Volume 13, Number 13 March 10, 2006

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Wider view of agriculture needed

By Colleen MacPherson

Dean of Agriculture Ernie Barber.
Dean of Agriculture Ernie Barber.

Photo by Colleen MacPherson

The role of the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture in the 21st century will be as a key player in realizing “a high and sustainable quality of life” for the people of Saskatchewan, of Canada, and for all citizens of the world.

This vision for the future was outlined by Dean Ernie Barber in a Feb. 24 presentation that called for a wider view of agriculture “as an embedded part of land and resource-based development.” Speaking to about 150 people in Convocation Hall, Barber said everyone “will be asked to broaden their perspective” as the college builds on its expertise in sustainable agriculture and forges more connections with other disciplines like environmental science and even human health science.

Standing beside a multi-image collage, Barber explained the need for a new vision became apparent during the Integrating Planning process when the college explored “how we fit into the University’s plans and the plans of other units on campus.” When it was established almost 100 years ago, the College of Agriculture’s primary objective was “helping farmers in this province take advantage of all the acres and acres of prime farmland, and that will still be key to the college in the future.” Today, however, “it is helpful, and indeed necessary to see agriculture as a value chain” with resource inputs like land, sun and water, and outputs like food.

Barber suggested a more modern view of agriculture must include the value chains operating along side animal and crop production. Resource-based value chains like forestry and non-timber forest products, and recreation value chains “where we use resources in situ without harvesting them” must be considered. Agriculture is more than farming “when we frame it within the bio-resource paradigm.”

The dean went on to say there are both challenges and promises associated with this new vision, one being meeting the food needs of the world. “I believe agriculture, along with help from the oceans, can feed nine billion people sustainably” but more attention must be paid to the economic, social and political impediments to equitable distribution of food around the globe.

Agriculture must, he said, “find ways to integrate with health science” to contribute to human wellness through areas like food safety. The discipline can also be a “solution provider” in the area of renewable bio-products. Barber predicted the Saskatchewan economy will continue to be powered by non-renewable resources for the next 25 years, but that situation will eventually have to change.

Another challenge for the future will be to clean up the “very messy footprint” agriculture has left around the globe, said Barber, by finding ways to co-exist with a sustainable environment.

Finally, Barber said agriculture will continue to be a driver of economic wealth but even though the value chain is “immensely profitable”, efforts must be made to “make sure…all players in that value chain derive some profit.”

The vision for the future the dean presented has already received much support, he said, some of it coming from the Office of the President. Speaking after Barber’s presentation, Peter MacKinnon said he has no doubt the college will figure as prominently in the University’s second century as it did in its first, “but it may not be in precisely the same ways or within precisely the same framework.” While that framework has not yet taken shape, MacKinnon said the concept is “compelling…and I know it will attract support, both moral and tangible, from the University as a whole.”

Responses

When given the opportunity, the first audience member to respond to Barber’s presentation was Les Henry, professor emeritus of soil science, who suggested “petty disciplinary things” will get in the way of the kinds of collaboration called for by the dean.

The broad future vision “will require the development of structures outside the College of Agriculture,” said Barber. There has already been discussion about centres, schools and inter-disciplinary or joint faculty appointments, but those details have yet to be determined.

In the quiet that followed, MacKinnon rose to comment that he is always interested in “the meaning of silence”, at which point one member of the audience, made up largely of agriculture faculty and staff, said Barber was preaching to the converted. Sheila Schmutz, professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science, agreed, saying many people “have come to accept this vision but I don’t think we’ve had a warm and fuzzy feeling all the way through this process. We’re worn down,” she said. “It’s hard to come to this with enthusiasm. We have to rebuild our motivation and enthusiasm.”

Referring to the projected collage and the various value chains referred to by Barber, Brian Rossnagel from the Crop Development Centre, said there were “more pictures than professors so who the hell’s going to do all this? A lot of us are pretty pragmatic,” he said, and the amount of work suggested by the vision “worries a lot of us.”

Bernard Laarveld, former head of animal and poultry science, said the vision as presented does not reflect the fact agriculture “is one of the most interdisciplinary colleges on campus. That is not reflected in this vision.” Barber said he did not believe his presentation suggested any lack of collaboration currently. Instead, the vision “is a formalizing and a valuing” of what already exists.


What’s in a name?

Repositioning the College of Agriculture for the next century will require a new name to reflect its new vision, but the dean has given up on the search for a single word that says it all.

In a presentation to campus Feb. 24, Ernie Barber said he originally believed that one word would be found to replace ‘agriculture’ in the college name. Consultations with stakeholders, however, indicated an expectation ‘agriculture’ will continue to be part of the name, “and I’ve come to that point of view as well.”

“The name doesn’t matter to anybody, but it matters to everybody,” he said, adding the preference is always “to be known for what we do, not for what we’re called.”

Barber now believes the name ultimately chosen for the college should include the word resources in some form, should have only one ‘and’, and should not have any commas. As for the word ‘and’, the dean said it must not be “limiting”, pointing to the ‘and’ in the phrase peanut butter and jam where the word simply links the two “and each one makes the other better”.


For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca


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