Who will farm the farm of the future?

New curriculum gives next-gen farmers a leg up to farm in the digital age

Farming in 2018 is a far cry from farming a mere decade ago, never mind 20 or 30 years ago. As the ground of agricultural technology and practice continues to shift, the ability to provide relevant education to the next cohort of would-be farmers and agribusiness professionals is vital.

The braintrust at Saskatchewan Polytechnic realized this and in the summer of 2015, consulted with many groups in the agriculture community to develop a curriculum that would prepare students for success in the increasingly digitized world of farming. The result is a new two-year diploma program, dubbed Agriculture and Food Production, and set to commence September 2019 with 24 students.

“The changing workforce in the field of agriculture means there are no longer large numbers of farm kids,” says Jamie Hilts, the polytechnic’s dean of the School of Natural Resources and Built Environment and the School of Mining, Energy and Manufacturing. “There’s a need for the agriculture and food production industry to turn to a new labour force to meet these necessary skills and demands within food production.”

Hilts acknowledges that there isn’t a typical student they expect to see walk through the program’s doors. The school is currently developing an international outreach to attract worldwide learners, and Sask Poly is also actively working at home with seven First Nations groups in hopes of having a portion of the enrolment be represented by nearby indigenous groups surrounding Saskatoon.

The diploma’s syllabus will feature 33 to 35 courses designed to instil a wealth of agricultural acumen — from soil health, meteorology, GPS and GIS mapping, to general math, arts and sciences. Other courses will focus on precision agriculture, safety, irrigation, financing, contracting, as well as ag-specific HR and conflict resolution.

Students must also complete a co-op term as well as a capstone project, which is an applied research assignment done in conjunction with industry.

“This is definitely filling a gap that the industry needs,” says Susan Blum, Sask Poly’s vice-president of applied research and innovation. “Industry will have trained students coming to work for them (during their co-ops). If there’s a problem or a prototype that needs to be made, or solutions, students will have that opportunity. They need individuals in this sector.”

The mixture of theoretical and applied education is what makes this program unique and Hilts recently inked a memorandum of agreement with Ag in Motion — an annual outdoor farm expo held each July — to use its Langham, SK site as an equipment training ground for the students.

“Some of these courses are going to be very, very hands-on. Learners will have access to farm equipment such as combines and sprayers,” says Hilts. “They’ll learn fuel and air systems. Students have that comfort level with the equipment they are exposed to and have time in the equipment to do basic operations. For some, it will be the first time they’ll be in that piece of equipment, but it’s also about exposing them to the technology and agriculture and food sovereignty.”

At Ag in Motion, show director Rob O’Connor is thrilled that the school and show site will work in-tandem to educate students to farm successfully in a time where there is more to keep track of than ever before.

“(This partnership) is a great feeling because that’s what we are really hoping to accomplish, working with groups like Saskatchewan Polytechnic to offer these opportunities,” says O’Connor. “It takes people who are highly educated to operate this equipment and we need people to understand the new technologies. They will have class time where they learn behind a desk, but they’ll also be able to come to the Ag in Motion site and operate equipment and feel comfortable after they finish the course and go into the workplace in this new equipment.

“People currently do not have that opportunity, they’re just behind a desk,” says O’Connor. “Then, they go to farm, and they’re on the huge fields in western Canada, and they must learn on the job and that’s difficult for the employer and employee. This program helps to eliminate that gap for those who will enter the agricultural workforce.”

Practical training aside, a highly information-driven component will educate students about the growing preponderance of farm data and how it may be interpreted and applied to achieve operational gains.

“It’s about using the data from the technology,” says Blum. “Generally, lots of information can be collected, but how do you use that to best make decisions in your industry and what you’re working on? That’s the twist that is sort of high in demand, it’s the analytical side of things.”  Hilts agrees with Blum, adding that the next generation of Canada’s farming workforce will require a divergent skillset than previous generations to guarantee farm-level success, and this program is one avenue to such an end.

“I don’t believe there is any question that agriculture and food production have changed dramatically in recent years,” says Hilts. “The program’s concept is really being able to ensure the learner has the skillset upon graduation, with boots on the ground experience to make decisions based on information they can gather, assist whomever, to help maximize return on investment.”