So many of the things that we depend on in life come from agriculture, or are heavily influenced by it  – food, the environment, health and nutrition, among them. We depend on farmers to be professional agriculturalists, to keep us fed at a very reasonable price. Polls show we highly value farmers’ abilities (even if we don’t particularly respect their need to make a living, like everyone else). Farming is one of the most revered professions in society, not to mention one of the most important and challenging jobs anyone could ask for. 

            Since the late 1800s, in Ontario, most budding farmers who’ve sought higher education have enrolled in an agricultural college in Ontario, such as the Ontario Agricultural College, which became a founding college in 1964 of the University of Guelph. Historically, agricultural students enrolled through the two-year diploma program, a highly skill-oriented, practical program. Later, the four-year degree was added. The two-year program remained, and still carries on today.

Much has changed since the first diplomas were granted in the late 1800s, but still, many things remain the same. For example, we need farmers just as much now as we did then, maybe more, given our increased population and pressure on natural resources. We not only need them to be productive farmers, we need them to farm in an environmentally sound and publicly sensitive manner. We really need them to be more efficient than ever, a challenge to which they’ve responded with aplomb.

Research at Guelph sponsored primarily by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the agri-food industry has given farmers tools to do some amazing things. For example, they’ve cut pesticide use by more than half. They’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 125,000 cars. More than 60 per cent of Ontario farmers use conservation tillage, affecting nearly four million acres, roughly the size of Lake Ontario. All farmers purchasing and applying pesticides must be trained and certified every five years.

And that’s just the environmental end of the business. There’s a waft of production-oriented advantages that researchers have also developed for farmers, and that have been adopted.

            Farm kids and others learn about many of these advances at college, then go back to their family farms (or maybe start their own farms) and implement them, or join other parts of the agri-food sector. They’re highly employable, having specialized in programs such as environmental management, veterinary technology, turfgrass management, food and nutrition and of course, agriculture.

About 800 students are currently involved in the Ontario Agricultural College two-year diploma program. They’re enrolled at the college’s four campuses: Guelph, Alfred, Kemptville and Ridgetown. These campuses have, and still do, draw students from their respective regions, many of whom are going back to their farms and rural communities. The proximity of the colleges makes it possible for kids to go to school, and come home and help on the farm on the weekends. There’s a whole culture that’s been built around them, and communities hold them in high regards as cornerstone institutions.

The Ontario Agricultural College Alumni Foundation is recognizing the 125th anniversary of the college’s agricultural diploma program with a special two-year $1.25-million fund-raising effort. It’s been designed by the college and the alumni association to create endowments that can be used for special diploma-student endeavours (such as scholarships, field trips and experiential learning opportunities), consistent with the campaign’s theme, Leadership for a New Era.

             They’re calling on 5,000 alumni from the 1940s to now, to give $125 in both years (for a total of $250), to reach their $1.25-million goal. “Guelph’s diploma program students are leaders,” says Guelph President Alastair Summerlee. The new campaign will help them stay competitive, and keep us fed.