Engaging youth in agriculture

Originally published March 3, 2016 in the Manitoba Cooperator


Becky Parker is a young woman with a vision and passion — to engage and educate youth about agriculture, the agri-food sector and it’s many career opportunities.  She is a Project and Partnership Strategist with Ontario Agri-Food and Education    and a Nuffield Scholar researching models of ag career education.

She shared a rather startling fact at Manitoba Ag Days in January.  It is estimated that by 2022 there will be 74,000 job openings in the Canadian agri-food sector but one third will go unfilled. In fact, Farm Credit Canada has identified a labour shortage in agriculture as the leading risk management factor for our industry.

Parker believes the answer to the labour shortage is sitting in our Canadian classrooms right now.  “There’s a feeling, there’s an identity to working in agriculture,” she said.  We need to excite and engage young people, yet remain realistic. Certain jobs aren’t for everyone, especially in primary production. Many students admit, it is “too much work.” So how can we sell these jobs and open their eyes to other job prospects in agriculture?

First, we need to work on perspective, she advised.  So many view agriculture as farming and/or being a farmer and are unaware of the many other opportunities that exist. Everyone in the industry can work on this issue.

We can start by providing students with hands-on experience — field trips to farms or ‘take a kid to work’ days.  Connect with school guidance counselors and consider apprenticeship programs. Share information on resources.  Ag in the Classroom offers  a variety of learning opportunities for students of all ages.  GrowingCareers.ca is a website designed for both educators and students to explore careers in the agri-food sector.

Secondly, “Be a mentor or teacher,”  Parker stated.  Volunteer with Ag in the Classroom or 4-H. Host a meeting or ag forum, share your experience. Consider what other countries are doing. In New Zealand Get Ahead Career Experience Days are held across the country where students not only meet a variety of successful professionals in the ag industry, but also complete a hands-on activity associated with a particular job. The impact is powerful and positive.

Australia has an Art4Agriculture program where students research an agriculture commodity or issue and present their findings through art on a fiberglass cow – a very innovative and memorable way to teach. It not only brings the farm into the classroom but builds relationships between schools, industry and business while raising awareness of career pathways.

But sharing your story, Parker told the audience, is one of the most important things P1130965you can do. That doesn’t necessarily mean talking about ‘what’ we do – it is far more powerful to share the ‘why’. We are far more likely to inspire if we share the reasons and the passion behind our career choice. Social media provides a great platform but volunteering or everyday conversations also offer opportunities.

Being proactive and starting early will open students’ eyes to the wide variety of jobs available. We each need to do what we can to engage the next generation and ensure a labour shortage will not be a crippling issue for agriculture in 2022. Whether it is on our own or by other means, she encourages all of us to “Step up to plate, and swing the bat.”

Dreams Can Come True with Agriculture

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Flooding Hurts Food Production

Originally published August 4, 2015 in the Winnipeg Free Press  


No one wants to discuss it. Even those most affected are careful how they reply when asked about it: “Do you really want to know or are you just being polite?” Because in fact, yes, flooding is still an ongoing issue around Lake Manitoba.

As I write this, gale force winds are Lynch's Point Waves - lg web sizeincreasing the lake level in the south basin by five feet or more. Significant and powerful wave action will force water inland up to two to three miles, flooding pasture, hay-land and crops. It is the fourth time in five years that an over-flowing Lake Manitoba has stolen the income of farmers and ranchers.

Imagine owning a modest, ten table restaurant. You and your family are making a decent living, able to pay your bills, look after your home, send your children to school and financially contribute to your community. Your restaurant is definitely not a get-rich-quick scheme, but you’re financially stable, providing a service along with local employment.

Then one year, the government decides to shut down five of your tables. The next year two or three. There is nothing wrong with your tables or your restaurant, they just aren’t allowing you to use them to ensure the restaurant down the road in a larger, more important centre can remain viable. You still have all your overhead costs but your ability to generate an income has dramatically decreased. How long could you keep your doors open? Would you find this government action acceptable? What would you do?

In 2013, farmers tried to bring attention to their plight with a peaceful 12-hour protest at the Portage Diversion. The government labeled them “angry, irresponsible farmers” and court orders were served. A meeting was held alongside the diversion last July when record flows of Assiniboine River water were once again thrust into Lake Manitoba, bringing it above flood level, but no other public gatherings have taken place since.

Countless phone calls and e-mails, and months of waiting are required to get a response, if any, from the departments of Agriculture and Infrastructure and Transportation. This month a joint letter from both departments to our farm stated, “To protect as many Manitoba homes and properties as possible, our government managed water flow with the Portage Diversion.” Well that management continues to cause significant financial losses for producers all around the lake. But instead of compensation, the response we received, “We recognize the impact flooding has had on individuals like yourself, and appreciate your contributions to Manitoba’s agriculture sector.” Unbelievable.

Farmers and ranchers are in the business of food production. As long as this lake is kept full and overflowing, it is increasingly difficult to remain viable and plan for the future. If the government is intent on keeping it at high levels, tell us. Compensate for losses. Buy the intentionally submerged and quagmired land that we still have to pay taxes on despite being unable to use.

An outlet for Lake Manitoba is supposed to be built by 2020 but five more years of uncertainty, five more years of being on continual wind-watch, five more years of preventable financial losses is unacceptable. A restaurant cannot operate when the government keeps shutting down tables and a farmer or rancher cannot continue to operate when their land base is continually degraded and stolen.

The 2011 Flood wasn’t a one-in-350 year event. High water levels remained in the spring of 2012. One year of recovery was available in 2013 but any hopes of forages being re-established and seeded crops surviving was once again swept away in 2014.

Farmers and ranchers have not been fully compensated. For many, the financial losses of 2011 were only partially covered and even though multi-year compensation was promised, reimbursement continues to be denied.

And what about the emergency outlet built after 2011? That is on Lake St. Martin, not Lake Manitoba (which flows through Fairford and into Lake St. Martin). It use has been sparsely used and definitely not to full capacity.

Farmers and ranchers have been taught to be patient — a necessity in dealing with mother nature — but patience is wearing thin as financial costs of this ongoing flood continue to mount. The blatant disregard by this government to the people and communities around Lake Manitoba is astounding.

Ask yourself if you would be willing to forfeit a portion of your income four out of five years, and possibly more, to protect your neighbours from flooding. Right now, farmers and ranchers have no say, no choice. Their income is stolen, with thanks for their contribution to agriculture. Some gratitude.