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Agribusiness hungry for specialized business grads

David Sparling, chair of Agri-Food Innovation and Regulation at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, with farm machinery at the farm show in London, Ont., Mar. 6, 2013.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

For those who have ever dreamed of a life tilling the land, David Sparling has some advice: Go to business school.

"I'm a massive believer in the importance of business education for farmers because farmers are in business," said Dr. Sparling, who is chair of Agri-Food Innovation and Regulation at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business.

"No matter how much people like to think of it as a lifestyle kind of thing, it's a business."

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And for those who have never thought twice about farming, educators say they can barely keep up with industry demands for skilled graduates.

"We're going through a boom time in agriculture," said Bill Brown, a professor of agribusiness management at the University of Saskatchewan. Graduates are getting two or three job offers each, he said.

Canada's farms are indeed doing well. According to a recent study by Dr. Sparling, farmers' net income rose 126 per cent between 2005 and 2010, and the average net worth of a Canadian farm rose by $486,000, an increase of 47 per cent.

At the same time, farming and the multibillion dollar agribusinesses attached to food production have grown more complex, fuelling a demand for professionals with a wide range of skills.

Agribusiness is a catchall descriptor that includes food production and processing, equipment manufacturing, fertilizer production and marketing.

Statistics Canada estimates the agriculture and agri-food sector alone – excluding equipment manufacturing and chemical sectors – is worth about $100.3-billion, about 8.1 per cent of total GNP.

"It's not just about growing food and delivering it someplace," said Dr. Sparling, who teaches leadership training for owners of large growing operations. "Now, you need networks, supply chains, co-operatives, global supply networks."

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Industry priorities are also shifting, with a new emphasis on research to make food more nutritious.

"The greatest need is: 'How do I manage my business?'" Dr. Sparling said. "How do I plan a strategy? How do I execute that strategy? How do I keep my employees motivated and involved? How do I work with the markets internationally?"

The agribusiness industry is snapping up graduates from Canada's agriculture institutions, especially those with training in commerce.

It's not just students seeking farm careers who are enrolling in agriculture programs, educators say. An agriculture degree can be a ticket to a range of opportunities, including banking, marketing, research, international development and policy advising. Environmental consulting firms and multinational food companies want agriculture graduates with both business and science backgrounds.

Both the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Guelph – two universities with established agricultural programs – offer degree programs that specialize in agribusiness.

"That's what students wanted," said Prof. Brown. The University of Saskatchewan agribusiness degree program, which launched in 2006, was an instant hit.

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Prof. Brown brings industry representatives to his classes to help students write business plans on everything from setting up food processing plants to starting Alpaca wool mills. They are also taught succession planning and how to transfer assets to the next generation.

"We went from 35 or 40 students to 150 students just about overnight." Prof. Brown said of the agribusiness program.

Still, educators say undergraduate agriculture programs aren't flooded with applicants. Rene Van Acker, associate dean at the University of Guelph's Ontario Agricultural College, said agriculture suffers from an image problem.

"You don't see TV shows about food scientists," Dr. Van Acker said. "There are no touch points whatsoever other than the guy in the field, the farmer. So I think people never really fully explore it."

To that end, some agribusinesses have formed partnerships with universities to ensure the industry is fed with skilled professionals.

Syngenta Canada, part of the Swiss multinational seed, biotechnology and chemical company, sponsors Ivey's leadership training courses – called Grower U – which Dr. Sparling teaches. Most participants are commercial farmers.

Still, Dr. Sparling said the best training for would-be growers is the straightforward MBA.

"If you really want to up your management skills, they're designed to give you skills to manage your business."

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