Growing opportunities in agriculture education

Above, Agricultural education exhibit, 1920 (Archives of Ontario). Courtesy photo

Guest column
by Craig Stevenson

Destinations. In the educational system, eventual outcomes are a matter of constant focus, and rightly so. Education cannot build the entire bridge across which a young person crosses into the adult world, but it can provide enough stepping stones in the search for success beyond the high school years.

Those last few stones must be in place. It is a wobbly and wet hop across the stream if too many are missing.

Recently, a column I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen outlined the difficult pathway facing local high school graduates wanting to pursue an agricultural career. Those thoughts followed from my observations leading the Agriculture SHSH (Specialized High-Skills Major) program at Tagwi Secondary School. The SHSM programs—an innovation of Ontario’s Ministry of Education—allow high school students to delve directly into the skills and training pertinent to specific workplace sectors.

The program offers clear benefits to students interested in agriculture as a career choice. Students visit farms as well as grain shipping facilities, government food inspection laboratories, and equipment dealerships. They learn how drones are used in modern farming and experiment with app-based soil testing techniques. These activities are supported generously by partners in the local agricultural sector.

The SHSM program is not, however, intended to replace the intensive education required by students to take advantage of a sector that needs their future participation. Right now, that opportunity is incomplete. Pursuing an agricultural education involves a significant element of distance and expense. Comprehensive and innovative programs exist elsewhere, but the economic demands of eastern Ontario justify a similar option here.

Above, Wellington County pruning demonstration, 1913 (Archives of Ontario). Courtesy photo

There is nothing new about educating for agriculture. Formal agricultural education was established in 1874 by the creation of the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph. In the first decade of the twentieth century the province established district agricultural specialists to teach in local high schools and to farmers directly within the community.

Locally, the need for agricultural education was met by the creation of Kemptville College in 1917. As a joint provincial-federal venture, the college provided research-based education that could be put into practice by area farmers. Its course offerings sound old-fashioned today, but they stressed the innovations of the period; there was an explicit need for a “farm power” course at the College in the 1920s in the midst of a transition away from horse-drawn power. After the Second World War, Kemptville College continued to focus on innovative technologies and practices, and led the way locally in teaching soil drainage, artificial insemination, and crop rotation methods.

In 2014 the University of Guelph, which had assumed control of the College in 1997, announced that educational programming at the campus would come to an end. That decision was not received well by eastern Ontario’s agricultural community and, in retrospect, seems at odds with the provincial government’s consistent position that agriculture is a cornerstone of the economy.

Above, A fall fair, 1979 (Toronto Star Archives). Courtesy photo

The province’s agricultural scene is shifting, and this has prompted a renewed interest in the need to educate young people so that they can best adapt to and take advantage of these changes.

The notion of agricultural products, markets and practices has broadened, with some of the old divides between city and country bridged as a consequence. There is enough room in our landscape for many types of farming and farm-related industries, and it is increasingly clear that the “experience” of the farm is itself a valuable commodity. Agri-tourism effectively turns people into product, and moves the market out of urban Canada and into the spaces where agricultural production takes place. With Ottawa and Montreal just a short drive from eastern Ontario’s farmlands, this is an important market to develop.

And what a boost for local communities that would be—a turn toward greater economic diversity and strength that could provide a broader range of sustaining employment.  

The remaining task is to re-build a local educational program that reflects agriculture in its present and emerging forms. We can be cautiously optimistic on that front. Commencing in September of this year, Algonquin College is offering a two-year Agri-business program at its Perth campus. The program will offer much-needed instruction in agricultural management, finance, and marketing.

But any discussion of agricultural education in this area invariably leads to the current status of the former Kemptville College.

What needs to be stated—often—is this: that the lands and campus in Kemptville are unique in this part of the province, and remain the foremost opportunity to reinstate a broad-based agricultural program in eastern Ontario. Its size, diversity of land holdings, and concentration of facilities could be used to create a regional educational center for both conventional and emerging forms of agriculture. Kemptville’s position on the edge of Ottawa’s urban expanse would allow for a multi-faceted approach to education—an approach that could accommodate the traditional local emphasis on dairy and field crops while simultaneously educating for a market increasingly interested in organic growing, agricultural sustainability, and niche products.

There is market enough for all. Agricultural education at the Kemptville site could facilitate both the upcoming generation of SD&G dairy farmers, small operators wanting to take advantage of the area’s underutilized potential for products such as hops and maple syrup, and a pioneering generation of organic growers serving urban markets.

Importantly, there are industry and community partners with vested interests in supporting a variety of educational programs—with the most notable of those being the Municipality of North Grenville.

The officially-termed “Kemptville Campus” is now owned by the municipality, and its future rests on a still-developing vision for the site. North Grenville is itself not quite sure of its agricultural connections, it being an entity divided quite literally along County Road 43, with a northern suburbanized half resembling Ottawa’s sprawl and an older, southern section much more in keeping with small-town Ontario.

At the southern edge of town, Kemptville Campus is the visible core of that pastoral image. If anything, it awaits re-invention along the lines of its original establishment as a facility dedicated to providing innovative agricultural education in this end of the province. The demand for a better agriculture brought it to being, and remains at present as various agricultural interests recognize their common purpose within the rural economic fabric of eastern Ontario.

A little more than a century after its inception, the potential for the Kemptville site to drive agricultural education remains, different in circumstances and style and opportunity but constant at its base.

Above, Kemptville Agricultural School, 1924 (Library and Archives Canada). Courtesy photo

It is entirely possible that Kemptville Campus is more important to the surrounding rural region than it is to the municipality that owns it.

North Grenville is a community whose economic focus is consumed by suburban housing development, and whose population is drawn increasingly from Ottawa. Agriculture—let alone agricultural education—is simply not a local priority. In contrast, agriculture is the economic base of rural Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, as well as the further reaches of Leeds and Grenville. It generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and provides a distinct set of employment opportunities to which many young residents are drawn. It’s what many young people in the area see themselves doing with their lives.

That is reason enough for political leaders and vested agricultural interests to take a more active role in shaping the future of what has been, and what could be again, an exceptionally important location for agricultural education in Ontario.

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