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Ridgetown enrolment up as interest in ag increases

The Ridgetown Campus of the University of Guelph is boasting a bumper crop of new students for the fall of 2009. Enrolment has been particularly strong in the Agriculture and Environmental Management diploma programs.


November 30, 2009
By Blair Andrews

The Ridgetown Campus of the University of Guelph is boasting a bumper crop of new students for the fall of 2009. Enrolment has been particularly strong in the Agriculture and Environmental Management diploma programs. “We’re expecting about 155 juniors in the Agriculture program, almost double last year’s number of 83,” says Dr. Art Schaafsma, director of the Ridgetown Campus. The number in the Environmental program has more than doubled, from 40 to more than 80.

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Greater opportunities across the width and breadth of the agri-food industry means higher enrolment for schools like University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus.

 

While the downturn in Southwestern Ontario’s beleaguered manufacturing sector is playing a significant role, there are several reasons behind the stronger enrolment.

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The factors driving the interest in the Environmental program are easier to explain. Katie Savage, campus recruitment co-ordinator, says many of those students may have lost their jobs and are going back to school to train for a different career. “A large number of students have received Second Career funding through the government, so they’re getting sponsored to come to school for retraining in our Environmental program,” explains Savage.

“Second Career” is a relatively new Ontario government program that, among other things, offers financial support to help laid-off workers train for a new career.

As for the Agriculture diploma program, Schaafsma is of the opinion that recent high school graduates continue to be the main focus. “My guess is that there is more optimism in agriculture, not simply in the primary agriculture field but all of the ancillary industries,” says Schaafsma. “There are the service industries, grain handling and marketing, and I think folks are seeing there are some decent jobs out there.”

The number of potential jobs also may be an attraction. Lezlie Cunningham, career placement officer at the campus, says there have been more jobs than students to fill them during the past few years. The job postings come from various agri-businesses throughout Ontario and from across the country. “The toughest part of my job is taking calls from employers who have posted jobs for five weeks, and I haven’t had any applicants,” says Cunningham. “Many graduating students are going home to farm.”

While going back to the family farm may not be the case for the majority of the students, Schaafsma says it is becoming a better option for some, noting that there is a slight change in attitudes. “With some of the farmers, five to 10 years ago, they’re telling their offspring not come back to the farm. But that is starting to change and we’re seeing more family succession.”

And Schaafsma says the next generation values the type of education and training that is required for today’s agricultural industry. As an example, he says a number of the students who are interested in the Agriculture program are coming from a dairy background. “We have a course where the students manage the herd during a semester. The dairy barn is the classroom, and they have to make breeding decisions as well as other management decisions.”

Higher demand for practical knowledge
Whether people are going home to farm or moving into a related agri-business, Elaine Graham, president and recruitment specialist of Bestard Agricultural Placements (BAP), says relying solely on a farming background is not enough. BAP has been connecting job candidates and employers for almost 20 years. “Farms are highly managed enterprises and we should be proud of our professionalism,” says Graham. “Saying that farming as a career is something you can ‘fall back on’ is absolutely not the case any more. You need more than practical experience; you need tangible skills.”

To illustrate her point, Graham cites the modern feed salesperson as an example. In relating the job description, she says the position requires many tasks in addition to receiving the actual order for feed. “It’s about a whole-farm program and being a trusted advisor,” explains Graham. “It’s about having a broad background in a lot of highly technical areas, not just sales and marketing training. Whether its nutrition, genetics, biosecurity, information management technology or animal welfare and herd health, you are working in that individual farmer’s environment and it must be customized to him. The more you know, the more value you bring to the farm.”

Darryl Ayris, general manger of the Watford branch of Forest Agri-Services, personifies the increased interest in agricultural careers. Ayris, 37 years old, was born and raised on a farm in Kerwood, Ontario. Before entering Ridgetown as a mature student, Ayris drove a truck for several years, delivering feed to the United States. He was forced to look for another career after he injured his back in a work-related accident. Looking for what he says was “a decent career,” Ayris enrolled in the two-year Environmental Management program in 2006. After completing the environmental program, Ayris opted to go back to school for another year to obtain an Agriculture diploma from Ridgetown. “I was a mature student, and while in the mode of going to school, I figured I may as well take it,” says Ayris. It was a wise choice. Ayris landed a job at Forest Agri-Services, an independent agricultural supply company in Lambton County, shortly after graduation and he quickly moved into a management position.

Based on his experience, Ayris says the need for skills in agriculture is driven by technology. “There seems to be more call for crop scouts and more precision because input costs are high and a missed application takes too much off the bottom line. Profits per acre are getting tighter,” says Ayris. “It has come to the point where farmers are passing off some of the decisions to agri-business, and that’s what you get paid for.”

Agri-business is not alone when it comes to being more innovative and entrepreneurial.

Schaafsma says the Ridgetown campus is moving in a similar direction. Becoming more than an “ag school,” it now offers a Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management degree, majoring in Environmental Management. Students in this program spend two years at the Ridgetown campus and then complete another two years at the Guelph campus. Meanwhile, Schaafsma says there are plans to add a new Renewable Energy course in 2010. “We’re being asked to be more self-sustaining, so we can’t rely on government funding and traditional revenues,” says Schaafsma. “We have to try to find ways to be creative. And that’s not a bad thing because that helps us engage in some of these new ventures, which will hopefully lead the economy.”