BY IAN DOIG
Olds College is ahead of the curve in addressing the global need for comprehensive ag technology training.
Since the 2018 launch of its Smart Farm and Smart Ag Innovation Centre, the college has continued to develop new agricultural programming. The Agriculture Technology Integration post-diploma certificate program and the Precision Agriculture – Techgronomy diploma program will begin accepting applications on Oct. 1 of this year and are set to launch in September 2020. A bachelor of science program is also in the works.
Hearing from the industry that gaps existed in ag education in general, the college undertook a year-long assessment starting in late 2017. The process gathered input from students and administrators in Canadian, American and Australian ag schools as well as Alberta farmers. Debbie Thompson, VP of academic and student experience, said while the resulting new programs are unique in structure, complementing others offered across the country.
Agriculture is in transition from its traditional analog ways to a highly technical immediate future driven by precision ag software, digital sensors and a whole lot of data. “We weren’t necessarily keeping up with those things,” said Thompson. “So, industry was filling that void. We’ve just come to a time where that’s no longer feasible and we need to do more.”
As technological change accelerates, she added, the institution’s ag programs must ensure graduates can keep up with the technical demands of the industry.
Over two semesters, the 10-course, eight-month post-diploma certificate will prepare students for industry opportunities created by emerging farm technologies. Diploma graduates from the college’s ag management and equipment programs are expected to be among enrollees.
Plugging into the Smart Farm’s digital infrastructure, they will receive hands-on instruction in all things precision ag, from installation and calibration to repair of hardware and software systems. This compact and comprehensive program also includes ag-tech focused training in areas such as autonomous equipment, business and entrepreneurship and project management of sustainable systems.
Graduates will be able to take on precision ag work in production agriculture but also with machinery servicing and sales businesses, ag technology providers and crop consulting firms.
The certificate program will constitute an expedient technological upgrade that will enhance the student’s existing qualifications and skills and the Techgronomy diploma constitutes a two-year deep dive into 21st century agronomic skills.
High school students from farms and towns are expected to be the program’s central cohort. The first digitally native generation, many want careers that satisfy their love of technology. College staff have visited high schools across southern Alberta, talking to prospective recruits. “We’re saying our agriculture industry is a tremendous place to come and apply those skills,” said James Benkie, Olds College dean of program development in agriculture technology. “We’re seeing a light turn on. They’re excited about that.”
As farms and agri-businesses expand, industry professionals juggle the inter-operability of systems from apps to online platforms. Learning to make effective decisions by leveraging this technology and the vast data it generates is central to the program, said Benkie. “There’s a lot of technology out there looking for a problem to solve. We want to ensure our students understand that. We don’t look at tech as a silver bullet, but as a tool to enhance our industry.”
“Having these programs, Olds College students will be lined up to become leaders in agriculture,” said Angela White, who is president of the school’s student association and enrolled in its Land and Water Resources program. “They’ll have the knowledge they’re going to need as the industry moves forward.”