University of Manitoba growing next generation of ag experts

U of M’s agriculture diploma program preparing students for an evolving industry

Fast-moving change in the agriculture industry is requiring a whole new level of agility from Canada’s agriculture education institutions.

At the University of Manitoba, that’s meant instructors are looking for ways to make students more agile and able to adopt new strategies and tools more quickly and effectively.

“We’ve talked with industry that said it’s looking for students who know how to learn and can understand the bigger picture, critical thinking side of things,” says Colin Penner, a farm management instructor with the University of Manitoba’s agriculture diploma program.

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Penner is an alumni of the agriculture diploma program, a certified crop adviser and holds a certificate in accounting. He worked as a marketing representative for Richardson Pioneer in Starbuck for several years before returning to farm and teach.

“In the last few years we’ve gone through an evolution in the diploma program to emphasize decision-making and acquiring new skills,” Penner said. “We want to show students the WHY behind their decisions both financially and on the agronomy side.”

Garrett Sawatzky is another farm management instructor and alumni of the U of M’s agriculture diploma program. Along with his teaching duties, Sawatzky currently farms with his family near Altona.

Very few university or college programs can adjust their curriculums at the same speed as their respective industries, but that isn’t stopping the U of M from getting its students ready to enter a fast-paced and quickly evolving industry.

One advantage the University of Manitoba’s farm management instructors have is the fact they actively farm while instructing in the agriculture faculty.

“It’s a great synergy and balance where I can take what I know from farming and apply it to my teaching, and vice versa where I can take things I learn from the students or new lessons and try it on my farm,” Sawatzky said.

He added it helps ground the lessons they teach in the practical reality of farming in Manitoba.

“It would be hard to teach farm management if you don’t have the hands-on experience. It gives you some reputability, as you’re not teaching something you aren’t involved in.”

In addition to the usual classroom lectures, Sawatzky said they try to expose their agriculture students to as many technologies as possible to spark their interest in the emerging tools.

“Asking (any) instructor to be in tune with every piece of new technology would be a full-time job in itself, so we can’t really do that.

“We try to expose students to new things through experiential learning, farm and factory tours and other hands-on, lab-style environments. Since we can’t teach them about every piece of tech, we emphasize the decision-making and planning aspects.”

Sawatzky noted that newer technologies and practices are creating new careers in the industry. He said versatility, curiosity, and communication are skills employers want to see.

“There are so many new jobs being created each year, especially with new technologies and software being released all the time. For the students who aren’t going back to farm, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity if they’re open minded and willing to continue learning after graduation.”

What are the students saying?

While a large section of this year’s diploma class plans to farm at some point, others plan on working for someone else to gain some industry experience.

Second-year diploma student Acey Brinkman plans to work in the industry for a few years before trying his hand at farming.

“I’m going to go home to work the sawmill for a bit, try to recoup some of the cash I spent on university,” Brinkman joked. “After that I’ll hopefully get a job for a company or work in a community pasture while I save up to start my own beef herd.”

Another second-year diploma student Jill Martens plans to take her on-farm experience and new expertise from the U of M back to her family farm to start working full time alongside her parents and siblings.

She says her parents have always been supportive and encouraged her to take an active role in the farm from a young age.

“I’m planning on going home to farm. I really like working on the family farm. I like how diverse it is throughout the year and it’s just a lot of fun.”

Martens says she’s excited to take on challenges as a young woman entering a very male-dominated agriculture industry.

“Myself and others have noticed some challenges for women in ag, particularly younger women just starting to farm or work for a farming company. We want to be taken more seriously as farm managers and decision makers,” Martens said.

Martens and other students said the University of Manitoba intrigued them because of its direct focus on farm management.

“The U of M’s agriculture program has a great reputation and the classes looked really interesting, especially the labs,” says Rachel Neumann, another second-year diploma student. She said different classes like weeds management and soil biology are some of the classes she’s most interested in.

“I’ve really enjoyed the soils labs and our weeds management class. I didn’t think I would enjoy studying soil as much as I do, and getting to work with the plants is great.”

She also says being a student at the U of M is one of the ways to get your foot in the door and get a hands-on, practical view of farming before going to work on the farm or for a company full time.

Whether it’s back to the farm full time or selling seed, the types of available jobs for new grads are very exciting to say the least. With new tools and tech to help farmers produce their goods, the number of career options for agriculture students is sure to continue growing as well.

About the author

Reporter

Spencer Myers

Spencer Myers grew up on a beef and grain farm in Belmont, Man. He is a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s Agriculture Diploma Program and Red River College’s Creative Communications program. Adding to his on-farm experience, Spencer has worked as an agronomist-in-training at Zeghers Seed Inc. in Holland, Man., and a conservation technician with Ducks Unlimited’s Native Plant Solutions division. Spencer is currently based in Winnipeg.

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