Agriculture education needed to spark interest in ag careers, restore public trust

Agriculture in the Classroom provides a hand-on education for youth on where their food comes from and possible futures in agriculture.

Social media has a major influence on perceptions about the agricultural sector, prompting those ‘in the know’ to do more to educate the public.

“It’s a monumental undertaking of growing importance,” says Johanne Ross, Executive Director of Agriculture in the Classroom Canada. “There’s a major public trust issue with agriculture in Canada. Social media has changed the game.”

“We need to have a constant voice out there, not only reactively but also proactively talking about what we do. It’s very important to be open and honest and creating dialogue. It’s okay to have tough conversations. It’s okay to be very transparent and honest about mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve done to fix them. Usually, unless you’re dealing with someone extremely radical, we all have shared values.”

Ross, a farmer with approximately 160 head of cattle north of Minnedosa in the community of Basswood, joined Agriculture in the Classroom Manitoba in 2000, shifting to the national organization when it was established in 2015 to help broaden their efforts’ reach.

The agriculture sector has long dealt with public misconceptions, but the advent of social media has broadened the spread of misinformation, which Ross said becomes abundantly clear when they visit K-12 students to share their educational programming.

Ross said that on this front, it’s always refreshing to see children asking questions and seeking out information rather than blindly accepting whatever they read online.

It’s creating an informed consumer, inspired leaders of the future; it’s about creating Canadians who understand what is needed in our nation so they’ll support policies.

“There’s so much work to do, and we’re just scratching the surface,” she said.

AITC-C receives support in this endeavour from various people who are either already in the agricultural industry or are furthering their education to find their way in. These volunteers and partners head presentations and information stations about the various topics related to agriculture, both in the classroom and at public events such as the Amazing Agriculture Adventure held every June at the Keystone Centre. This annual event sees grades 4 and 5 students engaging in various interactive stations related to agriculture.

Among those helping out at this and other events are Assiniboine Community College Agribusiness students, which instructor Danielle Tichit calls a real win-win.

“We know in agriculture that we are a small percentage of the population, and the general consumer is interested in how their food is produced and what we do,” she said. “If my students can begin the learning process here when it comes to how to effectively communicate, and in some cases handle objections about what happens in ag, I think that’s such an important skill.”

“One of the biggest eye-openers for youngsters is that agriculture carries career possibilities in a wide range of things, covering all interests in the STEM acronym – science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Ross said.

No matter what career you’re looking at, we can relate it back to agriculture and food production.

There’s no shortage of jobs in agriculture across Canada, but there is a shortage of skilled people to fill them.

“Agriculture is moving so fast in terms of innovation that we can’t keep up,” she said. “We have a labour issue shortage, big time, in agriculture – everywhere. On the farm and off the farm, past the farmgate; everywhere, we need people.”

GDP in agriculture grew 1.5 times faster than the growth in the Canadian economy between 2012 and 2016. In 2014, nearly 60,000 primary agriculture jobs went unfilled in Canada. This includes 1,800 jobs in Manitoba, or seven per cent of the provincial agriculture workforce needed to meet demand. By 2025, it’s predicted that one-in-five of all agricultural jobs in Manitoba could go unfilled.

Agriculture in the Classroom’s provincial chapters and their national organization have been expanding at a breakneck pace, and although Ross said that it’s been an uphill battle, they’re making some headway in informing youths that agriculture is a viable career option regardless of their broader interests.

A member of Assiniboine Community College’s board of governors, Ross said that it’s important they learn how to self-promote, and that speaking with youths through Ag in the Classroom is one way of honing these skills.

Even if the youths they connect with don’t end up seeking a career in agriculture, she said that at the very least she wants to spark an interest and inspire them to research the industry on their own and question what they read and see.

“We’re probably the only organization that can bring the sector together for one mutual cause, and that is to tell our story, to tell it in an accurate, balanced and current way, bringing together all of the people as volunteers to tell their story,” she said. “If we don’t do that, there are a lot of organizations that would like to tell the agriculture story for us.”