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School and community engage youth in farming

5 min read

If principal Kevin Van Lagen (or Mr. V.L. as the students at Altario School call him) misses a day, he’s liable to miss a lot.

“I wasn’t there one day, but the student leaders had a meeting and apparently ended up trading four lambs for six pigs – I came back the next day and they said, ‘Hey Mr. V.L., we’re getting pigs!’”

And indeed, that’s how decisions for the school farm typically go. “The students make a lot of the choices,” Van Lagen says.

Learning that reflects agricultural heritage

Altario School in Altario, Alta., three hours north of Medicine Hat, isn’t your run-of-the-mill K-12 rural school and Van Lagen isn’t a typical principal. By embracing the agricultural heritage of the area and strengthening the school’s connection to its community, Van Lagen is reworking what rural education can look like and introducing students to a world of possibilities within agriculture.

Today, the school is significantly different from how it was when Van Lagen arrived in 2014. “It’s a strong community and the school historically had high academics, but I’d say it had fallen on some tough times,” he explains. “There was a lot of turnover. I was actually the sixth principal in six years.”

How can we show more career pathways in agriculture to our students?

That year, the school had nine students graduate, most of whom were heading towards further studies in agriculture. But when he asked them what path within agriculture they were specifically interested in, many were unaware of the variety of different routes they could pursue.

“I started realizing in conversations with them that they really didn’t know how many possibilities there were,” explains Van Lagen. “That’s ultimately where the idea started to formulate: How can we show more career pathways in agriculture to our students and celebrate the fact that we are a very agricultural community? That’s our heritage, let’s embrace it.”

A simple idea leads to business investment

Without a background in agriculture himself, Van Lagen was nonetheless up for the challenge. “I’ve definitely learned a lot in the last few years,” he says with a laugh.

Van Lagen started by coordinating a few agricultural theme days for the school and invited local speakers and demonstrations. That spring, he thought it would be an interesting idea to raise a steer as a fundraiser for the school. “A few parents suggested, ‘Why not raise it at the school?’” The local agricultural society helped out with funds for a shelter, and the school put together a little pen.

“In February of 2019, I saw an advertisement for a 36’ by 36’ barn, so I went to our school board and said, ‘Do you think you could buy us a barn?’”

The answer was yes.

“In June, we had an open house and a barn dance in our new barn and we auctioned off one of our steers,” says Van Lagen. “We got over $50,000 in donations that night.”

Today, the school farm is flourishing – in many directions.

“We usually raise turkeys and chickens, and we have laying hens, sheep, pigs, cow-calf pairs, and we raise steers,” says Van Lagen.

Inside a hydroponic food modular, the students grow fresh produce year-round. “We harvest 500 plants a week – we have a subscription model where people get boxes of produce every week,” he explains.

Mentors and leaders optimize and inspire

Mentors from the community assist with different aspects of the farm and Van Lagen says there’s a real sense of ownership being built. The community is re-invested in the school and the students are taking the reins of their own education.

Students in grades seven through 12 can apply to be farm leaders — responsible for certain strands of the farm business — and younger students take part on a week-by-week basis doing chores.

Farming fosters community

“When the students come to school in the morning, the first thing they do is chores and then we have breakfast ready for the whole school. Then we go about a regular school day,” says Van Lagen.

“We do have a block each day where students can work on the farm – whether it’s doing chores, building something or working with an animal, whatever it may be,” he adds.

Wednesday is harvest day, and a small store in the school opens that afternoon for locals to pop in and buy their produce and meat. On Thursday, the students reseed.

Business management in the everyday

The farm leaders meet regularly to make decisions. “I tell them that as long as the decisions are keeping our program sustainable and educational, I’m okay with whatever decisions they make,” Van Lagen says.

“They decide when our steers are ready to go to the butcher, if we are going to sell the steer to somebody and they’ll get it butchered, or if we are going to get it butchered ourselves and sell it,” he explains.

Decision-making is based on the best evidence available to them at the time. “Students find out the prices associated with the different ways of selling, as well as the costs associated with the different ways of selling and then make decisions,” Van Lagen says. “They do the analysis and decide.”

Incentives motivate

The incentive for students is real. “Based on how well the farm does each year, we hand out scholarships,” he adds.

The farm continues to evolve as the students express their interests and ambitions: the upper elementary students are learning about pollinators, so beehives and honey production are now in the works. There’s also interest in investigating the feasibility of raising pheasants for a local pheasant hunt – though those details haven’t entirely been worked out yet. The students still have some numbers to run through.

Now into his ninth year as principal at Altario School, Van Lagen says he’s seeing a growing sense of pride in the students and the community.

“It’s exciting,” he says. “This really is a model of what can happen when an entire community comes together for a school – it’s amazing what you can do.”

From an AgriSuccess article by Emily Leeson.

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