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Agriculture programs change with the times

Agriculture faculties are becoming some of the most exciting hubs of interdisciplinary collaboration on Canadian campuses.
FEB 26 2020

Agriculture programs change with the times

Agriculture faculties are becoming some of the most exciting hubs of interdisciplinary collaboration on Canadian campuses.


There’s more than one reason why Evan Fraser pursued academia over agriculture, but if you ask him why, he’ll probably tell this story: one afternoon in the early ’90s, a teenaged Dr. Fraser was working on his grandfather’s Niagara fruit farm in Ontario.

Late in the day, his grandmother – a stockbroker in nearby St. Catharines – returned home with news of a big commission she’d made on a client’s investments. The young Dr. Fraser tallied up the numbers and realized that his grandmother had made more money in one day than he would during the entire summer working on the farm.

Dr. Fraser also recalls that same year that Niagara cherries were out-competed price-wise by imported California cherries, leaving local produce unsold. “The combination of backbreaking work, the affluence of my grandmother’s career path and those cherries going to rot … that was all pretty impactful.” Eventually, he decided that “grad school was better than being a horticulture farmer in Niagara.”

Take versions of that same anecdote, multiply it a few thousand times, and you have the story of Canadian agriculture in the past 30 years. In the early ’90s, when Dr. Fraser had his fruit-farm epiphany, 391,000 Canadians were farm operators, according to Statistics Canada. By 2016, the number was at an all-time low of 272,000.

For a long time, Canada’s university-level agricultural programs looked to be tracking with that general decline. Jim Fyles is a professor in the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences at McGill University, where he also holds the Tomlinson Chair in Forest Ecology. When he came to McGill in 1988, he recalls that “agricultural enrolment was in freefall. … It was obvious that almost no parent aspired for their child to be farmer.”

From 1999 to 2007, full-time enrolment in agricultural programs (including animal, plant and soil sciences) at all levels of postsecondary education across the country dropped from just over 6,000 students to 4,700 (StatsCan has no comprehensive figures predating 1999 for this segment). But, in 2008, something changed. Even as the number of farmers continued to dwindle, enrolment in agricultural programs started climbing. By 2016 – the latest year for which data are available – it reached an all-time high of 6,700 full-time students, with another 1,100 studying part-time. Looking specifically at undergraduate degree programs in agriculture, the numbers are smaller, but the pattern is the same: there were 3,900 full-time students in 1999, dropping to a low of 2,700 in 2009, and then rising to just over 4,000 by 2016.

The reason was not some sudden uptick in young Canadians’ agricultural aspirations. It was instead a dawning realization, across the discipline, that the field needed to reinvent itself to survive.

“I think increasingly we all began to realize that we had a challenge,” says Rene Van Acker, dean of the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) at the University of Guelph. “The public’s interest in things related to food and agriculture had grown, from clean energy to food safety to nutrition to the environment. Those expectations haven’t traded off, they’ve accumulated, so our capacity to be relevant has had to accumulate too. It’s a huge challenge.”

Lenore Newman is an associate professor of geography and the environment at the University of the Fraser Valley and director of UFV’s Food and Agriculture Institute. She calls the past few years “the greatest period of transition in modern history” for agricultural education. In their own ways, Drs. Newman, Fyles and Fraser all represent different aspects of that transition.

Dr. Fraser never did entirely escape agriculture – today he holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph and is director of the university’s Arrell Food Institute, founded in 2017. The institute is not part of OAC, but interacts with it, and aims to act as a portal for industry and academia to collaborate on technological and other solutions to questions of agriculture policy, sustainability and security. It also runs undergraduate and graduate programs in which students from all university departments apply their diverse areas of study to agricultural and food-security challenges.

Dr. Fyles’s background lies in ecosystem ecology, a field in which he developed a fascination with the overlapping interests and concerns – land use, sustainability, climate change and more – that define both a forest ecosystem and the 21st-century agricultural economy.

And Dr. Newman lands at the intersection of global and local concerns around food security. She is intensely focused on the impact of land-use planning both globally and in the region she calls home, British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.

All echo a similar perspective: that Canada’s agriculture faculties are becoming, with surprisingly little fanfare, and often underappreciated by students and colleagues, among the most exciting hubs of interdisciplinary collaboration on Canadian campuses, drawing an increasingly urban student body less interested in tilling soil and more interested in questions of social justice, food security and what Dr. Fraser calls “the moral mission of feeding the world.”

If that sounds daunting, it is, says Dr. Van Acker. “Staying on top of that transition is hard enough, and so is just getting the message out to students,” he says. “Our target for recruitment is 14- to 16-year-olds, mostly urban, probably with no connection to agriculture and food. For many of them, the opportunities that we know are so abundant in this sector are just invisible. Challenging that is a constant uphill struggle.”

Last August, RBC’s Thought Leadership Group released Farmer 4.0: How the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture, a document which has become a sort of lodestar for many deans and professors in Canadian agricultural programs. It touts that “a fourth agricultural revolution is underway … powered by advanced technologies like autonomous tractors and drone-mounted sensors, [that] is already transforming the way we produce food.” But, this new generation of agriculture, the report warns, “will take a new generation of skills.” (The previous three agricultural revolutions, it states, were “the domestication of plants and animals, the mechanization of work, and the mass scaling of genetic and chemical science.”)

Dr. Fraser illustrates these changes by describing a conversation he had recently with a vintner in British Columbia who blew his mind – just a little – when describing the winery’s high degree of automation: sensors that detect moisture content in soil, with these levels then regulated using wind machines and irrigation systems guided by smartphone, among many other automated solutions.

While the winery still needs people who know their way around a vine, the number of general labourers has decreased. But, the company’s total payroll grew due to the increase in front-of-office staff: “sommeliers, graphic designers, technicians, marketing assistants,” says Dr. Fraser. His colleague Dr. Van Acker adds, “only about five percent of our graduates actually end up farming, and the labour market the rest are graduating into is particularly robust.”

Farmer 4.0 projects a 123,000-person labour shortage in agriculture and agriculture-adjacent work by 2030. Despite enrolment growing by 45 percent in nine years at the OAC, Dr. Van Acker says the labour-market demand far exceeds the number of graduates. “Student recruitment is our top priority,” he says, “and it’s much more difficult than it seems on the surface.”

Rickey Yada echoes that sentiment. Dr. Yada is a food scientist who completed all of his studies, from undergraduate to doctorate, at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of agricultural sciences, one of the university’s three founding faculties, dating to 1915. Dr. Yada moved to Guelph in 1984 and spent 30 years with the OAC before returning home to Vancouver to become dean of what was by then renamed UBC’s faculty of land and food systems.

“Very simply, we weren’t attracting students,” he says of the motivation for the name change. “The idea was to remove the impression that agricultural sciences was rubber boots and pitchforks. … Land and food systems was, in hindsight, very forward-thinking, because we talk now about systems – land systems, food systems – and the way they work together.”

By the time the faculty was renamed in 2005, it had shed its departmental structure, in part due to student attrition and retiring faculty. “It got to the point where you had a department of X,” says Dr. Yada, “but only had a few faculty members.”

The name change was not just cosmetic. To the staple degrees in horticulture, plant science and the like, it now included dietetics, nutrition, and global resource systems – the latter a customizable program that allows students to choose one region of the world and one resource, and build an undergraduate degree around it blending arts and science. Scratching the surface of the country’s agriculture programs turns up any number of similarly ambitious and innovative endeavours.

At OAC, the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility is collaborating with NASA, as well as the Canadian and European space agencies, on growing plants in extreme environments – including Mars. At the University of Winnipeg, physics and computer science faculty are leading a “digital agriculture” initiative aimed in part at developing machine-learning systems which will be able to classify weeds, plants and diseases that even experienced agronomists have trouble telling apart. And, in 2012, the University of Saskatchewan established the Global Institute for Food Security, a research institute focused on technology development to improve agricultural practice in “breadbasket” nations like Canada, as well as in developing nations in Africa and Asia.

“We made a change years ago from being just agriculture to agriculture and bioresources,” says Fran Walley, associate dean at the U of S’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “That term signals that we’re not just production agriculture, but food processing, food security and so on.” Dr. Walley credits that expansion of scope to the university’s success in attracting new students. “Seven years ago now our strategic plan aimed for 800 or 850 students,” she says. “We thought we were being pretty ambitious. Now we have 1,350 undergrads.”

The surge in interest has also led to new and expanded agricultural programs at some smaller universities. Typically, those have focused on food security (finding solutions to the problem of feeding the world’s rapidly growing population) and sustainability (addressing the environmental and ecosystem impacts of doing so). Trent University’s school of the environment introduced a sustainable agriculture and food systems program in 2011, and Bishop’s University inaugurated a specialization this academic year in sustainable agriculture and food systems in its department of environment and geography, with plans to turn it into a full-fledged major.

“It’s quite ambitious to build this from scratch,” says Jane Morrison, an assistant professor in environment and geography. “We definitely wouldn’t have seen it 10 years ago at a university like Bishop’s.”

As substantial as the changes in the past decade have been, UFV’s Dr. Newman believes more work needs to happen to make Canadian institutions globally competitive. That means striking up partnerships between agricultural programs and other faculties and departments. Engineering partnerships are especially necessary, she says, given the advent of what is known as “precision agriculture” – the use of robotics, drones, sensors and so on to manage crops and animals with maximum efficiency.

At McGill, Dr. Fyles cautions that universities also need to be careful that the increasingly fruitful interdisciplinarity doesn’t splinter into specialized siloes, with researchers losing the sense of broad purpose and mission that he credits in part with agriculture schools’ changing fortunes. “It used to be, ‘we’ll do Mendel,” he says, referring to the founder of the modern science of genetics. “Now it’s deep knowledge in all sorts of areas, from genetics to global trade to climate change to engineering. … We see faculty and graduate students who say, ‘I’m interested in agriculture, but I’m going to specialize in genomics,’ let’s say, or remote sensing. So people are publishing papers, going to conferences, and that tends to move them out of agriculture, per se, and into their specializations.”

Of course, as Dr. Van Acker points out, while the expansion of curricular scope and research has been dramatic over the past several years, it’s not as if agricultural education in decades past was void of innovation or fixated strictly on the farm gate. He notes that the very first computer at the University of Guelph was introduced in the 1950s by James Clarence Rennie, a livestock geneticist and OAC professor who developed the first computerized data-analysis lab on campus, used for genetic indexing of dairy cows. That innovation transformed livestock genetics long before interdisciplinarity became a campus buzzword.

“People talk about Farmer 4.0,” says Dr. Van Acker, “but even that title I think misses the mark. Employment isn’t at the farm gate; this country peaked at the number of farmers in 1941. This transition has been a long time coming, and a lot of people are just noticing now.”

Matthew Halliday
Matthew Halliday is a journalist, editor, and copywriter whose work has appeared in magazines and newspapers nationwide.
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  1. SUBHASH PAUL / March 4, 2020 at 17:51

    The article pointed some but not the main. Energy and nutrients source of any living body of a planet is only plant, which is absolute truth. As an example, more than 80% of corn plant mass is unused in Canada, which ultimately produces GHGs. So far after shutting down Agricultural Engineering [majoring i) Farm Power, Biopower and Machnery ii) Post harvest, iii) Water resource and iv) Farm Structure and Environment], which was food producing, food loss reducing and GHGs reducing program. Now Canada running a tiny Biological/Biosystems/Biresources Engineering program (different name in Universities) for the interest of business people and as a result Canada is wasting almost 60% of her produced food, which is producing GHGs. Until now all types of bioenery and bioproducts are net negative energy producers at the industry level and net positive GHG producers. But they still may run by subsidy. As an example, in the University of Guelph the research is running in the name of Agricultural Engineering and Technology but there is no Agricultural Engineering profession in Canada. Universities are changing the name of this discipline in such a way that it can only bring the financial benefit to business people but huge loss to the climate.