Teacher Rhoda Wong checks out a combine during an agricultural tour that took place Aug. 26. The tour enabled participants to tour four Calgary-area farms to learn how food is produced.
Teacher program slated for expansion throughout Alberta
For teacher Erin Lyons, visiting a farm before the start of the school year was a way to better understand the rural students she will be teaching this year as a substitute in the Golden Hills School Division.
The Strathmore resident — a self-described city girl — came away from the tour feeling like her eyes had been opened to the realities of agriculture, which didn’t necessarily mesh with her previous perceptions.
"I felt like I’d been duped by mass media, by marketing, by social media into believing that the food around me is not safe," she said. "I’m so grateful that I got that opportunity to feel safe about the food on my plate."
Organized for teachers by Calgary-based advocacy group Agriculture for Life, the tour took place in late August. In spending the day touring four farms, participants were able to climb onto actual farm equipment and ask anything they wanted.
The aim was to enable teachers to see what happens at real farms, so that they can better understand agricultural practices and career opportunities, said Luree Williamson, CEO of tour organizer Agriculture for Life, whose aim is to foster understanding and appreciation of agriculture.
"In today’s day and age, more and more people are removed from the farm," she says. "With the power of social media and more conventional media, there’s a lot of talk, a lot of interest around where your food is coming from but not always the opportunity to learn first-hand."
While the tour attracted a fairly modest 15 teachers, Williamson hopes to build on this first effort and expand the program to other parts of the province throughout the year.
The free-flowing exchanges covered a wide variety of topics, many of them controversial, like organic versus nonorganic, the use of pesticides and herbicides on crops, the use of hormones, steroids and antibiotics in livestock and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Tough questions welcome
For large-scale grain farmer Dave Lantz, it was a welcome opportunity to show off what he does and tell his side of the story.
"I think it’s our responsibility as a producer to make sure that people do understand where their food comes from and they should not be worried about eating it," he said.
Lantz said he welcomes the tough questions that some would rather avoid, such as those surrounding GMOs and the use of herbicides. Both of those aspects of farming have made land more productive and farmers better stewards, he says.
"A lot of people think that I work for Monsanto when I talk this way. Well, no I don’t," he said. "Their product has revolutionized the way we farm."
He noted that many issues in agriculture are the subject of spirited exchange and that social media is playing an increasingly significant role.
"I’m going to be 60 years old but I am on Twitter. I find it extremely entertaining and enlightening," he said.
He’s not alone. He said many farmers now tweet about what they’re doing.
"You get other people on there saying that we’re poisoning them. Well, no we’re not. Why would I poison my customers? This is how I make my living," Lantz said.
"My kids, my grandchildren, we all eat what’s grown here so I’m not subjecting anybody to anything that I wouldn’t do."
"I think our food is as safe as or safer than it’s ever been."
Farmers often lose sight of how far removed most people are from food production, so tours like this are a good way to put that in perspective, said cattle farmer Graeme Finn.
He particularly welcomes the chance to show that farmers are making extensive use of technology and not "all wearing bib and brace overalls with straw hanging out of our mouths."
"That’s a misconception I see all the time," he said. "It just drives me nuts."
With his cattle production, Finn has found a niche in the growing hormone-free segment. However, this is only viable because the market pays a premium.
"I’m not in it just for a fuzzy warm feeling," he said.
The reality, he said, is that hormones are the norm in beef production because they get cattle to their finished weight quicker.
"That’s feed efficiency, which gets back to dollars and cents," Finn said.
There are many ways that the information learned from such tours can be tied into the curriculum, said teacher Cathy Price, who splits her time between three rural schools in the Golden Hills School Division, based in Trochu.
Incorporating food production into the classroom can range from framing a math question with an agricultural example to inviting an expert to speak at a school or studying a pasture ecosystem.
"Anytime you can bring an agricultural example into the classroom, it’s something that can be of interest to [rural] students," Price said.
Despite her agricultural background, Price said she was amazed at how much she learned from the tour, which dispelled some myths for her.
"I think sometimes there’s this mentality that they do business behind closed doors and they’re very private, but their business is all about reaching out to a global community and they’re very connected in many ways."