Surprise and dismay over closure of Kemptville College


Photo Credit: University of Guelph, Kemptville Campus

Kemptville College has played an important role in Eastern Ontario since 1917. (Photo Credit: University of Guelph, Kemptville Campus)

Wednesday morning I turned on CBC's Ottawa Morning to check the all-important weather report. The host said next up was a story on Kemptville College, so I stayed tuned. I thought it would be about some celebration or new program at Eastern Ontario's main technical college for agriculture. I was stunned to hear an interview with North Grenville Mayor David Gordon who had recently learned (almost by accident) that the college was slated for closure.

Kemptville College is an area institution. For close to 100 years that's been the technical college in Eastern Ontario for agriculture, dairy, equine studies, horticulture, food/nutrition, heavy equipment and trades like welding. Mayor Gordon exemplified that with his CBC interview comments: "This is a cultural thing in North Grenville. The college is wove in our fabric of life.  My God, my father went there, back in '49 or '50."  In addition, the college functioned as the place where most anyone could get more information when they had an ag-related question, along the lines of an extension service.

Established in 1917 Kemptville College has been administered by the University of Guelph since 1997. Guelph is a comprehensive  public research university located west of Toronto. Guelph's main campus is roughly 290 miles away from the Kemptville Campus and its programs, a five hour drive in good weather. (Don't even try in in weather like this week's winter storm!)

This news got out a little ahead of schedule with press reports circulating ahead of Guelph's own press release on the planned closures Wednesday afternoon. And that's closures in the plural because the French-language ag program at another satellite campus in Alfred is also on the chopping block. (Alfred is about half-way between Ottawa and Montréal, in a largely Francophone region of Ontario.) From the Guelph press release:

As part of the consolidation plan, intake to academic programs at the Alfred and Kemptville campuses will be suspended for the fall 2014 semester. The University’s Ridgetown Campus will remain open.

Delivery of academic programs at the two campuses will cease by the end of 2015. Currently registered students at both campuses will be able to complete their programs.

The University is working with other Francophone institutions in the area as well as various Ontario government ministries to explore opportunities to offer similar programs for Ontario students who have applied for fall admission in Eastern Ontario.

Research projects at Alfred and Kemptville will be completed or relocated to Guelph or Ridgetown by the end of 2015.

Whatever one may think about the planned closures, Guelph has compelling justification for taking steps to address long-standing challenges. Again, from the University press release:

Only 61 students are registered at the Alfred campus, with approximately half coming from outside Ontario.

At Kemptville, 128 students are enrolled in the mandated two-year associate diploma programs. Its largest program is the associate diploma in agriculture; the same program is offered at Ridgetown.

Another 51 Kemptville-based students are enrolled in the four-year bachelor of bio-resource management (BBRM) equine management degree. Those students spend two years at Kemptville and two years at Guelph.

“There are opportunities to strengthen the core of the program by centralizing it at Guelph,”  [U of G president Alastair] Summerlee said. A similar Ridgetown BBRM program will also be moved to the Guelph campus.

Currently, it costs about $4.6 million a year to support teaching, research, operations and maintenance at Kemptville, and nearly $2.3 million at Alfred. There are also substantial indirect costs for things such as animal care, student support services and health and safety. “Clearly, this is not sustainable,”  Summerlee said.

This story is still rippling across Eastern Ontario farm circles. The good news, so far, is that there may be a way to salvage the French-language program. Here's the latest on that, as reported in thorough coverage by Robert Bostelaar in the Ottawa Citizen:

Ontario’s French-language community colleges, La Cité collégiale of Ottawa and Collège Boréal in Sudbury, have agreed to take over the school in Alfred after the University of Guelph announced it cannot afford to keep operating the Alfred campus and another, larger school in Kemptville.

Brad Duguid, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, said Wednesday that details were still being worked out but that the two community colleges have offered “to step up and take on the courses” at Alfred, located in a predominately francophone area east of Ottawa and the only French-language agriculture school in the province.

No saviour has yet emerged for the near-century-old Kemptville school south of the capital that has trained generations of Ottawa Valley farmers, but Duguid said efforts were underway to keep it open as well.

However, “The Kemptville campus is a more difficult challenge because there’s not an obvious community partner or another institution that we’re aware of that would be willing to step and continue that campus,” he said in an interview.

Just as Northern New Yorkers often feel like abandoned orphans beside that state's urban interests, Eastern Ontario agricultural players are fuming this move represents a southern Ontario-centric set of priorities. As reported by Bostelaar for the Citizen:

The head of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Mark Wales, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the decision.

“I know the university itself has funding challenges, but to simply cut off your extremities to solve your problems is not the answer,” Wales said from the floor of the Ottawa Valley Farm Show, where he said the closings were a constant topic of conversation.

As reported by Greg Peerenboom in the Cornwall Standard Freeholder, area leaders are upset by short and long-term ramifications of a closure:

North Dundas Mayor and SDG Warden Eric Duncan said the region's economic well-being will be threatened.

"Devastating to say the least," Duncan said, noting the loss of 75 good paying full-time and dozens of part-time jobs.

In addition, research opportunities with significant spinoffs in local industry will be gone.

Duncan questioned the sincerity of the Liberal government's rural objectives, citing Premier Kathleen Wynne's announced intention last fall to double agricultural industry employment by 2020.

The Brockville Recorder sent reporter Ronald Zajac to Wednesday's on-campus closure announcement and had this to say about the poor optics for Ontario's ruling Liberals:

While the agricultural community of Eastern Ontario was bracing for the announcement, there was deafening silence coming from Queen’s Park.

Premier Kathleen Wynne — also the minister responsible for agriculture — was in the area Monday but her office had little to say about the looming decision.

Ministry of Agriculture spokesman Mark Cripps first declined comment, deflecting all questions to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Then, when asked whether the schools’ closure would have a widespread impact on the agricultural community of Eastern Ontario, Cripps responded: “How so? I mean, there’s lots of agricultural education opportunities in Ontario.”

Leeds-Grenville MPP Steve Clark noted the nearest schools are in Guelph and Ridgetown — a 700 kilometre hike down Highway 401.

Ag is still a vital part of the local economy and lifestyle in Eastern Ontario. So even while the logistic are debated, many hope some response can be found that preserves agricultural education and services in this region.

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  1. Why should we be surprised that this happening ? Enrollment is down because "industrial farming" and large scale food production provides fewer opportunities for youth. Farms are getting bigger , mechanized and to costly for the children of farmers to afford. Large food processing plants are leaving for places that offer cheap labour and fewer rules. Maybe the College needed to develop new programs that would attract youth in the areas of agriculture that are growing. Focus on small scale organic fruit and vegetable farms, local food products or urban farming that provide new business opportunities that are in demand.

  2. As a Food-Service grad of KCAT 1986, I like many others was absolutely shocked & very dismayed over the events of this week. We eat food everyday and so does livestock thanks to the Farmers. So what does the Minister of Agriculture consume then ??? The closure of 2 Agriculture Educational Institutions is absolutely Unthinkable. These institutions are an essentialframework for Eastern Ontario,the Agriculture Community,Farming,Food Industry for local,national & international levels. Lets put it this way Kemptvile IS NOT Kemptville without the campus nor is Alfred. So let us be open for opportunites to keep these institutions open. We need education to be at the cutting edge of
    information & technology to provide an essential service to the community
    at large.So lets work together so we may have something special to celebrate KCAT Centennial Year in 2017.