Wednesday September 03, 2014

Agriculture training meets tech changes


I suppose in general terms technology has been the greatest change in our world over the last quarter century.

I just think back over the last 25 years in my little slice of reality and am amazed by the changes.

When I first arrived in Yorkton just a shade over 25-years ago most of my humble stories, and the earliest examples of this agricultural column were still produced on a then very old manual typewriter. The words I wrote then went to a staff who actually re-typed them into what was a fledgling computer system of a sort.

The Compugraphic machine I occasionally had access too, there were two among a staff of four and I was then rookie, so I was relegated to the typewriter on most days, was a beast of a machine.

It was about the size of the Mini cars we see on the streets today, and had a file capacity of exactly 10-inches on newspaper copy. You can imagine the joys of doing longer features, encompassing multiple files, making moving bits of information around in a story time consuming and just plain difficult.

It was good in the sense I learned to write a story top to bottom, and leave it as is, which still saves me time today, but at the time the question was whether the technology was worth it.

Fast forward to today.

I sit in the local library, a sunny window to my right, typing this column on a laptop which has a bazillion times the speed and capacity of the former behemoth of the past. The laptop is about the size of a textbook, and given that it is now headed to its fifth anniversary in my hands, is larger and heavier than models which have followed.

Back 25 years the library was a useful tool for a journalist. It was a place to research and check facts, and to gain knowledge.

The laptop of course allows that by clicking a few keys searching the seemingly limitless Internet thanks to its wifi connection and browser.

And that little look back brings me to farming.

While seeds still go in the ground, and rely heavily on the whims of nature to grow and produce, technology has also heavily impacted the agricultural sector.

Computers allow variable seeding and fertilizer rates, they monitor tractor engines, the bushels per acre combined and dozens of other readings taken which 25-years ago were not even considered because they were at that time beyond monitoring.

I had a first hand look at how things have changed in the fall of 2013 when I climbed in the cab of a new John Deere combine harvesting a fundraising crop for the Yorkton Terriers hockey club.

The cab frankly had the look of a sci-fi space fighter cockpit. The controls seemed ripped from my son’s latest video game console.

The result was a very foreign environ for someone who could remember a Massey 27 Super combine on the farm when he was a kid.

When I was young I could climb behind the wheel of a tractor or combine, and relying on my knowledge of driving a farm truck, has a pretty good understanding of what it took to drive the aforementioned farm equipment. The learning curve to drive a tractor was rather small.

That meant farm labour did not need a lot of advance training. A few basic instructions in the field and most people could get a tractor moving if they were at least half trying.

Today, with a new four-wheel drive tractor, or a new combine pushing past the half million dollar mark in terms of cost, and the complexity of monitors and computer controls, farmers cannot trust just anyone to do the driving.

That is where education is vital, although such education has largely come from a farmer taking the time to teach on the job, which is not necessarily a good use of the farmer’s management skills.

That is why a recent announcement at Parkland College in Yorkton has to be deemed a good on for farm producers.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart announced the launch of the Agricultural Operator Program.

“Our Government recognizes the importance that labour plays in driving growth in our agriculture industry,” Ritz said in a release. “Today’s investment will help those interested in a career in agriculture develop knowledge and skills needed to find gainful employment here in Saskatchewan.”

“Producers have indicated that they need more skilled labour for their operations and this program directly responds to their needs,” Stewart said in the same release. “Farmers can send current or potential employees through the program to develop or help fine tune their skills. Additionally, general labourers without a farm background will have an opportunity to gain the experience needed to get involved in the industry.”

The Agricultural Operator Program was a commitment made in the Saskatchewan Plan for Growth. It is a module-based program offering practical, hands-on training to individuals interested in working on Saskatchewan farms. Students and employers will have the flexibility to choose the entire program or specific modules relevant to their farms.

The first three modules will be seeding, spraying and scouting, and harvest to be delivered at Parkland College in Yorkton. Additional modules will be developed for the livestock industry including haying, beef cattle reproduction and calving, and cattle husbandry and handling. Following the pilot program, the provincial government will work to expand the program to other regional colleges across Saskatchewan.

The ability of students to get relevant training specific to farming before heading to the field behind half million dollar machines is obviously a huge positive, for both employee and farmer.

Technology has made the education essential, and to credit of those involved in this college launch, that essential need is starting to be met for the good of agriculture.

Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.



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