A career in agriculture just wasn’t an option for Julie Mitchell when she was growing up. Or at least that’s what she thought.
“I was really passionate about agriculture, but I didn’t think you could have a career in ag beyond being a farmer,” said Mitchell, who grew up on a cattle operation in Manitoba.
“I didn’t even realize there were so many industry jobs available.”
Luckily, two things changed her mind: An agriculture class in Grade 10 that showed her the wealth of opportunities in the industry, and a visit to Lakeland College.
“At Lakeland, I saw that there are so many different opportunities and different directions you can go,” said Mitchell, who graduated from the animal science technology program in 2010 and the agribusiness program in 2011.
“If you have a passion for agriculture and an understanding of it, you can go down so many different avenues with it. And Lakeland prepares people for that.”
As the industry has grown in both size and profile, students are increasingly seeing the career opportunities. Between 2007 and 2016 (the last year data was available), post-secondary institutions across Canada saw a 30 per cent jump in enrolment in agricultural, natural resource, and conservation programs.
Lakeland College alone has almost tripled its enrolment in its ag sciences programs in the past decade, from 182 in 2007 to almost 500 in the 2017 academic year.
“Ten years ago, going into agriculture was not considered a great career choice. That’s flipped,” said Josie Van Lent, the school’s dean of agricultural sciences.
“People used to see agriculture as being primarily the farming piece, but that’s quickly becoming a smaller subset of jobs.
“The entire agri-food value chain has a lot of job opportunities.”
And there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill those jobs. Right now, ag employers would hire another 59,000 more workers — if there were people available, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council. By 2025, the industry could be facing up to 114,000 unfilled jobs.
“If you look Canada-wide, we’re not able to fill all of the jobs that are out there,” said Van Lent.
“There’s great demand in terms of employment for our students.”
Soft skills in demand
Post-secondary enrolment reflects that. Lakeland has seven ag programs, with animal science technology, agribusiness, and crop technology seeing the biggest growth.
“That speaks to employment opportunities,” said Van Lent. “All of those areas have a good number of employers who reach out to us looking for placements.”
Of Lakeland College’s roughly 55 programs, 42 per cent of all jobs submitted to the student employment centre are related to agriculture and 63 per cent of companies attending the college’s annual career fair are recruiting ag program grads. Those employers include farm retailers, crop and livestock service companies, government, and research associations.
And more and more, those employers aren’t just looking for technical skills — they want soft skills, too.
“It’s increasingly important for our students to have that business mindset. It’s a highly competitive business, and for the most part, it’s a high-volume, low-margin game,” said Van Lent.
“You have to have a solid technical base and then layer that with soft skills.”
Those soft skills are what helped Mitchell climb the career ladder. She took the animal science technology program, but launched her career in 2012 as an agribusiness assistant at Richardson Pioneer in Olds, where she is now a grain merchant.
“It’s a bit different from the animal science route that I took, but it’s still within agriculture,” said Mitchell. “I thought that it would be a good experience, but it’s been so much more than that.”
And because she developed skills in leadership, financial planning, risk management, and critical thinking (partly through working on Lakeland’s student-managed farm), she was able to transition from the beef sector to the grain industry without skipping a beat.
“Lakeland teaches a lot more than just the scientific facts and production practices. It very much teaches about opening your mind up to different facets of the ag industry,” she said.
“If you’re open to change and looking at a different facet of agriculture, it sure broadens your horizons on the things you could do and the experiences you could have.”
Family farm opportunities
Like Mitchell, Jake Vermeer was drawn to Lakeland’s animal science technology program, but he took his education back to the family dairy farm — another ag career option with plenty of room for growth.
“Lakeland does a good job of giving us the tools we need to come home and work with our families,” said Vermeer, who farms with his family near Camrose.
He knew he wanted to go back to the family operation when he applied to Lakeland College.
“It’s probably a cliché to say it’s in the blood, but it definitely is. I’ve always loved dairy farming.”
But he also knew that post-secondary school was just as important for him as it was for any other person hoping to work in the ag sector.
“Our family is fairly progressive, and we’re always trying new ideas,” said Vermeer, who graduated from Lakeland in 2015. “Going to school was part of that — I was learning new things and looking at things differently. I was seeing how we could use different perspectives to improve things on our farm.”
Almost half of Lakeland grads return to their family’s operation, said Van Lent.
“A great number of our students will be going back to their family farms and will be managing those farms at some point.”
That’s the position that Vermeer finds himself in today. And he’s better equipped to manage it because of both the technical and soft skills he learned at college, he said.
“At home, you learn what you’re doing, but at school, you learn why you’re doing it,” he said. “Cleaning out a stall seems meaningless when you’re young, but when you go to Lakeland, you learn about why cleaning out the stall is important to the overall health of the cow.”
And while Vermeer appreciated the technical, hands-on experience he gained, learning about financial planning, farm succession, and business management has been vital to his operation.
“Even though all the theory and the management practices were important, these other skills were more important.”
For Vermeer, going to college is “almost a must” for anyone looking for a career in agriculture, whether that’s on the farm or elsewhere in the industry.
“You learn a ton of stuff from your parents, but after you graduate, you’re so much more ahead of your peers who didn’t go to school,” he said.
“So take the time and make the investment. It’s well worth it.”