Normally when you need help on the farm, you need the workers to know something about farming and to be physically present.
But for some members of the Food Artisans of Camrose County, having some city kids working virtually was no problem at all.
Nearly four dozen students from the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus in Camrose spent three weeks earlier this year helping out the producers, who sell a variety of products either at farmers’ markets or directly to the public. The students were taking a three-week course called Applications in Sustainability, and their professor figured they had skills that would be useful to the farmers.
He was right.
“In this course, we talked a lot about local food and the positive benefits that could have on the environment. We talked a lot about eating local,” said Braeden Kelly, an environmental studies student.
“My group was with the Herbert Family Farm, and we were tasked with making an email list template for them that highlighted some of the sustainable practices they were doing on the farm, and helped them reach out to their customers.”
The Herberts — Carolyn, Murray and son Peter — had already travelled a fair ways down the marketing road. They have an attractive website where you can place orders for their eggs, broiler chickens and turkeys, or check out photos or recipes. And the family (which also grows cereals, canola and hay on 600 acres) partners with a produce farm to offer a community-supported agriculture program.
But they wanted to do more, said Carolyn Herbert.
“We wanted to be able to communicate with our customers and give them an opportunity to see the animals, find out what’s going on out at the farm, and be more intentional about building relationships,” she said.
An e-newsletter seemed like a good route to go but there’s a lot of elements — from how to craft articles to how to actually deliver it — and it was all a bit overwhelming, said Carolyn Herbert.
Working with students with no farm background and who were enrolled in programs such as environmental sciences or physical education was besides the point.
“We worked on building a template for the newsletter,” she said. “They wrote sustainability stories for me.
“Then they went above and beyond. One student came out and took pictures out at the farm, and helped create a farm logo. Part of the project was setting up the newsletter on (e-marketing platform) Mailchimp, having tools available so the process was easier for me,” said Herbert.
Even when it came to farming matters, the students brought something to the table when they wrote stories highlighting ways in which the Herbert Family Farm is sustainable.
“I knew we had really good practices — I just hadn’t sat down and thought it all through,” said Herbert.
The students worked on the project every day during the course. But the key was those virtual chats, said Danielle Brockman, one of five students who worked with the Herberts.
“That to me is why the project went as well as it did, because there was such good communication between ourselves and the Herbert family,” she said.
Brockman said the group wanted to do more than talk about sustainability; they wanted the newsletter itself to be sustainable.
“For us, it was making sure that this was something they could continue to do later on,” said Brockman, who hails from the small Saskatchewan town of Rosthern, but has no farming background.
“Our knowledge of farming was quite limited, which was why we had to talk to them and listen to them and then we had to do the research ourselves,” she said. “It was definitely a learning curve, but they made it very simple as they clearly explained to us the ways they were sustainable.”
Brockman wrote about how the Herberts used The Loop program, where grocery stores give food that is still usable to farms so it can be fed to animals.
At the end of the course, her team presented to the eight other student groups and the involved community members during a virtual presentation.
“This was so different because we had no idea what everyone else was doing,” said Brockman.
Some groups helped producers with social media, others looked at alternative energy sources for farms, and one worked on transitioning a community-supported agriculture box from plastic packaging to biodegradable packaging.
“We all gained so much from it in terms of understanding sustainability,” said Brockman.
That was the idea, said Greg King, an assistant professor of environmental science who taught the course.
“It was all around local food producers and issues dealing with food sustainability,” he said. “It could be waste, it could be energy, it could be how to price food. It was all related to local foods and so it was really nice to be able to have that consistent theme.”
There were more members of the Food Artisans of Camrose County who wanted to be included than there were teams of students, but King said he will definitely run the course again.
“The students I have talked to said it was a very different way to approach the course,” he said. “Having that connection with a real-life scenario and having the guidance from someone who is a local food producer was just fantastic for them.”
It worked out well for the Herberts, too.
“The students brought a really fresh perspective for us,” said Herbert. “They had a skill set that we didn’t have and they were really supportive and encouraging in giving us tools to be successful.”