Irvine School is taking the ag-in-the-classroom concept to the next level — it’s creating an actual farm on its grounds.
Construction is well underway on the Agricultural Discovery Centre in a corner of the school’s playground. And although it’s not big (just 200 feet by 200 feet), it will be home to a market garden as well as some pigs, goats, chickens, a cow-calf pair, and feeder steers.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity for agriculture and education to come together to ultimately empower and teach students not only where their food comes from and how it’s produced but also, more importantly, inspire them to the many opportunities that exist within agriculture for career paths,” said Nichole Neubauer, the driving force behind the project.
“Whether they are raising livestock or growing or selling produce at a local farmers’ market or growing demonstration crop plots, we’re going to really open their hearts and minds to the possibilities that exist within agriculture.”
Neubauer, husband Mark, and their teenage children Evie and Logan operate Neubauer Farms, a mixed grain and cattle operation north of Irvine (about 30 kilometres east of Medicine Hat). Neubauer is a well-known ag champion in the province and Neubauer Farms, established in 1910, has hosted more than 20,000 school kids for her Growing Minds agriculture education program since 2005.
Taking the farm to a school is a way to not only educate children and teens about where their food comes from but also about how to produce it. Irvine’s K-9 school was a natural fit.
“There’s a strong group of teachers who have rural backgrounds or who are heavily invested in increasing student outcomes by using this type of programming,” said Neubauer.
“A lot of the students who attend the school are from ag backgrounds. There is a community of town kids who attend the school, as well as some acreage kids and some children from the nearby town of Dunmore.”
As the program grows, there’s a possibility that the high school down the road could also be involved in it.
Neubauer Farms is partnering with Prairie Rose School Division on the initiative.
“We want it to be a real holistic representation of agriculture,” she said. “Prairie Rose has been busy with a number of different ag initiatives throughout their school division and they’re always looking for new, exciting and dynamic ways of inspiring and educating children.”
Evie and Logan attend the community’s high school, but their family has a special tie to Irvine school. Their dad attended the school and his mother taught Grade 5.
Over the summer, the Neubauers will meet with the teachers to discuss ways to connect the student-led farm back to the curriculum. Students will be given the opportunity to pursue any special interests they might have, including 4-H projects.
But the students will also be teachers to others.
“What COVID-19 has shown us is that we can teach kids remotely, we can use things like Google Classroom and YouTube and social media platforms to get messages across,” said Neubauer. “The students of Irvine will become producers of information, sharing their knowledge, and we will be connecting with urban schools across the province, so our kids at Irvine can share what they are doing at the Ag Discovery Centre.”
The farm will be set up when the students go back to school next month, and their first task will be doing some sodbusting and getting the garden area ready for next year. The livestock won’t be brought in until spring, arriving in April and staying on site until October. (Two or three summer students will be hired to care for the animals during the summer holidays.)
“We have access to water, but we want to be really good at conserving water,” said Neubauer. “We’re going to use a bunch of opportunities before April to teach kids what animals and plants need.”
There will be individual pens for smaller livestock and the cattle will have a small grass paddock.
And when Harvest 2022 rolls around, the entire community will have a chance to celebrate. The first edition of what will be an annual harvest gala will be held, produce will be featured, and the livestock will be auctioned off.
And then the whole process will begin again.
The initial infrastructure costs are quite large, so Neubauer and her family are volunteering their time and effort. She hopes that once the farm is put together, community members and local businesses will come forward as sponsors.
And given that Irvine School is just a few hundred metres off the Trans-Canada Highway, there’s the opportunity to showcase it to a wider audience.
“We will open it to the community and use it as a tourism opportunity. We’re hoping people will stop off the No. 1 Highway to visit the Ag Discovery Centre for hands-on learning about agriculture,” she said. “Our students will be ambassadors of agriculture.”