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Green Hectares

For young farmers, here’s a new model in education through networking and mentoring

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Matthew Gould apologizes for taking a second while telling me about Green Hectares to check if his post digger has gotten clogged with mud again. “It’s still a little wet in places out here,” he explains, although I quickly come to see that nothing could be more fitting. After all, he isn’t just vice-chair of Green Hectares, he’s the owner and manager of Gould Ranching Ltd. too.

Green Hectares is a new model in “school” for farmers. It’s a little bit education centre, a little bit networking, and a little bit of business promotion — all mixed together in a non-profit company that puts its emphasis on learning, technology, and efficiency for better and more profitable farming.

In other words, it’s a different enough model that it takes some explaining. But Gould himself is convinced that it works, and he firmly believes Green Hectares has taught him more about his own personal potential in business than he has learned any other way, and it has also provided valuable information to move forward in this new age of farming.

The website also makes a clear promise, right at the top of its opening page: “At Green Hectares, we help develop opportunities for people to connect, collaborate and learn so they can be a thriving part of the agriculture industry, or a contributing force in their rural community.”

Green Hectares was launched in 2007 after a series of focus groups where early-career farmers and other rural youth identified a networking and mentoring organization as one of their key needs.

Organizers also studied the results of youth surveys (ages 18 to 25) in Alberta and Saskatchewan that included two key questions: “Why are young people leaving the areas they grew up in?” and, “How can we make it easier for them to stay or return and have success?”

Executive director Wendy Schneider says Green Hectares has an enabling mindset. Says Schneider: “We want to change the world, to help be a part of the change in the world and agriculture.”

Schneider has been involved with Green Hectares since before its inception, working first as a volunteer leader. True to form, Schneider also farms herself at Northline Angus at Ardrossan, Alta.

“Everything really is collaboration, we are big on that,” Schneider says about Green Hectares. “Decisions to be made and new things to introduce are talked about.”

In the beginning the plan was to have an actual demonstration farm to showcase and teach innovations in farming. As the project evolved, it became apparent to the group that being able to connect face to face and via the Internet was far more important.

Organizers also came to see the value of networking and mentorship, says Schneider. “One thing that we didn’t fully realize at the beginning was the importance and benefit of having in-depth, intense conversations, talking and collaborating and truly getting the whole picture of an idea or concern.”

Additional benefits come from another innovation, one that Gould, for instance, rates as one of his favourite resources. It’s The Hopper, an aggregator service that pulls together insights into education courses, useful websites and myriad other learning opportunities and resources. “The Hopper is great for looking things up and for connecting with people including experts we might have met at conferences,” Gould says. “It’s like a personalized and interactive search engine.”

The Hopper is a web page add-on which farmers can put on their own websites or log into through Green Hectares. Gould has created a web presence for Gould Ranching Ltd. which includes Twitter, Facebook, and a website about his own ranch that raises heritage Angus that is Halal certified and hormone and antibiotic free.

Green Hectares hopes through its programs and educational workshops to help make agriculture more sustainable, and it believes this can best be done by creating chances for people to meet and network, collaborate on projects, and learn new things.

Gould says the chance to meet people who are successful in farming and have specific knowledge about agriculture is another of the greater tools.

“It has taught me about my own personal potential and enhanced my leadership skills,” Gould says. “I don’t feel as restricted as farmers normally might — I can see that farming and the potential of it is all a matter of perception. Where before you might decide at a certain stage that you’ve done all you can with the farm, now you can see where all the new technology and ideas can take you.”

Green Hectares offerings are diverse and multi-layered. Current areas of focus include technology via RuralTech programs, as well as networking and creation through The Exchange where entrepreneurs and young farmers can talk about current issues and solutions in a speaker and panel format.

Through their site, participants can also access services through RuralVoices, RuralSpaces (which tells where public meeting areas are available and acts as a sort of reservation system for the gathering of events) and Community Connector (which sends mentor/facilitators into communities for hands-on learning and evaluation).

“We wanted to create an environment where anyone with an interest in agriculture and food could thrive and prosper, no matter where they live,” says Schneider. “We are a virtual organization, using technology to connect as a team. Our programs work anywhere, I’m proud to say that we developed them in Alberta, and the test communities we were in have all continued to use our services since. We are now spreading the programs across Canada online and face to face.”

Some programming is free while other services are fee based. For instance, The Hopper is free. As an entrepreneur you can participate in the Entrepreneur Exchange for free and you can get advice and connections from a facilitator in the Community Connector program for free.

If an organization wants to put on an Entrepreneur Exchange there is a cost, as there is if a municipality, school board or industry wants to support a Community Connector program, says Schneider.

Everything isn’t always smooth sailing in the world of the not for profit. There were times when communication was difficult, says Schneider. “It wasn’t always so easy to get people to understand and buy into it until we had our legs under us.”

A corner seems to have been turned, however.

Farm numbers are difficult to cite, since many Green Hectares programs appeal to rural youth, not only farmers. Still, the program’s RuralTech videos have been watched over 10,000 times, its labs are used on average 17 days a month, and its Community Connector program meets with an average 12 groups a month.

As well, the Entrepreneur Exchange has helped 127 youth businesses, engaging 94 high-level professionals as panellists and sharing over 1,700 connections and 1,200 business ideas.

Plus, The Hopper hub that Gould values so highly offers over 150,000 resources through some 3,380 unique websites.

Meanwhile, as Schneider and I talk, in the background I hear the sounds of farm equipment grunting and growling, backing up and beeping. Keeping an eye on her own business and steering the way for Green Hectares is something Schneider understands, and she sees Green Hectares in the same terms.

“We have moved out of the development stage and are now relying on our programs to be profitable,” Schneider says. “We are just transitioning. We are a lean machine.”

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