Ask almost anyone who has spent time abroad and they’ll tell you it was a life-changing experience. Inevitably, their faces will light up as they talk enthusiastically about how they gained confidence, developed friendships with people from around the world and emerged with a broader perspective.
Not surprisingly, this was precisely the reaction I got when I contacted three participants who worked on farms in Australia and New Zealand, all arranged through Saskatchewan-based International Rural Exchange Canada.
Each year International Rural Exchange Canada (IREC), a non-profit organization, finds seasonal full-time placements for about 40 young people aged 18 to 30 from across Canada who want to gain practical farming skills while working in Europe, Australia, New Zealand or the United States.
These participants usually live with a host farm family for between three and 12 months, which allows them to fully experience the culture and food, says IREC communications co-ordinator, Allison Sarauer.
IREC collaborates with about 30 partners in the U.K., the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands. These organizations represent host families who operate a wide range of farm types including livestock, crop, horticulture, vineyards and more.
The number of Canadians seeking experiential learning opportunities abroad through IREC is on the rise, says Sarauer.
Bringing IREC into play removes many of the risks and difficulties often associated with travel, says Sarauer. Once a potential participant has applied to IREC and indicated the type of experience they are looking for and when they want to go, IREC finds a suitable placement. Host farms are screened to ensure they are safe and follow the labour laws.
In the event a problem arises during the placement, both IREC and the partner organization in the host country can intervene to find a solution.
Host farms pay wages and provide accommodations to program participants, which makes this an affordable way to experience another culture. “It gives you a job and a home base,” says Sarauer. IREC also helps with the paperwork, arranging work permits and insurance. Participants are responsible for paying the IREC program fees, fees for travel documents, insurance premiums and travel costs.
However, the placements aren’t only about working. Many program participants — or trainees as they are called in the program — take advantage of opportunities to travel before, during or after their placements.
Ryan Clark, who farms with his family near Brandon, Man., worked on a small mixed farm on New Zealand’s South Island in 2016, soon after finishing an agri-business diploma at the local college. Clark spent October to May in New Zealand, taking advantage of the reversal of seasons. “It was summer there. I missed our winter and was back in time for spring planting.”
While he was eager to start a career after graduating he knew it would be much harder later on to get away for seven months. “It would have been easy to stay home but I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world,” he says now. “I gained a different perspective and learned about agriculture in a world sense.”
In addition to broadening his perspective of the world, Clark says he learned a lot about himself. “I learned how to work with others, and it’s easier for me to talk to people I don’t know now. I had to get by where I didn’t know anyone.”
It was Clark’s first time living away from home, but that wasn’t as challenging as he thought it would be. “The family I lived with was very nice and extremely accommodating,” he says.
It was a cost-effective way to travel, adds Clark. “My room and board were covered. I only had to pay for my car, fuel and phone plan.”
Like Clark, Spencer Maxwell took advantage of the reversed seasons to work on a farm in Australia from November 2009 to May 2010. Maxwell went between the first and second year of his university program.
In Maxwell’s case, he wanted to gain experience doing something completely different from the family’s grain farm in northeastern Saskatchewan. He chose to work on a remote 3,000-acre farm with 7,000 head of cattle. “It was really gratifying to do something different and learn new skills like rounding up cattle on horseback.”
And because the farm was far from town, he learned to fix and maintain the equipment himself. The experience gave him a confidence that has stayed with him, he says. In his time off, he tried things he didn’t think he’d ever do such as bungee jumping and sky diving.
Maxwell says it also made him realize the world is a lot bigger than he thought. It helped him see how everything is interconnected and the impact these connections have on international markets.
By working on a cattle farm, Maxwell developed a better understanding of the cattle industry, something he uses today in his work with agricultural organizations.
Mark Schurmann who owns a dairy farm near Abbotsford, B.C., with his parents and brother, worked on a 300-cow dairy farm in New Zealand in 2004-2005. It was the year after he graduated from university and he was gone for nearly a year with the extra time he took for travel.
Dairy farming in New Zealand is very different from Canada, says Schurmann. “New Zealand dairy farms are all on grass with seasonal production. After nine or 10 months the entire herd is dried off.”
Schurmann says he is so convinced of the benefits of this type of experience that he tells his children they must go away to school, travel or some combination of the two before they can join the family farm.
“It rounds out an individual to live and work somewhere else,” he says. “It broadens your perspective. You see different ways of doing things and you question how you do things at home.”
Like many trainees, Schurmann says he did experience a little homesickness but found it helped if he kept busy. He says he had been thinking of going home for Christmas but with his host “father’s” encouragement decided to stay and is glad he did. “It was a different experience because it was summertime. We went to the beach.”
Schurmann lived in a house separate from his host family with one other farm employee but ate his suppers with the host family. This gave him a little more space and privacy than living with the host family. He bought a car while he was there so he could travel around on his own and then sold the car before returning home.
Like other trainees, Schurmann values the friendships he made. He got involved in a Young Farmers group and still keeps in contact with many of the other trainees. Some of them have come to visit him at his Fraser Valley farm.
Each year IREC also makes arrangements for about 150 young people to come to Canada to live and work on Canadian farms. According to Sarauer, students in post-secondary agriculture programs in Europe are required to get practical farm experience in order to complete their degree requirements, so the demand for Canadian host farms has been steady.
Host farmers benefit by gaining not only an extra pair of hands, but also by broadening their perspectives of the world by learning about the trainee’s home country, says Sarauer. Many of them form lasting friendships with their trainees, she adds.
Anita and Foster Warriner, who farm near Alameda, Sask., have hosted trainees for the past 15 years. Foster says they like having young people around, and his experience with trainees has been mostly positive. “About 80 per cent of the trainees have been terrific and can do just about everything,” he says. “Most of them have come from Europe and they have had an excellent work ethic.”
However, on a couple of occasions, the trainees have lacked the necessary maturity or had unrealistic expectations of the work they would be doing, he adds.
To minimize problems, Anita, who also works as an administrator for IREC in addition to farming, says IREC tries to match the trainees and host families as closely as possible with regard to both capabilities and personal interests.
With more than 1,000 agricultural exchanges to their credit, Sarauer says the 30-year-old IREC is very proud of the part they play in enhancing the agricultural community. Participants not only benefit from experiential learning, but also gain a broader understanding of the challenges faced by agriculture around the world and they develop a network of cross-cultural contacts. “These young people are important to the future of agriculture.”
Interested in becoming a host farm?
While there are already enough grain and beef host farms in Canada, IREC’s Allison Sarauer says they could use more dairy, sheep, poultry, swine, horticulture or other specialty operations.
Host farms complete an application describing the farm operation and the trainee’s working and living conditions. This is followed by an interview. Host farms pay a fee to belong to IRE and also a pay a fee to the federal government which manages the reciprocal International Experience Canada program.
The staff at IRE regularly visit ag colleges and organizations to promote the program. For more information, check out www.irecanada.ca.
International Rural Exchange Canada is a non-profit organization that facilitates exchanges through the federal government’s International Experience Canada (IEC) program, a class of work visas that allows for short-term (up to one year) placements in Canada and in many countries around the world. IRE Canada works in partnership with the International Agriculture Exchange Association (IAEA) and is financed through program fees.