Nothing stays the same, be it in agriculture, business, international trade or learning. And the University of Guelph has a unique Masters of Business Administration program that reflects that notion.
The school is combining those factors in its MBA (master’s degree in business administration) in Food and Agri-business Management, a program considered innovative in a number of ways.
From the perspective of Ken Smith, associate dean of executive programs for Guelph’s College of Management and Economics, Guelph’s MBA is a leader in its approach, which focuses on specific management aspects within the food and agri-business sectors.
"We’re not teaching the industry, per se, we’re teaching the components of an MBA, using case studies and examples and a few specialization courses that expose an individual to the whole chain, from fertilizer to fork," said Smith.
"The reason that’s valuable is that wherever you are in the chain, whatever business you’re in in the chain, it’s important to understand the rest of the chain. It’s relevant to an agribusiness company to understand what the thinking is downstream, and it’s important to a retailer to understand who they’re buying from and how that industry works."
Best management practices reach beyond what happens in the field. It’s true that they can affect planting and marketing decisions and storage requirements, and not just how to protect stored farm product from pests or moisture, but specifically how to handle quality issues that are pertinent to millers or processors.
Add to that the growing globalization of the food industry — more people are eating better, have higher disposable incomes and are living longer — and the realization that the "agriculture and food" industry is expanding, with more opportunities for people beyond the front-line role of the farmer, such as policy advisors, trade brokers, marketing and communications personnel and sales and scouting advisors.
"I think that’s particularly important for the Canadian industry to be focused on, right now," said Smith. "This (agri-food/agri-business) industry is globalizing, and if we are only focused on the farming, then we’re going to miss out on the rest of the value chain, and a lot of the money’s made, and a lot of the value is created, in the rest of that value chain."
The Guelph MBA program involves a two-year hybridized online format, with nine core courses, four specialization courses and a final project focused on a challenge that usually comes from the student’s place of business or his or her particular industry.
Some core courses are similar to those of other MBA formats, including finance, economics and accounting. But there are also courses on leadership, with issues reflecting challenges specific to the food and agri-business sector.
The four specialization courses include agri-business policy, price and risk management, marketing and operations.
"Although public policy is important to every industry, it’s incredibly important to the agri-business sector," Smith said, noting the same is true with pricing and risk management. "Of course, pricing and risk management are associated with price and are issues with every industry, but given the commodity nature of the products of the agri-business sector, it’s a unique issue, and so the students will learn what sets the prices and how they’re set. And they’ll learn about hedging, which isn’t taught normally in MBA programs."
Students must hold an undergraduate degree from a recognized institution, but also have three years experience in the food and agri-business industry. In turn, they can impart that knowledge on their classmates, and vice-versa; in effect, the students teach each other.
"Everybody’s bringing something to it, and what they happen to be an expert in might be different than what somebody else is an expert in, but you benefit from that," said Smith. "You do a lot of work in teams, and you learn a lot from your colleagues, so part of what we’re doing is we want to make sure that people have sufficient context, that is going to make sense for them, and that the learning will land on plowed ground."
For those wanting to enter the Guelph MBA without undergraduate degrees, there is an alternate admissions category, where applications will be considered for those with five or more years of practical experience in the industry.
Deadlines and commitments
The deadline for applying is fast approaching: March 31 is the key date for the May 2012 start of the program. There are three in-class sessions: 10 days this May, 10 days in May 2013 and five days in May 2014 to complete the program.
In between those face-to-face learning opportunities, students take part in an interactive, online format, allowing them to keep working at their jobs while taking part in the program.
Two other MBA programs are being launched by the university. One is the same MBA in Food and Agri-business Management, but in a 13-month, full-time format, on campus, Smith said. That program will begin in 2013, with the deadline for applications in March of that year.
The second is being billed as an MBA for a Better Planet. It has yet to be marketed, and was only approved in December 2011, but it combines the MBA in Food and Agri-business Management with international development.
It will be a two-year, full-time program, consisting of one year in the food and management curriculum, and courses in international development, including an internship in a developing country.
"The inspiration for developing it actually came from students who, to the credit of their generation, are a lot more concerned about the community and the world, and not just about making money," said Smith. He notes there is a considerable commitment, not just to living away from home for a time, but in dedicating oneself to a larger picture of a growing world.
"And then what I learned as we were putting the program together and talking to people, was that this is going to be a very valuable program to employers, as well. So these students are going to have an MBA in food and agri-business management, they’re going to understand the global industry and, in particular, they’re going to understand how it works in developing countries."
That program will also begin in May 2013, with applications being accepted now through March 2013.
— Ralph Pearce is a field editor for Country Guide at St. Marys, Ont.