I was recently asked to partake in the second annual Rural Café, an event that gives students from the University of Alberta’s Animal Science 200 class an opportunity to learn about the realities of animal agriculture in Alberta, by first-hand interaction with poultry and livestock producers. As I wrote that sentence, I realized how formal and boring the event sounded. Rural Café is anything but boring – students meet with a wide range of livestock farmers (beef, broilers, hatching eggs, honey, race horses, sheep, organic, swine, etc…) for AnSci 200’s version of speed-dating. Picture this: 100+ students, 25 farmers, and industry moderators jam a local community hall for 3 hours. Groups of 5 students come to your table, pepper you with questions about your key concerns in agriculture for about 25 minutes, and then move on to another table. Do that 4 times in a row. The result is enthusiasm, lots of noise, discovery, and hoarse voices. Of course, food is important and homemade pie is a bonus.
This event is the brainchild of Dr. Frank Robinson and Dr. Martin Zuidhof who, coincidentally, were my professor and teaching assistant (respectively), when I took AnSci 200 in university many, many, many years ago. Frank and Martin have a passion for teaching in an innovative format. They also strongly believe that students need to connect in a meaningful way with the agricultural community and learn skills that will make them successful in their future careers – in a fun way. They are strong believers in edutainment (you learn more when education is combined with entertainment). Frank told me that “The Rural Café was the first step in dialogue between students and actual farmers for many class participants. I can teach them the science of animal agriculture, but I am not able to communicate the art of agriculture, like real farmers can”. Tongwei Bai summed it up “Sooo many questions, soooo many answers, soooo much fun!” This event is so popular that AnSci 200 alumni join in to help with coordination, set-up, and clean-up to make this event even more successful.
The outcome for these students is to develop ag-fluency and communication skills. To demonstrate these skills, students were asked to write a blog post based on one of the interviews held throughout the evening. I was thrilled to know that 11 students wrote about their conversations with me. I had so much fun reading about what the students learned about egg farming (the good, the bad and the ugly). It was difficult to choose just one blog post because each of them contained unique insights but, in the end, I’ve chosen to share Justine Loock’s blog post: “Amazing Rural Café night”.
I did expect that the Rural Café would be a great experience, but I didn’t expect that much of passion and love for farming to be shown by the producers I met. One that especially stood out to me was Susan Schafers. She runs STS Farms in Stony Plain, Alberta. Susan raises 1100 replacement pullets and 7000 free run laying hens and she is the second generation on the farm. This farm was one of the first ones to go into free run laying hens.
What would keep her awake at night being a poultry producer in Alberta, Canada? Like many businesses she answered, the first one would be financial concerns. She often asks herself “Could I keep my farm?” Actually, something is particular in STS Farms, only one of the two commodities is supply managed: the laying hens. This means that the replacement pullets are not supply managed and are susceptible to have fluctuations in prices due to the market. Therefore, she said that she needs to work harder for that side of the farm. Table eggs is one of the five supply managed commodities in Canada and can insure stable prices to producers, a steady supply of quality products for consumers and reasonable returns to producer. I recommend checking this link to know more about supply management in poultry.
Diseases concerns are always in her mind: Avian Influenza? Salmonella? Having a disease would be terrible financially, environmentally and socially. Ten dedicated people are working on the farm and they would lose their job. Check this link from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency if you want to learn more about Avian Influenza and its consequences.
“Could the farm go to a next generation with all the changings in market and consumer perception?” Susan would love the farm to be running by one of her children in the future. She would love people to know more about how their food is produced and so she writes a blog about the farm, recipes and crafts that you can check out here. She is often confronted to questions such as “What is the difference between brown and white eggs?” and “If I keep an egg warm, will it hatch?” According to Susan, people should definitively inform themselves to know more about farming. When things are tough, Susan loves to talk with her father because he is full of knowledge.
Farming is not a job; farming is passion lived 365 days a year, 7 days a week and 24 hours a day. I went home from the rural café thinking that I really wanted to farm back from where I grew up, I can do it, because I have the passion.
These students are future of agriculture; they will be researchers, sales people, veterinarians, and hopefully a few will bring their passions back to the farm! Thanks Frank and Martin for the opportunity – these students rejuvenate us old farmers!!