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Rural Development Network - Engaging with the agricultural producers of today and tomorrow for a sustainable industry

The Rural Development Network advocates for rural voices across the country, focusing on development and service provision to address rural-specific issues like housing, revitalization and transportation. Recently, RDN has entered the agri-food space, applying a rural lens to unearth opportunities in a sector intricately connected to rural identity.

Everyone needs to eat, and Alberta’s agricultural community is paving the way for us to eat sustainably. We sat down with the Agri-Foods Initiative program manager, Conner Platten, to discuss the Rural Development Network’s FarmEd project, and the status of local producers in adopting climate-adaptive farming practices.

We asked Conner about what she sees as the benefits to farmers if they build environmental stewardship into how they approach their land:

“Ecosystems thrive when they are maintained or restored. Everything works together, and once everything is working together—every cog in the wheel is making a turn—that's when you reap the natural benefits of your land. I like to think of it as an investment, because you will see the returns. They may not be immediate, but it really doesn't take too long for an ecosystem to restore itself.”

Along with advocating for farmers and supporting the shift to sustainable and climate-adaptive agriculture, the FarmEd project Conner manages considers farm sustainability from another angle—teaching the next generation.

A Tricky Spot: What is the role of the agricultural sector in climate adaptation and sustainability?

Agriculture has long been in the hot-seat when discussing environmental sustainability. The industry balances numerous responsibilities, the first and foremost, ensuring people are fed. Another increasingly important consideration is how to feed people sustainably. But with booming population growth and rising climate pressures like drought and flood, producers are faced with the problem of how to produce more food with less inputs, and how to do so under increasingly unstable climate conditions.

As climate forecasts predict more intense periods of drought, greater levels of spring precipitation, and longer periods of frost-free days, there’s certainly pressure to adapt to new challenges and seize emerging opportunities, all while minimizing the impact of your own farm’s production on the local environment. Unfortunately, barriers persist when it comes to implementing more sustainable farming practices.

Impactful change is happening and will gain momentum as barriers are broken down

Farms across the province are brainstorming innovative solutions and prioritizing environmental stewardship in how they grow their crops and raise their animals. As Conner tells us, though, transforming this situation from a scattering of producers into a widespread movement requires barriers be broken down, including:

  • Actual or perceived greater costs to the producer in transitioning to alternatives

  • Siloing of ideas and practices among producers (no pun intended…well, maybe intended.)

The second barrier is of particular interest to Conner, as a significant part of her role is to connect people and facilitate collaboration among the early adopters of sustainable practices and alternative tech—to demonstrate credibility, reduce unhealthy competition, and identify shared environmental goals. As she says, “In the end, everybody is working towards a more sustainable future for farming because we have to be able to grow food in a sustainable manner for the rest of time.”

“We need to focus on the success stories and then grow from there. Get the word out and show people adaptation is happening, tell others ‘you can do it on your farm, too’.”

Sharing the responsibility of making sustainable choices among farmers and consumers

Unless we grew up on a farm or in a farming community, a lot of us still don’t know where our food comes from or the mountain of work it takes to get the products from the field to the grocery store. But consumers are more interested in learning about their food than ever when it comes to informing their choices at the supermarket.

Conner grew up on the consumer side, and now that she’s deep into agriculture, she is able to approach her role by understanding what consumers don’t. A real myth-buster, she broke down a couple of consumer-side myths for us:

MYTH: Only a few farms in Alberta are taking on sustainable farming

“Every farmer wants their land in the best shape possible. I would say that every farmer is interested in what's best for the land, but it can be hard to get past cost barriers. I love that we're having this conversation because there's more happening on-the-ground at farms… implementation of sustainable practices are happening every day, but perhaps consumers and the wider public are unaware.”

MYTH: Large-scale production farms are run by large corporations

“It's important to support large-scale family farms. I think sometimes we forget that a lot of those bigger farms with acres and acres are still family-run. Many people assume any large operation is run by a big, automated corporation sitting on a stack of cash, but a lot of large-scale farms in Canada are still sole proprietors or county farms. The families still work on the ground every single day and they prioritize animal welfare and environmental stewardship.”

The FarmEd Project cultivates the next generation of producers and seeds agricultural literacy among young rural Albertans

Rural Development Network’s FarmEd is a new education project promoting agricultural literacy among elementary, junior high, and high school-aged students through experiential learning. Funded by the CAP Youth and Agriculture Education Program, FarmEd introduces young Albertans in rural farming communities to the principles and practices of farming, opening possibilities for a wide range of agricultural careers. Most importantly, FarmEd makes learning about where our food comes from simple and fun. Currently, the program is being piloted at two schools in Southern Alberta.

Program elements:

  • Setting up small-scale school farms: Conner is working with experts in agriculture, horticulture and school administrators to develop a tool kit/guidebook for schools on how to plan and implement small-scale school farms with engagement from the local agricultural community.

  • Experiential learning and teaching outcomes: With a focus on grades 7 to 12, RDN and advisors are developing various learning outcomes for students. Whether the school program is set up as a class for credit, or the farm is used as a teaching vehicle in a variety of classes, the program is meant to fit the school.

Benefits to students and the community:

  • Hands-on and unique learning experiences for students

  • Stronger relationships between local producers, schools, and students

  • Introductions to new agricultural career paths for students

  • Leadership skill-building

  • Agricultural literacy and a stronger connection to the land

“I think one of the best benefits we're seeing is the community really coming together. Once these programs are in existence, the community really shows up. If there are local producers in the area with expertise, they want to come into class and share their knowledge because this could be their community’s next generation of farmers…technologists…agrologists…heavy duty mechanics—you name it!”

Irvine, AB - FarmEd Pilot School #1

Irvine Agricultural Discovery Centre is run by Irvine School, and is a school-wide initiative. The program is coordinated by a local producer, Nicole Neubauer of Neubauer Farms. Together with Conner, she is helping draft program policies and procedures that will ensure the program’s sustainability and set future schools up for success in adopting FarmEd.

The goal of the Centre is to “teach sustainable agriculture practices focusing on how we will feed 9 billion people by 2050 in an environmentally sound, socially responsible and financially viable way now and in the future.” -Irvine School

Picture Butte - FarmEd Pilot School #2

In its planning stages, FarmEd at Picture Butte High School will focus on sustainable gardening, greenhouse growing and raising chickens in the first stages of their FarmEd Program.

The students are currently building chicken coops in shop class, to house laying hens which will be introduced in the fall of 2022. PBHS has also tilled a school garden plot and has an existing beekeeping program and aquaponics system, which they plan to expand on. The school has partnered with Coyote Flats Pioneer Village where a group of students is performing a series of crop management trials. The long-term plan is to install a greenhouse to focus on plant science and four-season fruit and vegetable production.

Altario School - An already established school farm used as a model for FarmEd

FarmEd is taking a page out of Altario School’s book. A school with just 65 students, in a town of only 26 residents, the school boasts a vibrant school farm program with a large population of farm animals. On the school’s Student-Led Farm, a team of high school students work with sheep, turkeys, pigs, and steers daily, as well as manage a variety of other agricultural projects.

“At Altario School we are united by a vision of living authentic, hands-on, and relevant learning. Our vision is a school community that celebrates, learns about, and advances agriculture.” -Altario School

Alternative and hands-on learning can be a powerful tool to set the producers and consumers of tomorrow on a more sustainable path

The question certainly remains for many producers in the province of how their farms will adapt to many pressures they face. While more financial incentives are needed at the federal and provincial level to move producers to adopt new technologies and practices, RDN’s initiatives are providing critical support in breaking down knowledge barriers. Providing hands-on agricultural learning in the classroom that focuses on new climate-adaptive practices, and dispelling consumer-side myths about Canadian agriculture are a couple of ways the team is supporting sustainability at the local level. FarmEd also opens numerous avenues for students and communities to work together and learn from one another, strengthening the fabric of Alberta’s agricultural communities for years to come.

Introducing Rural Showcase...

A dynamic network of resilience leaders are working in and among rural communities across Canada. Resilient Rurals' Rural Showcase highlights the prominent champions channelling their expertise and passion to empower rural communities, advance climate adaptation and enhance the local environment.

Connect with local leaders, hear their stories and learn from their expertise.

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