NEWS
10/11/2015 10:53 EDT | Updated 10/11/2016 01:12 EDT

Ontario urging students to consider careers in agriculture-food sector

TORONTO — Ontario politicians are taking steps to get more young people to consider careers in the province's agricultural and food sector, including some high-tech options.

Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa Thompson lined up all-party support for her motion to add a component on the agriculture-food sector to the "careers and guidance curriculum" for Grades 9 and 10 students.

"The reality is, for every graduate from the University of Guelph (agricultural programs), three jobs are waiting for them," said Thompson.

"We need to educate our young people about the amazing opportunities that are out there in terms of agri-food careers."

New Democrat MPP John Vanthof, who owned a dairy farm for 30 years, said there are huge opportunities in the sector, and not just in traditional ways.

"It's not just on the farm and it's not just in the elevator," said Vanthof. "I don't have a dairy farm any longer, but my daughter designs GPS systems for agriculture."

The Liberal government signalled its intention to act on Thompson's motion, and said young people should be told about the job possibilities in the sector.

"Students need to know that a career in farming is not just about long hours and hard physical toil," said Liberal MPP Arthur Potts, parliamentary assistant to the minister of agricultural and rural affairs. "Modern farming requires advanced knowledge of science, economics, marketing and much more to be successful."

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which represents 37,000 farm families, said the sector is vital to the economy, and students should know it's also about protecting the environment and using the latest science and technology to increase production.

"I don't only need kids in my own labour force that know how to splice barbed wire on a fence, but (I need them to) know how to splice genes to make the next hybrid that's going to revolutionize things here in Ontario," said OFA president Don McCabe.

The non-profit Ontario Agri-Food Education Inc. said too many students do not have a realistic idea of where their food comes from and need to learn "the truth" about agriculture and farm practices.

"Until that happens, none of them are going to want careers in this sector," said executive director Colleen Smith. "They're all driven by a social conscience that is very refreshing these days in high school students, and we want to make sure that agriculture is there to answer those questions for them in the classroom."

Labour shortages are a top issue for agriculture businesses, and Smith predicts there will be about 74,000 job openings in Canada's agri-food sector by 2022, but warns one in three will go unfilled because of a shortage of applicants.

Vanthof frequently had students tour his dairy farm, and said he realized the need to better educate young people about farming during a visit by a high school class.

"One of the kids said: 'Boy, I'm glad we get our milk from the store because we sure wouldn't want to get it from cows,' and he was serious," he said. "We changed the focus of our tours to talk about GPS and (technology), and kids got very interested."

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Keith Leslie, The Canadian Press