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Giving students a “farm to fork” agriculture experience

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New LEAF program will change the way that Ontario youth learn about their food.

Having raised three kids on their family-operated farm in southwestern Ontario, Danielle Schill is well aware of the importance of educating future generations about agriculture.

But sometimes that is easier said than done. Especially with many schools having limited curriculum and programming dedicated to agriculture education.

So Danielle set out to change that. She figured the local high school – Norwell District Secondary School in Palmerston, Ont. – could benefit from a program that informs students about agriculture and the many career opportunities within the industry.

“There are some programs at the school that revolve a little bit around agriculture, but nothing geared solely towards agriculture and the different types of agriculture in our community,” explains Danielle, whose youngest child is currently in her last year at Norwell District Secondary School. “There are so many misconceptions about agriculture. I want to make sure that word about agriculture gets out by giving the students a first-hand look at what is real when it comes to this industry.”

Danielle got the ball rolling by contacting her local trustee at the Upper Grand District School Board about the idea of introducing an agriculture education program at Norwell. She soon joined forces with Paul Frayne, a teacher at Norwell who also happened to be looking for an opportunity to introduce such a program.

A hands-on approach

Their efforts, which included presenting the idea for an agriculture education program to the school board, paid off and LEAF – Local, Environmental, Agriculture, and Food – will be introduced at Norwell in September 2018 as a half-day, two-credit program. Using the theme “field to fork,” the program will consist of weekly field trips to local farms and agriculture businesses where students will have the opportunity to meet and interact with farmers and develop an understanding of the diversity and innovation of agriculture in the local area. There are also plans for trips to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and the University of Guelph’s Research Park.

“Any of these students can read about agriculture, but it is not the same as them actually experiencing it,” says Danielle.

Over the course of the program, students will learn about the science of agriculture and its connection with the environment, while growing food in the school’s garden and greenhouse, and cooking and eating local products.

“Our goal is not to train future cooks, although that would be a great bonus, it is to learn about where food comes from and how it is grown,” explains Paul. “Cooking food and eating it really gives a deeper appreciation for all the work that goes into producing food.”

While the program is not set to start until next September, Paul says he is encouraged by the positive feedback that has already been received from students who are interested in LEAF’s unique hands-on approach.

“And certainly it is not just students who come from an agriculture background who are interested,” says Paul. “The students want to be on a farm and interacting with the people who are living this every day. I think that is part of the excitement for our students because this is something real. A lot of the time we will be out and around the community, working and interacting with people.”

Community support

To make sure they have local farms and agriculture businesses lined up for the planned field trips, Danielle and Paul have been busy presenting the new program to the local agriculture community. And so far, the response has been overwhelmingly supportive.

“Everyone is really on board with this initiative,” says Paul. “The more you talk about it, you see how much passion is out there in the agriculture community, and that motivates us to keep going because so many people really want this to be successful. We are looking to work with our community to develop a great agriculture education program.”

“The local farmers and agriculture businesspeople are eager to share their stories with the students and help educate them and maybe guide them towards a career path in agriculture,” says Danielle, adding that informing the students about the many educational and career opportunities available in agriculture will be an essential component of the program.

“Coming out of [the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College] right now, there are four jobs in Ontario for every one of those graduates,” explains Danielle, referencing a recent study commissioned by the Ontario Agricultural College. “There is a guaranteed career out there for them.”

The program may still have several months before it officially launches, but Danielle and Paul are already looking ahead and planning for its future. They have every intention to make sure the initiative continues indefinitely at Norwell and will look at how it can evolve in order to explore as many aspects of agriculture as possible.

Both add that they would be thrilled to see other schools introduce similar programming to help spread the truth about agriculture and the passion of the people who contribute to the industry.

“No matter where you go, people involved in agriculture are really quite proud of this industry,” says Danielle. “I’m excited for the students to see that.”

How do I bring ag into the classroom?

Across the country, endeavours like LEAF are supported by Agriculture in the Classroom Canada (AITC-C), and its 9 provincial members. AITC-C is in the midst of rolling out thinkAG, an initiative focused on creating awareness and interest in careers in the agriculture and food sector. Lesson plans and event toolkits are currently being piloted, and an interactive agri-food careers website is expected to be online early in 2018.

Visit www.aitc-canada.ca to get in touch with thinkAG and more exciting AITC-C agriculture education initiatives!

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