SMART farming and digital agriculture are challenging agricultural educators to prepare students for a disrupted workforce.
Food Agility chief scientist and University of New England precision agriculture researcher David Lamb said digital agriculture was everywhere in the food sector and students needed to be prepared for the future.
“Students need more technical confidence, digital literacy and they have to be more numerate,” he said.
Professor Lamb said because digital agriculture was such a fast-moving space, teaching digital literacy and laying down the foundations for lifelong learning was fundamentally important.
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“The challenge educators face is how to train the next generation of farmers and food producers how to learn and adapt in a rapidly changing sector when these very cohort of students are keener than ever to get qualified and get out into the marketplace sooner,” he said.
“The tendency is to squeeze stuff in. We do need to inject more digital agriculture, but we can’t throw out the fundamentals of agronomy, soil management and animal science, they still have to know the systems they are running.”
University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine deputy head Amanda Able agrees there is a lot of pressure on students, and institutions, for graduates to emerge industry-ready, but they still needed a wide range of skills.
“In learning outcomes there is a good understanding of agriculture, economics, social policy and science,” she said. “But the key thing agriculture graduates have to have is problem-solving abilities.
“There are some very varying systems and graduates need to be able to address the complex problems they will deal with in agriculture.”
To some extent, Prof Able, who is the Bachelor of Agricultural Science program director, said this had always been needed in agricultural degrees.
“In the future, systems will become even more complex,” she said.
“Graduates need adaptability, resilience and entrepreneurship – some people are naturally innovative thinkers, with others you do have to train them.”
Prof Lamb said the traditional response was that students either needed to do longer initial degrees, or continue with post-graduate studies.
But there is an alternative where we develop and make available new ways of learning that suit the agile nature of their industry, he said.
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“On its own, the old three-year agriculture degree is going to be dead in the water, because you simply can’t be exposed to enough in three years,” he said.
“Foundation skills are really important, we need more room in our degrees.
“They are graduating and then coming back for certificates or masters degrees or they are completing ‘bespoke’ courses to pick up a couple of extra units.”
Prof Able agrees learning should not finish at the graduation ceremony; that students needed to keep seeking information and knowledge as new technologies and research emerged.
“Students need to be independent and self-directed learners,” she said.
“We can’t give them everything in three years, but they need to be able to take what they know and apply that in the real world.”
Prof Lamb said at the University of New England, enrolments in agriculture were increasing, but there needed to be a continual push to attract the best and brightest into agriculture.
“We have to be more proactive in offering our science students, our non-agriculture students, more access to agricultural content, so we can cross-fertilise between sectors,” he said.
“We need to start working harder at the high school level to get the best and brightest engaged in agriculture.”
Prof Lamb said Australian Research Development Corporations, such as Meat & Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation and the GRDC, had a role to play in reaching primary and secondary school students.