Post-secondary agriculture education in Ontario is diversifying to meet the labour and skill needs of the industry.
Shorter, concentrated offerings are expected to help fill the need for more employees in agriculture.
Why it matters: Agriculture education options for practical training have been limited, especially in the regions where potential farm workers live.
Much has changed since Centralia College closed in 1994.
Since then, three other agriculture colleges at Kemptville, Alfred and Guelph also closed, leaving the Ridgetown Campus of the University of Guelph the only one standing.
Demographics were shifting, with fewer farm families with fewer children interested in attending core agriculture courses.
Recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest from young people on farms to invest in an agriculture-based education, and there is a growing need to find to find new employees from outside the sector. The challenge lies in the lack of post-secondary programming to learn about working on farms.
That’s resulted in the recent announcement of numerous initiatives across the province to increase access to agriculture skills training.
There are new programs at Fanshawe College, Conestoga College, Algonquin College and a recently announced program bringing back training at the former Kemptville College campus for mechanics to work on agriculture equipment and large trucks.
There are more programs across the province, which is important for farm children who want to continue to work at home on evenings or weekends and for farmers to send prospective employees for training locally.
The new programs are shorter and results-focused, which means they also don’t necessarily follow the traditional route to a diploma or degree. Ridgetown Campus’s dairy herdsperson program is an example.
Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) policy analyst Danielle Collins said colleges have stepped back and taken a hard look at the bigger picture when it comes to the agriculture labour shortage. As well, agriculture stakeholders at the community level are pushing for programs to fill skill gaps within the industry.
Fanshawe College’s Agricultural Management program was born out of such a partnership after the community expressed a pressing need for skilled managers in agriculture.
The college also designed a 30-week accredited Professional Butchery Techniques program and an accelerated 21-week program for the fall of 2020, but COVID-19 pushed back intake to September 2021.
The meat processing industry has struggled to fill butchery positions with Canadian skilled labour and has resorted to hiring professionals from other countries.
Collins said serious butchery training hasn’t been offered in Ontario’s post-secondary system for approximately a decade and estimates it would take 1,000 graduates over the next decade to fill the current labour gap.
“People look at it as an entry-level job but you can move up from there…(they) should see (butchery) as a foot in the door the way they see culinary school,” said Collins. “There are so many people going to culinary school, why aren’t they seeing the opportunity to move up in butchery?”
Demand driving new programs
The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s (CAHRC) labour forecast to 2029 said in 2018 more than 16,400 job vacancies cost the agriculture sector $2.9 billion in lost sales.
“We’re hoping that we can hammer home that there are opportunities, no matter what background you come from,” said Collins. “Any skill sets you have, any backgrounds you have… (agriculture) employers are looking for those skills, whether it be in marketing or business or social media or science or technology.”
Collins said the OFA worked in partnership with Conestoga College’s Brantford campus to develop industry-based curriculum and content for the Agricultural Equipment Operator certification program launching in January 2021.
Brenda Gilmore, Conestoga College’s workforce development and partnerships – trade chair, said applicants to the program range in experience and age from those just out of high school to those investigating a second career and are new to the agriculture sector.
“I think we all know that, especially during this time, food security and getting new workers into the agriculture industry is important for everyone and for the community at large,” she said.
She said the pilot program, which received funding from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership to cover two intakes of 16 students over two years, will hopefully result in the development of a full-time program in the future.
New government funding has also helped to fill the gap for the Kemptville and Conestoga programs.
“It’s a great opportunity when funding is available to encourage that filling-in of the gaps,” Collins said.
“It just makes it a lot easier to work together on something, on a common goal.” In Brantford, agriculture is the largest single industry.
Gilmore said a number of potential employers have asked when the first class will graduate because they’re ready to hire.
“We’ve got a lot of support from the industry as far as ensuring that the students have the latest equipment to get to know, to work on,” she said. “It’s not just an operator program, but they will learn some preventative maintenance and (earn) a spray license.”
Farm groups doing more practical training too
It isn’t just colleges the OFA is reaching out to help.
The farmer organization also launched Feeding Your Future, an online resource designed to match labourers with agriculture and agri-food employers and fill the labour shortage within the province.
Feeding Your Future also hosts virtual career fairs, webinars and training.
Collins said the pandemic caused a spike in a new-to-agriculture labour force that didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to invest four years in a university agriculture program.
Working with the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, the OFA is developing an eight to 10-hour online training module certificate to fill the information void.
The Agri-Training course, which will launch in January 2021, would provide just-in- time training and education around crops, livestock, agricultural equipment, safety protocols and PPE, to equip employees with a baseline for on-the-job specialized training.
Utensil.ca is a website where one can search the meaning of different agriculture-based words and acronyms and access subscription-based training programs and short courses to increase understanding of the language and culture within agriculture. It’s a valuable tool not only for those new to agriculture, but also for other sectors, such as finance, to gain insight into the language, culture and build a degree of confidence when speaking with their clientele.
AgScape has been increasing awareness of career opportunities within agriculture and agri-food sectors at the Grade 7 to Grade 12 level for the last decade through their free Teacher Ambassador program.
“We’ve tried to address every one of these kinds of gaps that were apparent before,” said Mercedes Unwin, AgScape program and resource manager. “Our free programs are able to fill those gaps so kids can learn more about agriculture and the food sector and eventually, explore the post-secondary programs available to them within their areas all across Ontario.”
She said the key is to inform students that there are a number of pathways to enter the agriculture/agrifood sector and, due to the labour shortage, there are jobs waiting once they finish their education – whether it’s as a mechanic, in the food processing sector or different skilled trade.
Unwin noted the uptick in interest isn’t just from rural and urban-based demographics, but also on-farm students who didn’t realize their interests in social media, marketing, design and drone piloting could translate into an agricultural career.
AgScape also launched a Business of Food e-learning course for teachers to increase their knowledge of agriculture and the food sector and the careers available so they can accurately relay the information to students.
The program is also offered in a post-secondary setting as an e-learning or textbook course to facilitate an agricultural knowledge base, which can be integrated into any industry.
The program is offered through the Western University-affiliated Brescia University College’s first-year dietician undergrad program.
“I think there’s slow strides being made to better help the general public, and those who are somewhat working in the ag-space to better understand it, so that we can break down those walls and improve understanding,” said Collins.
“It’s a great opportunity when funding is available to encourage that filling-in of the gaps. It just makes it a lot easier to work together on something, on a common goal.”
— Diana Martin is a reporter for Farmtario at Amaranth, Ont. This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2020 edition of Farmtario (pgs. 6-7).