Toasting the funding announcement for the new viticulture diploma program at Okanagan College are (left to right) college assistant dean school of business Jonathan Rouse, MLA Dan Ashton, college president Jim Hamilton and James Hopper of the BC Wine Grape Council. The announcement was made at Poplar Grove Winery in Penticton. Mark Brett/Western News

New viticulture diploma at Okanagan College

Provincial funding for two-year pilot project viticulture technician program at Okanagan College

A two-year pilot project for the viticulture technician program at Okanagan College is getting a boost from the province.

Over $628,000 in provincial funding in support of the program, which runs in partnership with the B.C. Wine Grape Council, was announced Tuesday morning at Penticton’s Poplar Grove Winery.

“The wine industry is one of the economic engines of our region, and we know that the renowned B.C. wine quality begins in the vineyards. We’re very pleased that we have been able to work with the industry and with the support of the province to further develop the career-focused programming that will serve its needs and the best interests of our students,” said Jim Hamilton, president of Okanagan College.

The pilot project will see 20 students begin their studies this fall toward a two-year viticulture technician diploma.

“The agrifoods sector is continuing to exceed growth expectations, and the Province wants to ensure that our future generations have the skills and training that B.C. needs for the in-demand jobs of the future. The viticulture technician program will provide hands on learning opportunities and practical knowledge that will meet the specific needs to help this industry continue to grow successfully,” said Ashton. “BC’s viticulture sector employs over 12,000 people through the province and as the vineyards and wineries grow, so too will the jobs and the need for skilled workers.

“We also know what Okanagan College does, they do an incredible job throughout the Okanagan and really, really, really make a difference.”

The diploma is designed to provide hands-on, theoretical and practical knowledge that will allow students to eventually work as part of a vineyard management team. The program is structured around the viticulture growing season, providing opportunities to develop and apply skills like: canopy management, pest control, pruning, training vines and sensory evaluation, as well as occupational health and safety.

Ashton added B.C.’s wine industry is a huge draw when it comes to tourism dollars.

“B.C. wineries have logged over a million visitors a year, just think of that a million people coming through, a lot of them and most of them have come through the Okanagan Valley and that generates over $460 million to the province’s tourism sector,” he said. “At the same time the number of wineries has grown from 70 to over 330 wineries.”

Although she was unable to attend Tuesday’s announcement Lynsey Hayes, a recent viticulture graduate and prospective student in the first diploma program course, was thrilled with Tuesday’s announcement.

“I was really excited when I learned that Okanagan College would be offering a two-year diploma in Viticulture Technology this September. I’m eager to further my education and be a part of the growing B.C. wine industry. Hats off to the college, the province and the industry for putting this together,” said Hayes in a written statement.

According to Hamilton, nearly 40 applications for the 20 spots have already been received.

“Collectively we are addressing a skills need in a manner that makes immanently good sense to me, look to the industry for advice and direction that helps establish the curriculum and then develop a program that draws on that real-world experience and ensure there is opportunity for students to engage in work integrated learning,” he said. “While this is a pilot program I’ve got every confidence it will become a signature program for our institution.”

Viticulture is a growing part of B.C.’s agrifoods sector and a key part of the BC Jobs Plan, helping to diversify and strengthen the province’s economy. According to numbers provided by the provincial government, the B.C. wine industry has a $2.8 billion economic impact.

“The Okanagan Valley and indeed the wine industry is founded on quality as we continue to strive and create world class wines and build an international reputation we’re going to need the right people with the right skills,” said James Hopper, senior director of viticulture and operations for Sabastian Farms. “Students who enrol in this pilot program will receive strong B.C.-bred training which both identifies a unique growing environment we have and also recognizes that there is much to be learned from the greater wine world.”

Lynn Bremmer, chair of the B.C. Wine Grape Council agreed: “Having experts from our industry help shape the curriculum and the program itself will mean that students are well prepared for important roles in our vineyards and businesses when they complete the diploma. Just as viticulture and wine-making have progressed and matured in recent years in B.C., so too is the education and training that is available here. Government support and the college’s efforts are truly appreciated.”

The diploma was supported through the Sector Labour Market Partnerships (LMP) Program, which helps to ensure that training and education programs in B.C. are aligned with industry’s labour-market needs and priorities.