Agriculture is all about cultivating, nurturing and producing, so it’s no coincidence that a unique and highly successful high school training program in Alberta is using those exact words to describe its vision.
“The Green Certificate Program cultivates partnerships, and allows us to nurture Alberta’s youth to produce the province’s agricultural future,” says Raelene Mercer, provincial co-ordinator for the Green Certificate Program.
“Our goal is to help support workforce development in the primary production sector of agriculture by creating skilled workers.”
The Green Certificate Program is industry driven, and in collaboration with the province’s agriculture and education ministries, it develops a career pathway for young people to pursue agriculture.
That can mean helping an individual go back to the farm and get involved in primary production, or it can mean helping them work in agriculture, either via entry-level positions on farms or in agri-business or by pursuing post-secondary education in an agricultural field.
More options to help more sectors
The Green Certificate Program offers Alberta high school students in Grades 10, 11 and 12 the opportunity to earn up to 16 of their Grade 12 diploma credits through training in some aspect of agricultural production, such as in cow-calf, dairy, feedlot, field crop, irrigated crop, sheep or swine production.
Most students participating in the Green Certificate Program still come from a farming background or are connected to agriculture in some way. In these cases, the students (the program calls them “trainees”) have a primary trainer, who is usually a farming parent or family member, who is responsible for making sure the trainee gets through their activities and works progressively on skill development.
In the case of Meagan Schwenk-Gattey, who took the cow-calf and feedlot modules of the Green Certificate Program, her primary trainer was her father. Meagan began the program in Grade 11, and recalls that it was the hands-on aspect which appealed to her the most.
“I am more of a hands-on learner, and I get tired of sitting in a classroom all day, so the program offered me the chance to work with my trainer dad and be physically able to go and do the jobs,” Meagan says. “It was something I was already involved and interested in, and it was great that I could get school credits for spending the time on our family farm.”
Increasingly, however, the program is branching out, and organizers says this is why interest in the program is growing, with two of the most recent additions being beekeeping and equine.
“We bring on additional specializations about every three years, and that has brought more interest into the program from different corners of our market,” says Mercer. “A good example is equine. When we brought equine on in 2009, our numbers basically doubled in three years.”
Those new programs are also creating interest among city students. Until then, the program had been adopted mainly by rural schools in farming communities. “Now,” says Mercer, “one of our largest enrolment areas is the Calgary Board of Education, which then opens doors for agriculture to be introduced to a new group of students.”
Mercer says that although there has been very little promotion or advertising about the Green Certificate Program, interest continues to grow and the program is expanding every year. “As we develop more and as we get more clients because we have new offerings, this brings us into another new school… there is just a grassroots marketing,” says Mercer.
“Once we’re in that school and that door opens, then it’s opening it up for other students at that school too, whether or not they have a farming background.”
Importantly, the program encourages the primary trainer and trainee to build a network of other trainers and mentors within the industry to broaden their experience about other aspects of agriculture beyond what they have grown up with on the farm.
Meagan spent time with a local veterinarian learning about livestock medications, and at a John Deere dealership learning about equipment, as well as visiting a neighbouring feedlot to see how they did things differently from her family’s own cow-calf, feedlot and grain operation.
“I knew we vaccinate our cattle, but I learned from the veterinarian about the breakdown of vaccines and antibiotics, and how they work in the animal’s system, as well as when to give them, and why to give them, and why we would use one antibiotic or vaccine over another,” she explains.
The program also challenged her to think about some of the things she had always taken as routine growing up on the farm, she says. “We walk out the door and do chores every day, but all of a sudden I had all these questions to answer, and it made me sit back and analyze everything. For example, we have a mill system that we use to roll the grains for the feedlot, and I knew what buttons to push to make it work, but the program made me think about and explain the whole process of getting that rolled grain into the bunks for the animals.”
Meagan also came to see that she wanted to learn more, and she went on to complete the livestock production diploma program at Lakeland College in Vermilion, after which she returned to the family farm. She has since helped out the Green Certificate Program as a tester for students, as well as by sitting on the board and helping to update the cow-calf and feedlot curriculums.
Nor is she alone. According to Alberta Education numbers, Green students are 25 per cent more likely that non-program students to take higher education in agriculture.
“The ones that don’t go into post-secondary and that go back to farms or the workforce are harder to track, but we do surveys every so often, and from that we know that most of them do find themselves somewhere in agriculture,” says Mercer.
Wherever the program graduates end up, it’s a success for the program, says Mercer. “We’re introducing people to agriculture beyond what they know at their farm gate, and our program opens their mind up to realize there is a lot more to this industry than what I knew,” she says.
Training the trainers
Trainers find the program teaches them as much as they teach the trainees, and there is never a shortage of producers and industry professionals willing to participate.
“At the grassroots level, our trainers are involved in the program because they really see the value of passing on their inherent knowledge,” says Mercer. “We get testers who volunteer their time and they’re producers who were trainers for their own children in the past, and other agricultural professionals who see this as an opportunity to give back to their industry and to pass it along to the next generation.”
Both industry and academia are involved in the development of curriculum for the Green Certificate Program, which helps ensure it prepares students to continue on to post-secondary education or for a number of different roles within the industry, says Mercer.
“When these trainees progress through the program… they can go wherever it is that they need to go to pursue the next level,” says Mercer. “Whichever way they want to go, we are a stepping stone that helps carry them on their way.”
“I strongly encourage students to look into it,” says Meagan. “I don’t think all students are aware of the opportunities that are there. It is really worth looking into and being a part of.”