that underlying business piece has to be there,” said Van Lent.
But the shift towards hands-on learning has also helped students with their critical-thinking skills — a must-have today.
“Our student-managed farm is really about that experiential learning — moving away from sitting in the classroom, toward gathering and assessing information,” said Van Lent. “Generally in the past, information flowed through reliable sources. Now because information is available everywhere, that’s changed. Some of the information is well researched and well founded, and some of it is not.”
Today’s grads not only have to be more adept at assessing information, but also have good ‘soft skills’ — things such as teamwork, communication, and relationship building.
“That’s not about technology — it’s almost old-fashioned,” said Van Lent. “But it’s clearly important to industry.”
As the industry grows and changes, post-secondary ag programs will need to continue to respond to industry needs in a “nimble way,” said Cullum — particularly when it comes to skilled labour. Labour shortages have plagued the industry for the past decade, with a shortage of 114,000 workers across the industry expected by 2025.
So for ag schools, developing the next generation of skilled workers means accommodating an increasing number of urban and foreign students who may not have a farming background.
“It’s no longer just a career choice for the farm kid. It’s also a career choice for those folks who want to be involved in a dynamic, technology-enabled, data-driven business,” said Cullum.
“In some cases, it’s less about agriculture and more about the fact that you can get involved in the technology side of things.”
Olds College has had steady enrolment numbers for the past 15 years, but now needs to grow to meet the growing demand for ag industry workers, he said.
“For the first time in quite a while, we’re developing new programming and looking at how we can grow capacity within our existing programs,” said Cullum. “We expect that over the next seven years, we’ll see 50 per cent growth in our programming and our enrolment numbers.”
That creates an opportunity for the college to look at how it can use its land, farm, and business enterprises to create “dynamic learning spaces that represent not only where industry is at, but also where industry is going.”
“It’s changing so fast. So if we only focus on the content and the curriculum and we don’t look at how we’re involving our learning spaces, we’ll be behind where industry needs us to be,” said Cullum.
“A lot of our growth in the future is going to be predicated on how we as a college respond and react in those ways.”