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Comment: Growing a new crop of graduates

The U of M diploma agriculture program has broad appeal, even to those without an agriculture background

Easton Sellers and his fiancée Olivia Carey, with Rupert.

Originally from Florida, Easton Sellers was on a retreat at a Buddhist monastery in 2014 when he heard about an opportunity to volunteer at an organic farm in far-off Manitoba.

He explains: “I wanted to learn about gardening and sustainability, so I travelled to work at Plum Ridge Farm in the Interlake. My work there was the beginning of my passion for agriculture.”

Sellers worked with the farm’s owner, Barb Rieder, for several years before starting to run and manage the 40-acre site that produces strawberries, saskatoons, cherries, plums, asparagus, sweet corn, potatoes and other garden vegetables in a U-pick operation.

In 2017, Sellers enrolled in the agriculture diploma program at the University of Manitoba and completes the program this spring.

“I had heard great things about the… program at the University of Manitoba,” he notes.

In the U of M diploma in agriculture program, students first get an overview of the production, marketing, and management of agricultural products and are exposed to resource management, finance, communication, and leadership. They then have options of business management, crop management, or livestock management.

“It was a very dense two-year program, particularly when managing the farm full time, but as someone told me: ‘You gotta risk it for the biscuit.’”

Sellers is dedicated to his new-found home in Manitoba.

“When you find a wholesome community and great work it’s hard to leave,” he says.

He adds candidly: “Coming from the South, I appreciate the seasons, but the winter sure is long here.”

His five-year goal is to be: “… successfully managing my farm, supporting my family, and funding a proper balance in my work and personal life.”

When asked why he’s personally committed to agriculture, Sellers quips: “Nature is incredible. Food is great.”

One of the key elements of the diploma in agriculture program is a management planning project using an actual farm as a case study that begins in first year and concludes with a presentation to industry and academic reviewers. Many alumni credit these projects for equipping them with a strong sense of farm management, critical thinking, and strategic planning.

The majority of students who come from a farming background return to a farm operation, although many find employment with agribusinesses across the Prairies.

A graduating student with a somewhat similar story is Aman Bawa. He was born in India and worked with his family on their farm before moving to Manitoba in 2001. His father upgraded his education here in Canada and now works as an agronomist.

“My father had been trying to get me interested in agriculture for many years,” Bawa says, “but his persistence paid off. I finally gave in and now I love it.”

Bawa had been an apprentice in the automotive industry and had also worked as a welder, but now applies his tech interest with his new field. He has found a job within the fertilizer industry and is excited about his career.

“It was a course on innovations in agriculture that really got me thinking about new applications,” he says. “I began exploring ways to automate processes in the field and in production.”

He learned how to do some coding in his courses and was able to develop a simple switch for a water pump used in irrigation.

“Basically, you can use your computer or an app on your phone to control the water flow,” he explains.

His advice for students just starting out is straightforward: “I started my work in agriculture late in life, but I know from experience that it’s never too late.”

He adds: “Just keep at it!”

Sellers and Bawa were co-valedictorians at the School of Agriculture convocation ceremony, nominated and selected for the honour by their classmates. On May 3, 2019, 58 students graduated from the School of Agriculture diploma program during the 140th Spring Convocation.

Chris Rutkowski is a communications officer with the University of Manitoba. This article first appeared in the online publication UM Today.

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