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Canada is nurturing a comprehensive agricultural communications curriculum at the University of Guelph. The program is germinating into what will be a degree specialization incubated in a new academic center by September 2003. Fertilized with a $280,000, three-year grant from the Agricultural Adaptation Council, along with industry support, the project will hopefully spark new vigor across Canada.

"We haven't had a way to supply industry with the next generation of ag communicators, and now we will," says Owen Roberts, agricultural communications instructor at the University of Guelph. "There are a lot of job opportunities in marketing right now. Commodity organizations are adding communications people that haven't had them before, and agencies are busier than ever."

Roberts planted the seeds of the current effort in 1988 by launching a student writing program, which he named SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge). His goal was to help aspiring writers harvest the advantages of the 15,000-student university, which devotes $1 million annually to research, about 75 percent of that agricultural and food-related. Located near Toronto, the campus is surrounded by rich farmland and several research stations.

"Guelph has become such an agricultural center for Canada," he says. "Almost by osmosis, the students pick up a lot of things. A research university will always be a real vibrant place, and research makes good stories. There are $100 million dollars worth of good stories here every year."

After he started teaching two communications courses and integrated them with the writing program, the concept really blossomed. Combined, the courses and the writing program currently involve 29 students. "It has become a template for 18 other universities in Canada," Roberts explains. "What the students do in the courses now is produce stories for the university's research magazine, as do the students in the writing program. Research comes out twice a year and is a major institutional communications vehicle. It's by far the largest university research magazine in Canada, and the only one entirely produced by students."

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The planned Canadian Centre for Agricultural Communication, a university-wide fundraising and academic enhancement campaign, will become the incubator for student and industry interaction, guest lectures, sponsorships, contract media work and job recruitment activities.

"Our students are still going to have all of the skills that other graduates have, but they will have a leg up by having had some exposure to biotechnology, food safety, animal and crop production, and the environment as it relates to agricultural production," Roberts adds. "We want to give them the skills to make a critical assessment and write appropriately."

"It's beyond timely. It's desperately overdue," says Art Stirling, government and industry relations manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred Canada, Chatham, Ontario.

"Whether biotechnology or nutrient management or farm income stability, the agriculture sector is under siege on a lot of fronts, and there is a huge gap between modern production agriculture, and the general public's understanding of it," Stirling adds. "Owen and I decided that we would try to bridge that gap and create Canada's first degree program in agricultural communications. We are not re-inventing the wheel here but building on what already exists."

He's not alone in his push for more specialized training for ag communicators. "We're a marketing communications company, and being in that business, we look for graduates who can think and write and talk on their feet," says Len Kahn, president of Kahntact Marketing in Guelph, another project contributor.

His past hires have included three students who were products of the SPARK program. "My experience is they are two-to-five years ahead of similar graduates in their ability to write concisely, speak in front of groups, or express their thoughts on paper or verbally," he observes. "When they come to work for us, they are on a one-year learning curve rather than on the five-year learning curve as are many of our new hires. By the second year, they are adding value to our clients." AM

Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.

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