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James Powell is hoping to take a new business-agriculture diploma offered by Algonquin College in Ottawa next year, with the long-term goal of joining an agribusiness company.

James Powell grew up on a dairy farm in Eastern Ontario but the high-school educated 20-year-old currently installs lines for a phone company.

He says he misses farming and now is considering a business career in agriculture through a new two-year diploma at Ottawa’s Algonquin College next September.

The business-agriculture program, which began accepting applications in October, features a blend of in-class lectures on management fundamentals for farm operators and agricultural companies and outside-the-classroom experiential learning and co-op work placements.

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“To get back into agriculture, it is what I would love to do,” says Mr. Powell, who sometimes helps relatives with their dairy farm and aspires to a career with an agribusiness company.

Algonquin’s diploma is the latest in a growing list of college business programs focused on agriculture and developed in response to demand from employers who say they cannot find enough trained managers knowledgeable about the business of farming.

In 2017, a University of Guelph report on the future of Ontario’s food and agriculture sector surveyed 123 employers and found that 51 per cent of those in the food sector and 67 per cent of farm operators reported difficulty in finding qualified managers. In the survey, 44 per cent of food employers and 56 per cent of agriculture employers expected to boost hiring over the next five years.

When the University of Guelph shut down its two Eastern Ontario agriculture campuses in Kemptville and Alfred in 2014, the closures left “a great big hole in the Ottawa Valley” for farm-trained graduates, says dairy and crop farmer Bryan Brydges, who served on an industry panel advising Algonquin on its new diploma. A “strong supporter” of the new credential, Mr. Brydges says he hopes it also attracts those with non-farm backgrounds.

Rick Schouten, a recently retired dairy farmer who also advised Algonquin, says today’s large-scale farmers and agri-businesses require managers who understand finance, human resources, marketing and technology, as well as the latest crop and livestock innovations.

“Everyone in the industry is struggling to find educated students,” says Mr. Schouten, whose relatives now run Schouten Corner View Farms. The 2,500-acre operation in Richmond, Ont., relies on a dozen employees to manage a herd of 1,300 Holsteins, half of which are milked, and plant crops.

Algonquin relied on industry input, typical in college program development, in the design of its first agribusiness diploma, says program co-ordinator Martin Savard.

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“The industry came to us saying it needs a business-based [diploma] because agriculture is big business,” he says, citing a pattern of unfilled jobs in the sector. “The average farmer is exploiting millions of dollars of assets.”

At other colleges already offering agribusiness programs, officials report strong interest from students and employers.

In 2017, Fanshawe College in London, Ont., introduced a two-semester agri-business management certificate for farm operators and industry suppliers. This year, the college enrolled 45 students, up 30 per cent over a year ago, says Lisa Schwerzmann, acting chair of Fanshawe’s Lawrence Kinlin School of Business.

“I stress to prospective students and employers this [certificate] is still a business program, not an agriculture program with a business slant,” she says. “We want to develop students who have the fundamental business skills within the ag sector. That is what employers are looking for.”

Enrolment is evenly split between women and men, with all students taking a six-week work placement. The majority of graduates join agribusiness firms.

Increasingly, paid or unpaid work experience is integral to part of the agribusiness curriculum.

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In Manitoba, Jennalee Manning graduated four years ago from Assiniboine College in Brandon with a two-year agribusiness diploma that included a mandatory four-month co-op placement. Her industry experience paved the way to a post-graduation job with a credit union and, ultimately, her current position as a relationship manager associate with Farm Credit Canada.

Ms. Manning, whose family operates a 5,000-acre farm, says she chose the Assiniboine program for its small classes and hands-on learning opportunities that include field trips to farms and industry suppliers. She urges prospective students to pursue careers in a field where “there are so many jobs available.”

Her assessment is shared by Dave Perkins, interim dean of Assiniboine’s school of business, agriculture and environment. “The students who finish the [currently offered] diploma program often have employment waiting for them long before they graduate,” he says. In 2016, with a waiting list for its diploma program, the college boosted the incoming class by six seats to 56 students.

Given industry demand, the college next year plans to add a one-year advanced agribusiness diploma for students who already have at least a two-year diploma in business and commerce. Over the next few years, Assiniboine expects to add more programs for the sector in a province where one in 10 jobs are tied, directly or indirectly, to agriculture.

In its new strategic plan, Assiniboine identifies agriculture as “a major priority for college expansion and innovation” over the next seven years, estimating college-wide enrolment of 1,908 students by 2025, double the level in 2013.

Industry demand has also spurred expansion of agribusiness offerings at Olds College in Alberta, beginning with recent revisions to its flagship two-year diploma in agriculture management, with about 185 students.

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“Our agriculture industry is growing and there are new opportunities opening for students,” says Debbie Thompson, vice-president of academic and student experience and chief innovation officer.

“Students are starting to see agriculture as not only going back to the family farm,” she adds. “Many choose to do that but they also see opportunities in a wide variety of careers, including ag lenders.”

This year the college signed an agreement with Calgary Economic Development, which promotes trade and investment for the City of Calgary, 95 kilometres south of Olds, to establish a “smart” agrifood corridor for innovation and startups.

Beyond its long-running diploma, Olds also offers a bachelor of applied science in agribusiness that this year enrolled 48 students from across the country, up from 44 a year ago, says Ms. Thompson. Students who already have at least a two-year diploma in agriculture or a related discipline sign up for two additional years at Olds – one year of in-class learning that includes agriculture project management, finance and marketing topics followed by an eight-month out-of-classroom “directed field study,” like a co-op placement, for students to work for an agri-business employer.

Over the next two or three years, Olds expects to offer additional agribusiness credentials, subject to provincial government approval. In part fuelled by farm-related programming, the college expects to take enrolment to 2,000 students by 2025, from 1,350 currently.

“We are starting to see a wider urban audience in some of our programs related to agriculture and that is a trend we will see continue to grow,” says Ms. Thompson.

Back in Ottawa, close to a decision on Algonquin’s new agribusiness diploma, Mr. Powell says, “It’s amazing to have it so close to home and available to farming kids in Eastern Ontario.”

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