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Ontario Ag Community Deals with Kemptville, Alfred Campus Closures

By Amanda Brodhagen,

The University of Guelph’s decision to close two of its Ontario Agricultural College campuses, Kemptville and Alfred, didn’t sit well with the province’s farming community.

Guelph made its decision public on Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

Alastair Summerlee, President of the University of Guelph, says the closures were made for financial reasons. “We are operating in an era of scarce resources,” he said in a release.

Agricultural programs at the university’s main campus in Guelph and satellite campus in Ridgetown remain unaffected by the closures.

Kemptville was slated to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2017, where approximately 550 students attend. Alfred on the other hand has 128 students and is the only postsecondary institution in the province to offer agricultural instruction in French.  

On Thursday, the Province announced that it is working with La Cité and Collège Boréal to provide access to French-language programs. The two institutions have signed agreements “in principle” to deliver similar curriculum in French.

“Details remain to be finalized, but the move is expected to minimize the impact on the agricultural and Francophone communities who benefit from the campus,” the release said.

Since the news broke, there has been a burst of activity on various social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. A petition aimed at saving the colleges was also created.

To date, almost 3,000 people have signed the petition to have the campuses reinstated, and about 3,600 people have “liked” the “Help Save Kemptville College” Facebook page.

The New Liskeard Decision

The news about the Kemptville and Alfred closures brings back memories for John Vantof, ex-dairy farmer and the current NDP agriculture critic, MPP for Timiskaming-Cochrane.

“We’ve gone through this in Northern Ontario, we used to have an agricultural college in New Liskeard, and when they announced the closure years ago, it set agriculture back here by a decade,” he said in an interview.

The agricultural college was shutdown in 1994, about 20 years ago. Graduates from the former college plan to meet this summer for a once of a life-time reunion, the weekend of August 15 to 17, 2014. “It’s still known as ‘Black Friday’ in our riding,” explained Vantof.

At that time, agricultural education was removed but the research station remained intacit.

He recalls participating in the tractor protests which took place in 1993, following the decision to close the campus. Back then, budget constraints were cited as the reason for the closure. “From the farmer in me it just doesn’t make any sense,” said Vantof. “I think this fight is not over.”

Vantof called the decision to shut down the agricultural colleges a “Guelph centric” decision.  “Agricultural education means much more than just the [main] campus at the University of Guelph,” he said.

Like others, Vantof is concerned about the future of agriculture in Eastern Ontario, adding that some of the best farmers in his riding are graduates of Kemptville and Alfred. He argues that agriculture should be taught in the region where farmers are from, alluding to regional differences between eastern and southwestern Ontario.

According to Vantof, there was talk about a year and a half ago that the University of Guelph was looking at consolidating some of its satellite campuses and potentially cutting loose the New Liskeard research station.

Fearing the worst, Vantof and others quickly acted to prevent this scenario from happening.  

In November 2012, then Minister of Agriculture Ted McMeekin placed a two-year moratorium on the future closure of the New Liskeard research station. The halt was to give northern stakeholders time to develop a new model and business case for a sustainable research station for the north.

While McKeekin declared a two-year freeze on the research station, no document was signed.

In an emailed statement, Mark Cripps Communications Director for Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Agriculture and Food provided some more insight into the agreement.

“Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs have communicated openly the need for a collaborative system involving all jurisdictions in the north that would be industry led, with a shared funding commitment, and would be economically sustainable,” he said.

Northern stakeholders are expected to present a business plan to the ministry this June.

The Flight to Save Kemptville

While the farming community is upset about both of the colleges closing, there appears to be a larger effort to save one of the colleges – Kemptville.

Steve Clark, PC MPP for the riding of Leeds-Grenville has taken to Twitter to raise concern over the closures, especially since Kemptville College is in his riding.

“I think it’s a devastating blow to agriculture in Eastern Ontario,” he said in an interview. “Now we are going to have a situation where we aren’t going to have any agricultural colleges east of Guelph.”

Clark made an effort to reach out the President of the University of Guelph ahead of the announcement, but his request was delayed by the university until minutes before the official announcement on Wednesday. But the university was firm on its decision to close the colleges.

“The beauty of having colleges like Kemptville and Alfred in Eastern Ontario is that men and women could go to school and then go home and work on the family farm,” explained Clark.

Kemptville Aggies Take Action

Proud 2008 Kemptville graduate and Chesterville, Ontario area farmer, Marty Derks says he feels “slighted” about the decision to close the agricultural college.

“We had an agricultural college here for 97 years and they couldn’t even let it be here for 100 years…they just took it away,” he said.

Derks and others are rallying together to try and save the college and agricultural education in Eastern Ontario.

A group of agricultural leaders, including the Ontario Federation of Agriculture President, Mark Wales, are meeting this Saturday at Kemptville College to discuss the future of the campus.

The meeting will be held at Kemptville in the W.B. George Centre at 10:30am.

“We are planning a meeting to form a committee to find a new university or college to take over the program,” explained Derks.

The group hopes to form an eight member committee who will then be tasked with finding an alternative for agricultural education in the region. Derks says he and others have already contacted numerous farm groups in the region who would like to see agriculture education continue in Eastern Ontario.

“We feel like there could be a lot of emotion at this meeting,” he said.

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