A comprehensive, retailer-led program is connecting kids with agriculture.
Sharpe’s Crop Services is helping to grow young minds by connecting kids to where their food comes from through a unique program that has delivered real-world agriculture learning to more than 2,500 schoolchildren since its inception.
The Learn Ag program, developed and delivered by Sharpe’s, brings an engaging mix of field tours, hands-on food gardens, teacher workshops and community crop fundraising initiatives to schools in 11 communities across southeastern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba.
“All six locations of Sharpe’s participate in some way,” says Candace Mitschke-Hiller, communications manager at Sharpe’s. “We have a Learn Ag team within the company with a few key individuals who basically drive the program. When it comes to some of our bigger events like field days, everyone at Sharpe’s pitches in to help.”
The inspiration for the program came about in 2015, when staff at Sharpe’s noticed that some of the basic fundamentals of agriculture seemed to be missing from the knowledge base of a summer student who was working with them. This experience got the company thinking about what Sharpe’s could do as a business to ensure that students in rural areas had the opportunity to learn about a major industry in their community in an engaging, hands-on way.
Mitschke-Hiller says since then, the company has made it its mission to inspire the next generation to get to know more about where their food comes from.
One of the first things that Sharpe’s staff did when creating the Learn Ag program was form a teacher network and host workshops to gather educators and provide an opportunity for them to identify class and curriculum needs, share ideas and access resources. Learn Ag programming is based on the needs identified during these teacher workshops.
Spending Time in the Field
Learn Ag’s spring and harvest field days, which may take place at farmers’ fields or on schoolyards that are large enough for planting crops, give students the opportunity to go out into the field and experience the workings of agriculture first-hand, are a major part of the program.
Field day activities include watching field demonstrations of equipment in action, participating in themed scavenger hunts, learning about agronomic factors like soil health and discovering types of technology used in crop production.
Hands-on activities like manually seeding and weeding plots allow the kids to get their hands dirty and develop a deeper connection to the soil.
Melissa Johanson, Principal at Macdonald School in Stockholm, Sask., has been participating in Sharpe’s Learn Ag program for the past several years and says she sees the impact that field days have on her students.
The energy of any event that Sharpe’s puts on is contagious. Everyone is inspired and the energy to do more, or learn more, is evident.
“The energy of any event that Sharpe’s puts on is contagious,” she says. “Everyone is inspired and the energy to do more, or learn more, is evident. Often, many students will come back with new ideas to build the agricultural experience.”
Karen Hovind, who teaches grades 6 to 9 at Macdonald School, also sees the energy among her students after participating in field day activities.
“Students have used their learning from field days to develop and create their own projects based on what excited them during the learning programs,” says Hovind. “I also see students making connections to their lives outside of school, including food analysis, land sustainability and job opportunities.”
Growing, Learning and Leading
On a smaller scale than the field days, themed food gardens make the direct connection from farm to plate by giving students the opportunity to grow the ingredients for some of their favourite foods – pizza and french fries, for example. Students learn how to plant, care for, harvest and eventually prepare what they have grown.
During the cold winter months, classroom presentations from Sharpe’s staff members, local producers and other industry representatives, as well as indoor gardening using greenhouses and grow lights, keep students connected to and learning about agriculture.
The Learn Ag program also offers an opportunity for students in grades 9 to 12 to take on a leadership role through the program’s Student Agvocate Committee. These students become highly involved in helping to deliver and plan Learn Ag programming.
“The traditional sense of learning – sitting at a desk and retaining information from a lecture, a textbook or a video – is not the learning that happens with Sharpe’s workshops and lessons,” says Hovind. “Students are involved in the learning. They receive information through their experience. They are predicting, experiencing and forming their own opinions.”
And it’s not just the students who benefit from the Learn Ag Program. Learn Ag also involves more than just schools and industry representatives. Whether it’s donating land, time, equipment or other resources, community members are always willing to pitch in.
Seeing the community come together and make such great things happen for students is amazing.
This is illustrated through Learn Ag’s “Crop for Community.” The initiative, which melds live ag demos with a fundraising project for a school, has raised more than $85,000 in funds for various school projects and programming to date. The success of the initiative would not be possible without the generosity and involvement of the communities in which Sharpe’s operates, along with Sharpe’s sponsorship.
“The community connection is the most important thing for me when participating in this program,” says Hovind. “Seeing the community come together and make such great things happen for students is amazing.”
Back to School
Developing and executing a program that has touched the community has had a profound effect on the Sharpe’s team.
“We’re proud that through the program, we’ve inspired teachers to include agriculture in their curriculum, and we’ve inspired students to want to learn more about where their food comes from and to look at the agriculture industry as a potential career option,” says Mitschke-Hiller.
This fall and winter, the Sharpe’s Learn Ag program will continue to host field day events, in-class visits and teacher meetings. As well, events to celebrate Canada’s Agriculture Day in February, Agriculture Literacy Month in March and greenhouse growing projects are on the agenda for spring programming.
A planning meeting scheduled for October will help the Learn Ag team detail these activities and more for the rest of the school year to keep building connections to ag and food.
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