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!!
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.