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Birds, bees, and drones: The new face of Canadian agriculture

A new generation is turning the traditional Canadian farm on end—moving into city spaces, creating new funding models and tackling food insecurity in the North


 
Tsawwassen Farm School is a unique educational program that is a collaboration between Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Tsawwassen First Nation and on TFN land. (Jean-Philippe Marquis)

Tsawwassen Farm School is a unique educational program that is a collaboration between Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Tsawwassen First Nation and on TFN land. (Jean-Philippe Marquis)

Canada’s farming industry is in the midst of a demographic crisis. According to Statistics Canada, the average age of farmers in 2011 was 54, and more than half were older than 55. Between 1991 and 2011, Canada lost more than 10 farms a day, and the number run by people younger than 40 dropped from 74,000 to 20,000—a powerful indication of how few farmers are taking over the family business.

While these numbers don’t seem to forecast a rosy future for agriculture, they do leave some room for a new generation. In the past year at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, 60 per cent of the applicants for the bachelor of science and agriculture program came from urban postal codes. Rene Van Acker, associate dean at the college, says that while most grads go into a sub-sector of the industry, a few head back to the land, where they face many obstacles. “The hurdle is access into an operation, or access to land, and access to very, very practical training in farming,” he says of first-generation farmers. Guelph’s program is designed for the family farmer looking to improve an already established business.

However, a school in Surrey, B.C., is targeting first-generation farmers—the ones who have to start small because they can’t afford big. Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s bachelor of science in sustainable agriculture and food systems saw its first crop of graduates this year—a class of four. The four-year program, established in 2012, is dedicated to hands-on learning. In the third and fourth year, students spend the majority of their time working directly with plants and animals on KPU’s teaching farm.

READ: University of Guelph | Guelph, Ont. | Founded 1964

Kent Mullinix, who designed the program, says it’s unique in North America. “It unequivocally and unabashedly focuses on smaller-scale, more human-intensive, community-focused, alternate-market farming and food systems as an integral element of sustainable society.” The intent is to attract “a different kind, a new generation, of agriculturalists.” These people are committed to connecting people with food systems in an environmentally sustainable way—through farmers’ markets, urban agriculture initiatives and organic practices.

As some farmers go back to basics, they’re competing with hyper-industrialized, export-driven, family-run farms that can afford technology like drones and geographic information systems. But Van Acker says there’s room for the small and the large. “I’m looking forward to what those young people will do on that end of the farming spectrum,” he says of small-scale farmers. “I think it will be diverse. I think it’ll be fascinating. But it will co-exist with large commercial agricultural operations that will feed a part of the market as well.”

Backyard Buzz

Bees in the city. (Alvéole)

Backyard chickens. One-acre market gardens. Rooftop bees. What used to be part of the rural landscape is creeping into the cement-and-steel terrain of Canada’s urban centres, creating an intersection of food, community and education. And few companies are doing it as well as Alvéole, a Montreal-based hive-keeping company founded in 2012. “The way we make a living is not the typical way beekeepers make a living,” says Alex McLean, co-founder of the company. He worked for eight summers at his uncle’s commercial apiary in Manitoba, and used those skills to develop a business model that would work in his hometown of Montreal. Alvéole, which means “honeycomb” in French, installs hives on the rooftops and grounds of universities and businesses, as well as in the backyards of residential properties, then teaches stakeholders how to care for the colonies and extract the honey. “We’re basically setting up a hive and saying, ‘This is your hive, and you’re going to see food production and agriculture and environment through these bees,’ ” he says, adding that there are a lot of similarities between urban agriculture and traditional agriculture. For one, urban farmers still have to battle weather and disease. But instead of focusing on mass production, like beekeeping companies outside the city, McLean and his team focus on education—not just about the importance of pollination and the production of honey, but also to convince people that beekeeping is safe. “People, once they get through that barrier of fear, are truly fascinated about agriculture and the environment,” he says. For McLean, the most rewarding element of his job is being able to connect people-—from elementary school kids to bankers—to nature through bees.

His advice to up-and-coming urban agriculturalists: “Start something and see how it works.” If you don’t have an uncle with a bee farm, many universities and colleges offer night and weekend courses on beekeeping, including Algonquin College in Ottawa and Royal Roads University in Victoria.

Hopping ahead of the curve

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Entomo Farms, just outside of Toronto, is home to more than 100 million whirring, chirping, tiny livestock. The Goldin brothers—Jarrod, Ryan and Darren—used to raise insects for reptile food, but now they raise crickets for everyone from seniors who have trouble chewing meat to CrossFit enthusiasts looking for additional protein in their diets.

Jarrod Goldin, who started his career as a chiropractor, was always interested in sustainable human nutrition. Both his brothers had been farming since the early 2000s, so when the UN released a report on edible insects in 2013, the trio jumped on the entomophagy trend. The UN report noted that crickets can convert feed to meat 12 times more efficiently than cattle, four times more than pigs and twice more than chickens.

Entomo Farms was the first food-grade cricket farm in Canada, so starting up was a challenge. And while “it’s really fun to trailblaze,” Goldin says there’s still a long way to go before this “funky alternative” to protein becomes part of the Canadian diet.

But because it’s a relatively new industry, there’s a lot of room to grow, not only for farmers, but also for chefs, engineers and nutritionists. “If you’re in university or college and you have a skill set, you just have to be opportunistic and think how that skill set could work in this new, emerging food system,” Goldin says.

Community-Supported Agriculture

Farming doesn’t have to begin with a huge bank loan or inheriting a family farm. Instead, a small number of growers are relying on community-supported agriculture (CSA)—an innovative approach where customers invest in their food before it’s grown.

CSA farmers offer a certain number of  “shares” each growing season, which means members pay a lump sum up front and receive a box of fresh produce every week when harvest begins. The farmer covers pre-season costs, so it’s an easier way to break into the business. According to a survey of 100 CSA farms in Canada, only 37 owners grew up on a farm.

John Devlin, an associate professor at the University of Guelph’s school of environmental design and rural development, administered the survey. While CSA farmers represent a tiny portion of Canada’s agricultural activity (about 400 have an active online presence), they’re a big part of urban agriculture and the burgeoning local-food movement. “This sort of front-end investment is in itself quite innovative,” he says. “And it’s something that largely has come with this new generation of people going back into farming.”

Robin Turner and his partner Jess Weatherhead own and manage Roots and Shoots Farm, an organic vegetable operation and CSA in the municipality of La Pêche, Que., about an hour outside of Ottawa. With the help of six employees and interns, the farm supplies 320 members with vegetables each week, and the partners run booths at two farmers’ markets in the capital city.

High-flying farm tools

High tech farming with drones. (Thompson Rivers University)

Humans have been farming for 11,000 years. Drones, as we know them today, have only been around for about 15. But farmers have found innovative ways to incorporate the airborne robots into their agricultural management practices, calling it “precision agriculture.”

Norm Lamothe, a pilot by trade, runs a 200-hectare corn and soybean farm in eastern Ontario. In 2015, he started an aerial field-scouting business, now called Deveron UAS, which uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and remote-sensing technology to determine plant health, scout for harmful pests and measure parts of the field in need of more fertilizer.

As the world’s population explodes and cities grow, “we’re going to be forced to produce more food from less land,” Lamothe says. “And technology is going to play a key role in that.” Lamothe also teaches an entrepreneurship course in Durham College’s food and farming program. In a recent applied-research project, he collaborated with researchers and students at the Oshawa, Ont., school to find that drone technology could provide environmental benefits by reducing the need for herbicides and fertilizers. “They [Durham College] obviously see this space as one that’s growing,” he says. “Any time technology provides an opportunity to improve, I think it’s a great step forward for the industry as a whole.”

READ: Durham College | Oshawa, Ont. | Founded 1967

That includes the livestock side of the industry. Students at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., are using drones to manage and keep track of cattle, under the tutelage of associate professor John Church. “There’s nothing more innovative that I’ve come across in my career than applying drones,” Church says. “Using them to graze the right cattle at the right place at the right time is, I think, the future of agriculture.”

READ: Thompson Rivers University | Kamloops, B.C. | Founded 1970

On top of counting and observing the livestock, drones can also be used as “flying border collies” to move them. However, once a cow has been chased with a drone, it’s less likely to stand still when a drone is observing it. TRU has also teamed up with students at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary to create ultra-high-frequency ear tags that can be read by an antennae attached to a drone. This allows a farmer to track the movement and behaviour of individual cows.

Though Church hosts workshops for B.C.’s older ranchers (he has one 73-year-old convert), the technology appeals more to the new generation. “My best drone pilot, he spent quite a bit of time playing Xbox.”

READ: The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology | Calgary, Alta. | Founded 1916

Space-Age Agriculture

Growing fresh produce on the moon or Mars will be tough, but the second-worst place, according to University of Guelph professor Michael Dixon, is “a snow bank in Canada.”

Dixon and a team of researchers from the university’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, with support from multiple aerospace stakeholders, have been using space-age technology to develop a possible solution. AgNorth is a modular system that uses LED lighting and hydroponic technology to grow produce in harsh environments—say the low-gravity chill of the moon, or the dust and scorching heat of Kuwait’s desert, or the permafrost of the Northwest Territories.

The project, which began around 20 years ago, was initially designed to tackle the need for “biological life support” in extraterrestrial locations. Now that there’s no mission to the moon or Mars, Dixon has set his sights on the North and the Middle East. With financial help from the Kuwaiti government, he built a prototype that’s now being tested in the desert. And in the next year, he’s hoping to team up with the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, N.W.T., to get a larger-scale pilot project up and running there.

In Nunavut, for example, a kilogram of carrots costs three times as much as anywhere else in Canada. AgNorth would reduce the amount of perishable goods—such as strawberries, tomatoes and salad greens—transported from Mexico and southern California to those remote areas, helping to increase food security.

Dixon takes on interns, including high school students and Ph.D. candidates. Most classes he teaches are at a master’s level, but he’s proposing an undergraduate curriculum in controlled-environment agriculture this fall. “The space aspect is the main pull; it’s the technical pull,” he says of the original reason for researching this technology. “But virtually everything we do spins off into applications in terrestrial agriculture and the agri-food sector.”


 

The lay of the land

Wondering where a degree in agriculture can take you? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Soil scientist: Soil scientists have the freedom to switch between the field, where they run tests and collect samples, and the lab, where they study the chemical composition and fertility of soil. Waste-management companies, environmental consulting agencies, research institutes and government departments are just some of the employers looking for these skills.

2) Agrologist: As an agrologist, you have the opportunity to combine math, science and economics with hands-on work in the field. Agrologists work with farmers and food producers in everything from land reclamation to food safety, biosecurity and finances. Agrology certification varies from province to province, but usually involves a four-year degree in agricultural sciences and a two-year mentorship program. Some post-secondary institutions also offer two-year technical agrologist certification programs.

3) Turf manager: What height does grass need to be for a golf ball to travel at the optimal speed? That’s something a turf manager has to think about. Turf managers maintain recreational green spaces, including golf courses and football fields. They mow, control weeds and irrigate in a way that’s environmentally responsible to nearby wildlife and watersheds. Agricultural schools across the country have certificate, diploma and degree programs in turf management.

4) Non-profit sector: Canadian and international non-profit agricultural agencies are always in need of researchers, program managers and communicators. Working in the non-profit sector could mean lobbying government to change agriculture policy, training new farmers or promoting biodiversity and food security. Nikki Wiart


 

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