This issue of the perception of agriculture as a career seems to be a pervasive one. On #QandA Australia last night (twitter) there was a lively discussion about the future of farming in Oz. Many people weighed in on their opinions about the age of farmers, the perception of farming, and the challenges and successes of bringing new people into the sector. Unfortunately I was on and off of airplanes during the chat, but the beauty of technology allowed me to revisit the discussion. A few tweets by @pipcourtney caught my attention:
The stat about 700 graduates for 4000 agricultural jobs is a big one. It is not too different from the research commissioned by the University of Guelph, which found that there are 3 jobs for every 1 of their Bachelor of Agriculture graduates.
But the statement around career advisers is extremely interesting. This was a topic which came up during my visit to Wiltshire College Lackham in England last week where Nuffield Scholar Liam Stokes introduced me to some of the staff and students. I had the opportunity to speak with some of the students taking the various agriculture and land based programs there. Some of them certainly shared the sentiment from @pipcourtney that they were discouraged from going into agri-food by teachers. Others said that their teachers didn't even mention it as an option. So where did they get the idea to do the programs?
Many of the students I spoke to came from an agriculture background and knew that they wanted to study in a practical environment. The programs at Lackham all contain a practical element. In fact I got to visit the sheep area where lambing was in full swing and students from 3 different levels were participating in moving animals from one barn to another.
Students that had been identified as "not suited to university", or who self identified as not enjoying school, have the capacity to enter into a program at a lower level and complete a one year program. Then depending on their success, they have the capacity to move upwards and complete another level. I really admire this program set up and the fact that it gives students the opportunity to succeed and to work their way up the levels at a speed which works for them. There is no big commitment for a 2 or 4 year program necessary. A few of the students that I spoke to said they didn't know what they would be doing if they didn't have the option to take things at their own pace.
Another interesting element of the visit to Lackham was the School Links program. This is a program that allows students still in secondary school to participate in a visit to the college once a week for agriculture focused classes and practical experiences. Again, these tend to be students who have been identified as "difficult students." However what I saw was engagement - the opportunity to pursue something interesting with like minded peers. Some of these students will progress on to programs at Lackham. Without the School Links program, how many would have been offered that option?
Not all of the students stories of working their way up the levels. And not all of the students were discouraged from pursuing agriculture.
One of the most interesting students I spoke to was a young woman who was helping with the milking in the dairy barn. Although she doesn't come from a farm, she grew up around horses and felt drawn to the sector. She volunteers her time and coordinates car pooling with a friend to come help with the milking a few times a week. She is very academic and has been encouraged by her parents and teachers to go to university level courses. That will most likely be her destination, but she wants it to be in the upper level courses at Lackham College. Luckily, her teacher was the one who told her about the school and the programs available there. It would be great to hear more stories like this, wouldn't it?
I think that there is a few key things that I learned from my visit to Lackham about how we can attract more students to careers in agri-food, and remove the stigma of ag being for those "unable to do anything else":
The positive angle is that a lot of these initiatives are already being done in many countries and regions around the world. So let's keep up the good work and put some extra effort into highlighting the options (for all levels of students) and staying positive about the industry.
I have many more meetings set up this week in New Zealand and can't wait to see what inspiration lies in this country!!
Questions. Since the start of my Nuffield research I have asked many. In fact, I've got a whole list that I refer to in every meeting I have. Often I end up adding more questions to that list after I have met with someone. I guess that is part of the process - it is organic and morphs with situations and context.
But in my elusive attempt to shut off my brain after 6pm last night I had another question: Am I asking the right questions? A sense of panic came over me as I started to wonder if I was missing some jewel of information because I neglected to inquire in the right way.
Here is an example. Many agri-businesses say that a passion for agriculture is a key trait they appreciate in future employees. So I had asked a few people how they thought we could sow the seeds of passion for agriculture in more young people. Some answers surprised me. Two of my interviewees said the same thing - can you even do that? Shouldn't we be focusing on the ones who are already passionate? Well that threw me for a loop! Here I am trying to expand the roster of people entering careers in agri-food and I'm being told to actually narrow the search!
It got me thinking that perhaps I need to follow up that original question with "how do we do a better job of harnessing the passion of those young people interested in agriculture?" (which is a actually a better and more exciting question).
This was further confirmed when I woke up this morning to an email in my inbox from a young woman back home who is very passionate about agriculture She is looking for help at making some connections in the industry because she graduates from a business and food management degree next year and will be entering the workforce. That is the kind of passion that we need to be nurturing. Those are the young leaders who deserve opportunities to prove themselves and make a mark on the agri-food industry. How do I engage her, and help to set her on a path to a successful and meaningful career in agriculture? The importance of positive role models, mentors, and young leader programs is becoming increasingly clear!
I'm so glad that I took the time to reconsider my approach to my questions. I think the lesson here is that it is important to take "1 minute for silent reflection" (lol #nuffield15) and ask ourselves if we are asking the right questions. It's a bit like those choose your own adventure books - if you always make the same decisions you will always arrive at the same destination. So make a different decision. Ask a different question. You never know where it may take you.
I was raised as the seventh generation on a mixed livestock farm near Guelph, Ontario. Currently I am living in the beautiful Okanagan region of BC, where my husband works for Blue Mountain Winery. I maintain my close ties to Ontario agriculture through my job with AgScape (Ontario Agri-Food Education Inc.) and hope to bring a national, and global perspective to agricultural issues.