This is the first year Nichole Neubauer has participated in Open Farm Days — but few producers are more experienced in explaining ag to urbanites.
‘Farmer Nichole’ has hosted more busloads of children than she can count since starting the Growing Minds Program on her and husband Mark’s mixed operation just southwest of Medicine Hat.
The motivation was simple: As an educator, she saw too many kids “who learned about farming from books and videos.”
“It started slowly at first, but I got a little more serious about it in the fall of 2009 and since then we’ve hosted more than 5,000 kids from the community,” said Neubauer, a mother of two preteens.
It started with preschool and kindergarten ages, but demand from teachers (and enthusiastic kids wanting to visit again) has seen the program expanded to the Grade 1 and 2 levels.
The children not only get some memorable experiences — such as bottle feeding a baby calf from the farm’s Angus herd or collecting an egg from one of the 30 layers — but also are exposed to agriculture in innovative ways. For example, Neubauer keeps food containers, such as cereal boxes, and brings them out when showing them what different grains and oilseeds look like.
“The kids will go, ‘Oh, my cereal has wheat in it and that’s what wheat looks like. I really like eating cereal, so maybe I’ll be a wheat farmer,’” she said. “You can just see them making connections with agriculture that they’ve never had before.”
For some reason, a guaranteed showstopper is cracking open a freshly laid egg.
“It’s quite interesting — no matter the grade level, they’re all pretty certain that because the egg is from a farm, there’s a baby chicken inside. So we crack one open and show the egg is exactly the same as the one you get in a grocery store.
“I explain the reason is that all eggs come from the farm. That one always seems to leave them with a profound look on their faces.”
There are lots of other simple things — from milling a bit of wheat to showing an RFID tag — that not only catch the interest of the kids, but also the grown-ups who come with them.
“Many adults and parents come with the tours, and while the kids are getting back on the bus, they will be hanging back and asking questions,” she said.
“There’s an awful lot of misunderstandings about agriculture and people choose to believe the radical point of view that is not based on science but is presented in the media all the time.
“But when they come here and hear the flip side — things such as all the efficiencies that have been made in growing crops and all the technology that is being used — they are very intrigued because they’ve only had the one side.”
Many of those people are still regularly coming to Neubauer Farms, which also produces cereals, oilseeds, and forages on an irrigated quarter section. Last year, Neubauer started a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program and quickly had 28 families sign up. This year, it’s 44 families and there’s a waiting list — even though customers must come to the farm to pick up their produce.
“Quite a percentage of our customers first came to the farm on a school visit with their kids,” said Neubauer. “So when families come out to our CSA with their kids, they get to tour the gardens, see the farm animals, have some one-on-one time with the farmer, and develop more of that connection with where their food comes from.”
She’s also hoping a few farmers come out to visit on Open Farm Days and learn about how community-supported agriculture works.
Their farm is the only CSA in the area, but Neubauer said she would be happy to encourage others to get started.
“Sometimes we’re kind of referred to as the forgotten corner of the province. Certainly it seems in central Alberta, there is a whole lot of agri-tourism and smaller farms offering that personalized service. Hopefully we can get in on that trend.”
Alberta Open Farms Days runs on Aug. 24 and admission is free. There are also culinary events (tickets and reservations required) on Aug. 23. For more info, see www.albertafarmdays.com.