Ontario's University of Guelph and the University of Minnesota now offer U.S. and Canadian producers the world's first master's of business administration degree in agriculture program - with a business course in pork production - through the Internet.
Jeremy Kinross-Wright still admires the business boardroom. Even though in 1975 he traded the bright lights of Pittsburgh for the wide-open skies of Montana, he often reflects on lessons learned back East working in marketing at Proctor & Gamble and at Heinz.
Now he's found a program that adapts those experiences to his life as a pork producer with 200 sows.
Canada's Joanne Selves was raised on an Ontario pig farm. It wasn't until she became president of the family corporation that she fully respected the value of business skills.
Though 1,500 miles and a country apart, Selves and Kinross-Wright are both enrolled in the master's in business administration (MBA) in agriculture, a new program from Ontario's University of Guelph and the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. The program is the only electronic, interactive MBA that includes an animal agriculture specialty with a course on business management in pork production.
"When I first learned that I could take an accredited agricultural MBA through my computer without ever having to leave the farm, it was a 'eureka' moment," Kinross-Wright says.
He finishes half his weaned pigs for a nearby processor, a niche market based on hogs of the right quality, weight and availability. The rest go to a local finisher. Both arrangements include minimum-maximum pricing provisions.
"Time spent in the 'electronic classroom' can be more profitable than extra time spent in the farrowing room," says Kinross-Wright, who has represented Montana on the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and serves on his state's board of livestock.
Selves knows what Kinross-Wright is talking about. As president of Selves Farms north of London, Ontario, she oversees 1,950 sows plus another 650 sows she and her husband manage on contract for Selves Farms. "We're into multi-site production with off-site nurseries,"Selves says. "Basically, all of our finishing is contracted."
Selves Farms also has a market contract with an Ontario packer, and the family business is continuing to evolve. She's looking at alliances with other producers, for example. "I'm interested in the idea of developing more horizontal clout to help us deal more effectively with the vertical supply chain."
Need for Expertise Selves turns to agricultural experts for production advice. Accountants and software experts can help with recordkeeping and projections.
But when it comes to structuring their business and finding a sense of direction in the fast-changing pork industry, "those are the jobs that are too fundamental to leave to others," Selves says.
However, without business training, Selves admits, "I felt I didn't really have the analytical skills that I needed or the awareness of what my management options could be."
University of Minnesota's John Deen, DVM, is leader of the MBA swine curriculum. "Business skills are essential for our industry to thrive," he explains. "If we aren't the best at the business of pork production, not just the best at producing pigs, we'll lose out to the people who are."
Producers are being challenged to create new alliances to integrate production and improve the value of output, he adds. "We need much more business acuity and analytical capability to make these new business structures feasible and fair. MBA education is an excellent tool in this new pork industry."
Educators had their own eureka moment, adds Tom Funk, director of the MBA in agriculture program and agriculture business professor at Guelph. "The question wasn't whether producers and agri-industry need business skills. That was obvious," Funk says. "The question was how to make it practical for them to take."
On-Line Courses Internet access proved the Aladdin's lamp. The 21/2-year, three-phase program costs around $23,000. Except for a one-week required residency at Guelph, the rest is delivered via the Internet. Students 'attend' and interact from around the continent and across diverse farm sectors, explains Funk.
"The result is better than the classroom alone," Kinross-Wright says. Course content ranges from human resources management, financial and managerial accounting, strategic planning and marketing to decision making, performance analysis and crisis management - a standard regimen for accredited MBA programs. This time, however, agricultural case studies are used extensively.
Instead of traditional lectures, students do background reading and then begin an activity, such as a professor-monitored, chat room discussion that stays open for several days so students can participate when their schedules allow. Or they do their own research or work in groups on specific papers.
"That's one of the best parts," says Selves, who adds that she invests 20 to 25 hours/week during the courses. "We're asked to analyze and think about our own operations. You begin applying what you learn right from the start."
Kinross-Wright agrees. "It forces you to step back and analyze," he adds. "It puts ideas in your head that just won't leave."
The application deadline is Oct. 13 for the next round of MBA in agriculture classes starting in January 2001.
Contact program manager Petra Schennach at (888) MBA-AGRI (888-622-2474) or, click on www.mbaagri.uoguelph.ca for complete information on application procedures, curriculum and faculty.