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A new age of ag education is underway, says Olds College research director

Joy Agnew says ‘digital ag’ is revolutionizing how students are being trained in agriculture

Joy Agnew says her first few days at her new job were totally overwhelming — in a good way.

After a nearly 10-year stint at the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute, Agnew began her new job as director of applied research at Olds College in early January and hit the ground running.

“The shift to digital ag and these new technologies has been a long time coming, but really over the last five years, there’s been an exponential increase in the number of technologies and the interest in them,” said Agnew.

“Olds College recognized that and really decided to do something about it. I’m so excited to be here.”

After obtaining a degree in ag/bioengineering at the University of Saskatchewan and a master’s degree in compost science at the University of Alberta in 2002, Agnew returned to the U of S as the SaskPork chair in environmental engineering. But she is perhaps best known for her work on grain storage and drying at the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute but while there she also worked on biomass, fibre harvesting and processing, bioenergy production, and other projects.

Heading up applied research at the college was a natural next step, she said.

“I’m passionate about three things — agriculture, research, and teaching,” said Agnew. “So the opportunity to combine all three in one position was just too good to pass up.”

As director of applied research, Agnew will be focusing on emerging opportunities — including the college’s Smart Farm launched last year.

“It’s going to be the bleeding edge of research. I can’t wait to start figuring that out and seeing what that looks like,” she said.

The Smart Farm is a state-of-the-art operation that will give students hands-on experience with the latest ag technology and farming practices. The first phase of the multimillion-dollar initiative is a 110-acre smart cropping operation, which includes soil monitors, digital weather stations, wireless grain bin sensors, multispectral imaging, precision ag technology, drones, farm management software, data analytics, and artificial intelligence.

When complete, the Smart Farm will have more than 1,000 acres and include a livestock operation.

“I’ve heard so much about all these new technologies and smart tools that are coming, but being able to see them all in action in one place and do some research on some of them is going to be incredible, and I can’t wait,” said Agnew.

“It will be literally boots-on-the-ground investigations and evaluations and learning about these technologies.”

That type of training environment is becoming increasingly important as technologies change and ag industry employers require different skill sets, she added.

“The technologies are advancing so quickly, and employers need students who have been trained in the specific skills they need to further develop, advance, and sell these technologies,” said Agnew.

“The new program at Olds College — and even the existing programs at Olds College — are situating students perfectly to be employees of choice for these companies that are looking forward and wanting to establish themselves in this new smart ag area.”

Agnew said she wants to “incorporate students within the existing applied research programs.”

Ag research was once the exclusive domain of “doctors working on plants in a greenhouse or lab,” but that’s no longer the case. Employers are shifting from having highly qualified staff in a narrow area to staff who have experience in a broader range of job skills.

“It’s really been over the past three years where I’ve been seeing the industry wanting that more broadly skilled individual,” said Agnew.

“It’s not good enough to have somebody who is really skilled at one tiny thing. You need to also have some understanding of business, communication, marketing, strategy — all of it.

“I think that’s why the shift to college-trained students is becoming more prevalent.”

Olds College is at the forefront of this shift, she said.

“We’re the ones providing the employees of the future, and we want these students to be able to work in an industry that they’re really passionate about.”

She said her first priority will be to sit down with her team and develop a long-term applied research strategy extending “five, 10, 15 years out.”

“There are a lot of fresh ideas and fresh perspectives coming in, so I’m looking forward to working with everyone and figuring things out.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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