October 20, 2002


Huron County is proud of its agricultural heritage.  Home to over 3,000 farms, the region’s economy is dominated by agriculture.  Each year, agriculture brings in excess of $500,000,000 worth of gross farm receipts, and close to $2 billion in agriculture related sales, putting this single county on par with many Canadian provinces as a leader in agricultural production.  Furthermore, recent studies undertaken by the Federation of Agriculture and the University of Guelph estimate that between 10,000 and 13,000 residents of Huron County make their living from farming and agribusiness.  This represents over 1/3 of the county’s labour force.

During the past decade, Huron County agriculture once again became a growth sector, expanding employment for the first time in 50 years.  This bucks a long-term trend of shrinking farm employment found throughout the industrialized world.  And no longer hewers of wood and drawers of water, today’s farmers and agribusiness managers require skills in production, engineering, financial management, entrepreneurship, exports and information technology.  Yet, many young people are unaware of the wealth of career opportunities that currently exist in the agricultural sector.  Huron County is facing the irony of chronic youth out-migration while farms and agribusiness are generating rewarding career opportunities.  While this situation may not be unique to Huron County, the local response is.

In 1999, agricultural organizations formed a partnership with the region’s two school boards to create Bridges to Agriculture, a one-of-a-kind agricultural co-op program offered to students from Huron and Perth Counties.  The program now has a three-year track record of bringing young people interested in agricultural careers together with the local agri-business community.

Bridges to Agriculture is delivered as a partnership between the Avon Maitland District School Board and the Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board.  The program is supported by a community advisory committee composed of representatives from organizations like the Federation of Agriculture and the Huron Business Development Corporation.  Three main strategic initiatives are addressed through the program, including the promotion of agricultural careers to young people, the development of new community partnerships that support the development of agri-business careers, and a major work experience co-op component that gives young people hands on experience in both primary farming and agri-business.

The co-operative education component of Bridges to Agriculture is scheduled as a full-day package for a complete semester.  Each participating student earns four credits toward an OSSD.  An initial intensive in-school component offers advice and mentoring from a core of over 20 community partners.  These sessions provide participants with knowledge on a wide range of issues, from farm finance and succession planning, to chainsaw operation and pesticide safety.  This approach has the added benefit of allowing local partners to play an active role in the program by contributing their expertise.  For example, each participant receives four days of business planning assistance and “agri-preneurial” training provided by mentors from the Huron Business Development Corporation.

Following the initial sessions, students experience two different careers for approximately 2 months each.  One experience is within a farming operation of the student’s choice and the other is in a farm-related business such as an implement dealership, feed mill or veterinary clinic.  In addition, each class contributes time and leadership by volunteering for local farm organizations and events like the 1999 International Plowing Match, the Slice of Huron Event and the Stratford Fall Fair.

Bridges to Agriculture has proved exceedingly popular with educators, students, parents and employers alike.  Huron and Perth Counties have a total of 65 elementary and 13 secondary schools.  In the past 3 years, all elementary schools have participated in the program by exposing thousands of students to the many and varied occupational opportunities available in agriculture.  To date, 11 secondary schools have been involved in the co-operative education component of the program.  But what is most impressive, 150 new farms and agri-business employers have been brought into the partnership as first time employers of co-op students.

Of course, the real success rests with the young people themselves.  By the end of the 3rd year, 114 young people from Huron and Perth will have successfully completed the program, including 10 early leavers that have been brought back into the education system as a result.  Follow-up tracking of past participants has confirmed that 38 young people are currently self-employed or employed full-time in agricultural-related careers (primarily by their former co-op employers), while another 13 are pursuing post-secondary education in agriculture at either Guelph or Ridgetown.

Bridges to Agriculture enables our young people to get a tremendous amount of first hand advice before they make the important decisions of their career.  The many opportunities that are provided for skill development, practical experience, volunteerism and community leadership are extremely rewarding.  But in the bigger scheme of things, the program has offered a catalyst for community organizations to be proactive in using agriculture as a defense against youth out-migration.  In fact, it might just represent the future for our region’s farming and agri-business community.

Lead Partners
Avon Maitland District School Board & Huron Perth Catholic School Board 
Contact:  Ron Ritchie, Bridges Co-ordinator
C/o Seaforth District High School
58 Chalk St. 
Seaforth, Ontario
N0K 1W0
Telephone:  (519) 527-0380
Fax:  (519) 527-2123
Email:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
Sponsoring CFDC:  Huron Business Development Corporation
138 Main St. S
Seaforth, Ontario
N0K 1W0
Contact:  Paul Nichol, Economic Development Manager
Telephone:  (519) 527-0305
Fax:  (519) 527-2240
Email:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.