Farmers in Eastern Ontario are worried where the next generation will be educated, after the University of Guelph announced it will be closing its Ontario Agricultural College campuses in Alfred and in Kemptville in 2015 for financial reasons.
For generations, young farmers have attended the college in Kemptville to learn techniques to take back to their family farms, said Ron Burgess, the Kemptville College Alumni president and Lanark County cash crop farmer.
Burgess said he doubts young people will move to the remaining Ridgetown campus, 650 kilometres away in Chatham-Kent.
He said the extra cost and the inability to help on their own farms on weekends is a deterrent for young farming students.
Burgess said the three other community colleges that offer agricultural programs: Fleming, Mohawk and Durham, aren't set up to focus specifically on agriculture, with hands-on farms on site.
"Rather than going to Ridgetown, they just won't go to school at all. They'll go back to the farms, they won't go on to further their education," said Burgess.
That will be a hit for farming in the region, which Burgess said is using increasingly sophisticated technology. Farmers also have to be competitive to sell to markets outside the region.
How many students are affected by the closures?
Alfred: There are 61 students enrolled in mandatory programs, about half come from outside of Ontario.
Kemptville: There are 128 students enrolled in the mandatory two-year associate diploma programs and another 51 enrolled in the bachelor of bio-resource management (BBRM) degree major in equine management.
Also: There are about 170 full time and 290 part time ‘trades’ students at the Kemptville college.
Courtesy of the University of Guelph
"If you don't get the chance to learn, then you're at a disadvantage," said Burgess. "And many young people will be at a disadvantage."
In an open letter to Kathleen Wynne on Thursday, the Progressive Conservative agriculture and food critic noted the Kemptville and Alfred campuses teach not only agriculture, but food processing as well.
Oxford MPP Ernie Hardeman said the decision to close the campuses would worsen a pre-existing skills shortage in the industry.
"Minister, in the long-term this is not a cost saving measure — it will negatively impact our agriculture industry, the agri-food sector and our provincial economy," wrote Hardeman.
Premier still serves as agriculture minister
Wynne continues to serve as Ontario's agriculture minister alongside her role as the province’s leader.
On Wednesday, her ministry office deferred media inquiries to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
The president of the University of Guelph, meanwhile, defended the closures in an interview on CBC Radio's All in a Day.
"One of the issues was originally the colleges were attractive to people in the local communities," said Alastair Summerlee. "That has changed quite considerably."
Summerlee pointed to one program at Kemptville where 75 per cent of students come from western Ontario, which he said is partly due to the mobility of students.
"We need to be able to create strong, strong academic programs of high quality that we know are financially sustainable in order to make sure we're graduating the best students that we possibly can to serve the agricultural industry."