The Southwest Agricultural Conference (SWAC) will mark its 25th anniversary on January 3rd, when the two-day conference unofficially kicks off Ontario’s winter farm meeting season.
Over the past quarter century, SWAC, hosted by the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus, has become one of the leading farm conferences in North America. How did it start? How has it evolved and why has it become such an integral part of farm education, research and extension in Ontario?
To find out, we talked to a host of conference organizers who have helped shepherd SWAC from a novel idea in the early 1990s to a ‘can’t miss’ conference. In the first of our two-part video series hosted by RealAgriculture agronomist Peter Johnson, we hear from OMAFRA environment program specialist Gabrielle Ferguson who recalls how the idea of a conference that would bring the agricultural world to Ridgetown, Ontario got its start.
OMAFRA plant pathologist Albert Tenuta explains that SWAC has its roots in the annual Farmers’ Week conference that was held at Ridgetown College. From there, the organizers set out to build an event that delivered management information farmers could apply to their own operations.
“With concurrent sessions, growers where able to pick the sessions applicable to their need and it thrived from there,” says Tenuta.
Ferguson says much has changed since 1993, but the focus remains the same. “The first conference we had was about computers,” recalls Ferguson. “We still talk about computers, but the way in which we talk about them – using big data and the interconnectivity between people – it’s way different than before.”
Agricultural engineer Helmut Spieser says the conference challenged extension specialists like him to think about the needs of farmers and look far and wide for solutions. “SWAC gave people like me an opportunity to keep my ear to the ground and come up with the best expert to address a particular topic or address grower questions.”
Soil management specialist and SWAC organizing committee chair Adam Hayes believes the ongoing collaboration between OMAFRA, the University, and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association is key to the conference’s success. He says this partnership brings education, research and extension together with the grower organization. “That really keeps us grounded and keeps the program on target for farmers.”
Tenuta notes that industry involvement and sponsorship has played a key role in SWAC’s success. “Sponsorship has allowed us to reach beyond our borders and bring in the best speakers from around the globe. In some cases, it costs a lot of money so sponsorships and partnerships are critical.” He adds that there’s a waiting list of sponsors looking for opportunities to get involved and support the conference.
SWAC has always been a leader in addressing emerging agronomic and production challenges says soil management specialist Anne Verhallen. “Everybody thinks that soil health is a really new concept,” she notes. “But soil health, soil quality, biological diversity – all these things – have been featured at SWAC for almost 25 years.”
Verhallen says it’s also amazing to see how the conference crowd has changed over the years. The early attendees have a few more grey hairs, “but you see a change in who’s there in terms of farmers and agribusiness. There are many young people and new graduates. It’s really great to see the new people coming into agriculture and farming.”