Animal science students from the city used to have a hard time finding summer work in their field because they had no hands-on experience.
It was a chicken-and-egg situation that Frank Robinson, a professor of poultry production and physiology, wanted to do something about.
“The No. 1 problem is that most of our students, or a very high percentage of them, have no background in agriculture,” said the University of Alberta professor. “They can’t get a summer job, because they have no experience, and they can’t get a real job. You have to break the cycle somewhere.”
But Robinson knew that while these students didn’t have a farm or ag background, they did have a lot of knowledge. So in 2016, he proposed a program for his animal science students that would see them spend three days on a livestock operation after being matched with a producer.
“They can go get their hands and feet dirty for three days and come back, and then they have something to put on their resumé, and see where it goes from there,” he said.
That first mini-internship involved 16 students, but by last February, that number had grown to 118. This year’s edition had to be a virtual affair, but Robinson was able to line up 32 farmers and others from the livestock sector to give 30-minute presentations about their farms or their jobs. About 70 students were able to log in and ask questions of presenters, who spoke about poultry, cow-calf production, feedlot, dairy, sheep, outdoor and indoor swine, elk, bison, and goats. There was also someone from a turkey-breeding company, an equine stable and the pharmaceutical sector as well as a Maple Leaf Foods marketing rep.
“In a COVID year, we can see a lot of farms in not as much detail, instead of one farm in three days of detail,” said Robinson. “We’re giving students a chance to interact with 32 people working in agriculture.”
The regular program is easy to administer, but expensive to run, because the students’ mileage and hotels are paid for.
“We have a pretty substantial list of donors who chip in and support the program. We have an endowment, and we’re pretty well set up,” said Robinson.
Not surprising, the program is very popular.
“We have some producers who have done it every time. We have some students who have done it five times,” he said.
“We know people who have got summer jobs based on this, and people who have got the confidence to work in an industry.”
Etienne de Jongh is currently in his last year of animal science and did his internship in fall 2019. He interned at West Gimlet Farms, west of Red Deer, working with owner Shane Juuti and his yaks.
De Jongh, originally from South Africa, has applied to the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary.
“Veterinary medicine is trying to get more veterinarians to focus on the rural areas,” he said. “This internship might be the only experience someone has in a rural area. At least that’s true for people who took the program with me. This could be the only connection that people have to a rural area, to farm animals, or to see how production is carried out, and interact with the farmers and animals.”
The internship provided “real, honest exposure” to a farm — in his case, doing a lot of fence repair, processing yak meat, and preparing and delivering shipments.
“We did spend a little time sorting the yaks, and got a little bit of exposure to their temperament and how they responded to handling,” he said.
De Jongh also interacted with Juuti’s bottle-fed yak, Brutus, and the Canadian horses Juuti uses to pull his feed wagon.
It’s an experience he would definitely recommend to others.
“It’s so useful early on in your academic career, before you have a lot of filters put on, before you have a lot of opinions of what these production systems are like,” he said. “You get some really honest interactions with the producers as well.”
Dallas Shenher graduated with a bachelor of science in animal health with a food animal major from the University of Alberta, and did two mini-internships in 2019.
Her first internship was with Maple Leaf Poultry, and she toured a hatchery, a broiler breeder farm, a broiler farm and its processing facility in Edmonton. She also followed a field service rep on the road and travelled to rural parts of Alberta to do farm visits.
“It was awesome,” she said. “In my degree, you get the experience on the research side, which is wonderful, but it’s nicer to get an on-farm experience, with more real-world experience, especially in agriculture.”
For her second internship, she worked at Poultry Partners, a poultry vet clinic in Airdrie.
“It does post-mortems and it helps poultry farmers to make sure they are meeting production and all their birds are healthy,” she said.
The poultry farm on campus has a couple thousand birds, but with her mini-internship with Maple Leaf, Shenher was able to see full barns with 5,000 birds.
“I think what I learned most was how to communicate and network with not only the farmers, but with people who work in the industry,” she said. “I feel like that was the best part of the experience. I’m still in contact with some of the people who I networked with.”
Prior to her internships, Shenher, who grew up in the city, had some experience working at the Poultry Research Centre at the University of Alberta, and had already developed an interest in poultry.
“Getting this experience was wonderful. One of the experiences I got was bleeding chickens, so we could send their blood to a lab. Even at the Poultry Research Centre, I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, so that was pretty nice,” she said.
Her only regret is not doing an internship earlier.
“I waited until my last year of university to start the mini-internship and I really wish I would have started in the first year,” she said. “It gave me real-world experience — what the farmers are dealing with and the type of equipment they have. You get the inner experience that all of us need and really want.”