After years of planning and months of hard work, The Farm — Rocky View School Division’s new alternative learning program — finally got its first batch of eager high school students out in the field, ready to get their hands dirty.
But it was in February.
“The first year on The Farm was horrible,” said teacher Mark Turner. “We did all the planning and got everything all lined up, but we didn’t get on site until the end of February. And then three weeks later, COVID hits.”
The Farm, located near Airdrie, was expected to launch last fall as a pilot project that replaces traditional classroom learning in favour of hands-on, on-farm learning. During the first year of the program, Grade 9 and 10 students would learn the provincial curriculum through the lens of agriculture by working on 15 acres of donated farmland.
That was the plan, at least. But delays to the installation of on-site amenities (such as ATCO modular buildings, electricity, and gas) pushed back the launch date to the end of February — not exactly the ideal time to start a farm.
“It was cold. So when we finally got on site, it was almost a mini revolt — the kids were like, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for,’” Turner said with a laugh.
Their first taste of farm life may not have been quite what the kids expected, but a fresh start this fall after months of emergency online learning has been “fantastic” for the 40 students in the program.
“It’s been super cool because we started out here the first day of school on site,” Turner said Sept. 24. “What the vision was was to get all these different projects going — chickens, goats, pigs, vegetables in the greenhouse — and once we got on site, we were rolling.
“Last year was horrible. This year is amazing. We feel very fortunate.”
Three weeks in, the students were already enjoying the action, particularly those kids who don’t come from a farm.
“We have a really cool array of students — some who have an agricultural background, and some who have never even thought about where food comes from,” said Turner. “Yesterday, we got our first 15 chickens, and some of the kids had never seen a chicken live. It was really cool.”
But it’s not just the urban students who are finding their footing at The Farm.
“One student — an awesome young man who comes from a farming background — said the other day, ‘It’s finally the first time in my life where the stuff we’re being taught is actually tied to the stuff that I love,’” said Turner.
“I think that’s what it’s about for us — the kids are coming in happy, and we’re doing some really cool things.
“The last three weeks have probably been the best teaching of my life.”
And so far, the students are loving it too. Aside from the hands-on work they’ve been doing on The Farm, the students have been going on field trips to greenhouses and to grain fields in the middle of harvest, learning the required Grade 9 and 10 subjects while also learning about farming.
“A lot of the curriculum can be bent toward agriculture. It’s really easy to tie in,” said Turner, adding organizations such as Agriculture in the Classroom have created curriculum content that covers the learning outcomes they need.
But perhaps more importantly, the students are starting to think about where their food comes from — and how they might be part of its production.
“I think that every week, probably two or three students start at least thinking about a career in agriculture,” he said.
“We’re only three weeks in, but we’re already exposing them to the fact that agriculture doesn’t have to mean you own 10,000 acres.
“As we hook them up with different farmers or different experts who come into our classroom, hopefully they’ll be able to see more clearly what the industry looks like.”
Turner also wants his students to start thinking about growing food in their own backyard. “That’s just as important — you don’t have to have a job in it, but knowing where your food comes from is important.”
The pandemic has really underscored that, he added.
“If those borders had shut down with the States, it would have been a totally different ballgame,” Turner said.
“I think if anything, COVID completely put food at the forefront for all of us — where does our food come from? How do we transport it? What do supply chains look like? Food is the only thing that matters.”
But Turner also hopes the pandemic has shown that learning doesn’t have to happen in “a big building that houses kids.”
“I hope we learn from COVID that it doesn’t have to look like that. We can be more creative in how we teach young people,” he said.
“The strength of technology is that we truly can learn anywhere. We’re out in the middle of nowhere with a couple of ATCO buildings growing some stuff.
“There are so many opportunities around any community where learning can truly happen. It doesn’t have to be within a school.”