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Donation will make a real impact … maybe it will lead to more ag education rationalization

A donation of $16 million to Olds College will establish an institute dedicated to smart and sustainable agriculture and business solutions.

AHEAD OF THE HEARD -- A donation of $16 million to Olds College (OC) will establish an institute dedicated to smart and sustainable agriculture and business solutions. It will be able to provide teaching facilities and instructors to endow students with the knowledge needed to succeed in today’s increasingly complex commercial agriculture industry. The donation was made by David Werklund and partner Susan Norman, and if fully leveraged will have a potential cumulative impact of around $32 million for OC. This record donation has the ability to set a new direction for agriculture education at OC, and serve as an example as to what is needed at other similar educational institutions.

This would be part of the evolution of OC over its long illustrious history of providing educational opportunities for the agriculture sector that has seen OC go from primarily a vocational agriculture and home economics school, to focusing on modern-production agriculture, to a diversified college that has gone beyond its original agriculture education mandate. That was strategically a wise move as the pool of students interested in production agriculture has been on a downward trend for many years. OC was able to maintain its attractiveness to such students by initiating innovative and focused courses. I should say its sister agriculture college, Lakeland in Vermilion, has taken similar actions.

Agriculture colleges everywhere have had to deal with declining interest by prospective students and it’s a reflection of what has been occurring in the agriculture industry in general. Constant consolidation has seen the ongoing decline of medium-sized farming and ranching operations morph into large-scale agriculture operations including intensive sectors like feedlots. That change is driven by highly motivated and very smart entrepreneurs who have taken sophisticated business-like approaches to being successful. That approach is not going to change and it will become increasingly complex as highly complicated financial and marketing scenarios are going to be required to get into ag production and stay in business.

For instance complex hedging of inputs, sales and currency by large producers and operators is commonplace today that was barely mentioned back in the dinosaur age when I was in college. Now producers have to negotiate such things as intricate leasing and land rental arrangements that involve millions of dollars of assets. Big operations now include dozens of farmworkers that alone involves particular knowledge of human relations and fine tuning the cost and benefit analysis of employees. Sure big outfits can outsource production and marketing decisions to consultants and advisers, but any successful operator would need a pretty detailed knowledge of every business aspect to stay on top of the situation. That’s where OC and other colleges can really help by focusing on providing students with highly advanced and diverse agriculture business education. That’s where this donation to OC can really be put to good use.

Many years ago your bedraggled old writer suggested in a column that in order to survive, the three agriculture colleges of the day would need to specialize. Way back then they seemed to be more in competition with each other for the same students. Since then Fairview College has disappeared as an agriculture focused operation and is now part of Grande Prairie College. Both Lakeland and Olds colleges continue their agriculture education mandate but each has expanded into offering many diverse non-agricultural courses to stay in operation and expand. OC seems to be the most successful, it even has a hotel on site for its hospitality management courses. Lakeland took a leap into diversified agriculture with such offerings as bison operation management. That’s all positive but both colleges may have to specialize even more; there may only be room for one college that offers courses in practical production agriculture with the other offering highly focused management and marketing courses. My point is that maintaining costly and diverse livestock and crop production facilities for student education at both facilities may no longer be viable. I would even suggest that the livestock facilities maintained by the University of Alberta for their agriculture students and research should also be included in any such rationalization. One might even throw in the facilities maintained by provincial and federal research agencies and departments. I expect that might be a bit of wishful thinking as there are powerful bureaucracies that would fight such rationalization.

Consolidation will relentlessly continue in the agriculture sector, it would only seem reasonable that the delivery of agricultural education will need to keep up at every level.