[This post was first published in the NZ Sunday Star Times on 2 March 2014 under the title “Agribusiness calls for a holistic approach”.]
Last week I wrote about how agribusiness was fundamentally different to other forms of business. I described the defining characteristics as long investment cycles, long production cycles, production volatility, food safety issues, the politics of food security, and environmental impacts. The one I missed was perishability.
All of the above have implications for agribusiness education. Without an understanding of biology, agribusiness managers will blunder.
Of course agribusiness managers also have to understand the principles of economics, marketing, accounting, finance, and law. And then there is the challenge of bringing all of these together within an overall bio-physical system.
Most university programs have a disciplinary rather than a systems basis. University academics are encouraged both by natural inclination and training to become specialists within narrow boundaries. University programs are also organised by faculties, which are typically rooted in either the bio-physical sciences or the social sciences or commerce. Integration of disciplinary knowledge into overall systems is typically left to students to figure out.
So where should agribusiness education fit within this? There is no easy answer. At Lincoln in the last 12 years the agribusiness and farm management staff were initially in a Division (in essence a Faculty) of Applied Management, then in a Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and most recently in a Faculty of Commerce. Massey University has shown comparable decision-making, with its agribusiness staff split between faculties. An alternative would be to move towards a systems-based faculty.
Within the current faculty-based programs, the pressures are always towards specialisation in either science or commerce at the cost of diversity and system-based studies. It is a natural reflection of the forces that are found within universities.
I often read that New Zealand does not have enough agricultural and agribusiness graduates but the quoted numbers are often misleading. At Lincoln we will this year have about 350 first year degree and diploma students studying agricultural science, agricultural commerce, viticulture and our new degree in Agribusiness and Food Marketing. In any case, it is not just about getting big numbers but making sure that those we do get are equipped for diverse careers in a changing world.
Experience tells me that a career as an agricultural research scientist is very high risk. Only a few of my own university cohort who chose the research pathway survived the vagaries of multiple restructurings within both Crown Research Institutes and their predecessors (DSIR and Ministry of Agriculture). In that regard nothing much has changed. Specialist careers will always be high risk in a career environment dominated by Government funding.
Within agriculture, the alternatives to research careers nearly all lie within agribusiness. Broadly speaking, they can be either on-farm or near-farm, or they can be market focused.
Over the years, the universities have done a reasonable job of education for the on-farm and near-farm careers. These near-farm careers include all of the careers which require an understanding of farming, often in combination with communication skills. Rural bankers, farm management consultants, fertiliser and chemical reps all require this combination.
The market-focused end of the spectrum is arguably an area where all education providers have struggled. At Lincoln we have recognised this with the introduction in 2014 of a new degree in Agribusiness and Food Marketing. But it was quite some challenge to get acceptance amongst our more traditional non agribusiness colleagues that marketing food is indeed different to marketing toothpaste.
Inadequate funding is a problem that has beset agribusiness education for a long time, with most agribusiness and farm management courses in a very low Government funding category. This is a real challenge, given the need for ongoing development of context-specific materials. It also means that for case studies, we on occasions take up to 170 students in four buses to the one farm, with just one lecturer. With these case studies we aim to teach students how to analyse different bio-physical, economic and human situations, but I have yet to work out how that can be achieved at a high level with such big groups.