Classroom in the field

Agriculture in the Classroom is helping reconnect Manitoba’s youth with agriculture

“They get to understand the costs of farming and the impact of a great crop or a poor crop on their business.”

 Every September, just around the time the leaves start to change, hundreds of Winnipeg children are plucked from the comfortable warmth of their classrooms, and loaded onto busses for a short journey to one of two research farms south of the city. For most of the kids it will be the first time they’ve been anywhere near a farm.

Over the next several hours they will find themselves immersed in more than a dozen hands-on activities that will bring them up close and personal with agriculture. They will crush canola to make oil, grind wheat to make flour, see cows, pigs and chickens, learn about bees and discover the connections between health and nutrition. It’s all part of The Amazing Agriculture Adventure put on by Agriculture in the Classroom - Manitoba (AITC-M).

“One of our most popular activities is our farm business station where the kids can try their hand at a number of jobs in agriculture,” said Sue Clayton, AITC-M Executive Director . “They can pretend to be a farmer, an equipment dealer, an inputs supplier or even a banker. They get to understand the costs of farming and the impact of a great crop or a poor crop on their business. The kids just love this. It really opens their eyes because they are learning all of this on a working farm.”

Clayton says that experiences like this have become essential at a time when cities are getting ever larger and rural areas continue to depopulate.

“Forty or fifty years ago the majority of people had some connection to a farm,” said Clayton. “Either they farmed, or they had a family member who farmed, so most people understood the business of farming and how their food was grown. But today, most people live in an urban environment and that connection has been lost. Programs like the Amazing Agriculture Adventure are helpful for re-establishing that connection.”

The Amazing Agriculture Adventure is just one of AITC-M’s ongoing initiatives to introduce students to the importance of agriculture in their lives. The not-for-profit charitable organization works with agricultural industry partners to supply educators across the province with curriculum linked resources and programing designed to help teachers easily add agricultural elements to their lessons.

“Teachers are busy. They don’t have the time to figure out how to incorporate agriculture into their curriculum, but that’s where we come in. We provide detailed curriculum connections in our programs to show teachers exactly what curriculum outcomes they meet. This makes it easy for them to integrate agriculture into their classwork.”

Last year alone, AITC-M programs reached over 30,000 Manitoba students in grades one through 12, representing one in six students in the province.

“AITC-M’s goal is to have numerous agricultural touchpoints throughout a student’s education. It is the middle years and in high school where we really start putting emphasis on careers in agriculture.”

Clayton, who used to work in recruitment for the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, says that career focused programming as provided by AITC-M is critical to address the ongoing labor shortage in agriculture.

“When I worked at the U of M we would say that there are three jobs for every student of ours graduating. While I’m not sure if that statistic has changed, I do know that the demand remains high. In Canada alone, one in eight jobs are connected to agriculture, what most people don’t realize is 90% of those jobs are not farming, but jobs that support the farmer. The agriculture industry needs people who are strong in the sciences, strong in accounting and strong as leaders in business. That’s what drives this industry and the Canadian economy.”

Clayton herself is a testament to the value that exposure to agriculture early in life can have on future career choices. As a city girl, a future in agriculture wasn’t something she had considered until a friend of her father’s gave her some valuable advice when she was just starting to consider career options.

“He was an ophthalmologist, but he said that if he could do it all over again that he would choose agriculture as a career. He said people need to eat and he saw that there was going to be huge social and economic issues regarding food in the future, which was amazing because that was 30 years ago and he had that kind of foresight.”

According to Clayton, programs like the Amazing Agriculture Adventure are having a similar influence on students’ career plans as her father’s friend had on her. “There are definitely students that have said to us that agriculture wasn’t even on my radar as a career option before this field trip, or until my teacher used one of AITC-M’s resources in their classrooms.”

And for those that may never have a career in agriculture, it’s simply rewarding to be able to see the kids’ faces light up as they go through the program. Many teachers tell us that it is the best field trip that they have brought their classes on. They tell us their kids can’t stop talking about it on the way back to school and that they’ll reference the experience months later in the classroom.”

So popular is the Amazing Agriculture Adventure that it is fully booked months in advance every year and there is always a wait list. To keep programs like this going, Clayton says that AITC-M relies heavily on its many industry partners and volunteers.

“AITC-M absolutely could not do the work that we do without the financial support of our industry partners like MacDon, which for many years has covered the costs of bussing the students to the research farms. Companies like MacDon also help by both encouraging, and making it possible, for their employees to take time off to volunteer and participate in our programs. For the Amazing Agriculture Adventure alone, which we also run in two other locations in Manitoba, we need about 240 volunteers to make it work.”

Clayton says the importance of the work they are doing is witnessed firsthand by the hundreds of volunteers who give their time to AITC-M every year.

“Everybody involved with Agriculture in the Classroom loves and believes in what they do. When you have a child say to you ‘I didn’t know flour came from wheat, I thought it came from dried marshmallows, you know exactly why you are giving up your time to volunteer.”