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December 2, 2022 December 2, 2022

Neubauer helping shape a new way to look at agriculture

Posted on July 28, 2022 by Ryan Dahlman
Students from all over Southern Alberta, like these ones from Webster Niblock can tour the farm.

By Samantha Johnson

Commentator/Courier

Neubauer Farms (http://www.neubauerfarms.ca/) have received numerous awards in the past seven years. The awards started in 2016, when they received the Cypress County Farm Family of the Year Award, presented at the Calgary Stampede. In 2017, the original Neubauer Farm north of Irvine received the Century Farm Award. 

Philipp and Caroline Neubauer, German immigrants from Russia, homesteaded there in 1910. This award came late due to paperwork not being filed at 100 years. 

Farmed by Neubauer’s for five generations, it has been in the family for 112 years. “Like each generation that came before us, we work to maximize the productivity of our farm, while using sustainable practices. There are challenges farming dryland in a very arid part of Alberta; however, the rewards of farming along with our teenaged children is incredibly fulfilling,” stated Nichole Neubauer.

2017 also brought recognition from the Medicine Hat District Chamber of Commerce when Neubauer Farms received the Small Business of the Year Award, which was something the family is incredibly proud. 

“The farming lifestyle crosses and intersects in so many ways but at the end of the day we are a business. The award was received largely in part due to the agriculture education program we’ve done since 2005. We were pioneering the idea that farmers need to share their stories and connect with people from the city as the rural-urban divide continues to grow. According to The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, less than 1% of the Canadian population is involved in primary agriculture production. It’s important that as farmers, we are available to people to answer their questions, share facts to dispel agriculture myths, and to tell our story because every farm has its own special story and it’s something to be celebrated,” said Neubauer. 

In 2020, Nichole received the Women in Business Inspire Award for the work she’d done with agriculture education and farm advocacy. Neubauer says that her big motivator is building relationships and connections off the farm, which is increasingly important as more policies are created and public opinion influences how farming is done. 

“Each day we are combatting Mother Nature, who is a worthy foe. It can be drought, hail, wind, or unruly temperatures,” explained Neubauer. “There are all sorts of challenges out there and farmers these days need to be innovative and use the science and technology available to us so we can maximize the amount of food we grow. Unfortunately, what happens in many cases is policies are implemented at all levels of government that can have a devastating impact on how we farm day-to-day. We have a moral responsibility to maximize production on the acres we have because we have amazing farmland in Canada. Ultimately, it (the new policies) effects everyone because it impacts a secure and safe food system, and everyone is a stakeholder in that.” 

In 2005, Neubauer was working in early learning services for children in the 3-5 age group, which brought the realization of how little first-hand knowledge children have of the origins of food.  She wanted to try a social experiment by having some kids come out to the farm, meet the animals, and do some activities related to food. A friend of hers was a kindergarten teacher so they brought the class out to the farm for a good part of the day and that is where the magic happened for Neubauer. “The level of engagement and interest,” she said, “the critical thinking taking place, the amazing questions being asked as the children were putting the pieces together. They helped plant potatoes in the garden, and they were so shocked to learn that a potato grows potatoes. I realized it was something I was meant to do, to combine my devotion to children and my passion for agriculture. It was a beautiful way to marry the two vocations I really love the most.” 

The program quickly spread because it was unique and the only one of its kind in this region at the time. Due to Neubauer’s understanding of child development, she was able to create developmentally appropriate activities for ages 3 to Grade 3, with over 21,000 kids participating since the program’s inception.  

“We host tours in the Spring where we teach about the birth of livestock, the very popular honeybee program we created called “Bee Aware” and planting of crops and then in the fall we talk about harvest. There is a pumpkin patch and bale maze, but we always pull the food piece back into it at every available opportunity,” said Neubauer. 

Covid brought a two-year hiatus from the farm tours and during that time, Neubauer began to contemplate how to educate beyond her gate and how to pull in science, social aspects, and mathematics from the curriculum into agriculture education teachings. She created a proposal for a site-based agriculture education program, one where a rural school would have an active farm on their playground that students would be able to visit and enjoy. A place where experiential learning would occur, critical thinking skills developed, and creativity encouraged. Communication and collaborative skills are also a key part in a student led farm. 

Neubauer took the idea to the leadership of Prairie Rose Public Schools, and they loved it. Ground was broken in June 2021 and now there is 200×200 lot adjacent to Irvine School where the kids are growing everything from crop demonstration plots to a food forest, containing strawberries, blueberries, regular garden variety vegetables and so much more. There is also a Noah’s Ark contingent of livestock, with two pigs, two goats, two lambs, two feeder steers and a mother cow with her calf. The school, stated Neubauer, gives students “a real glimpse of what it takes to raise livestock and grow crops.” 

The Irvine Agricultural Discovery Centre is open to the public for the summer. “What makes the program so successful,” explained Neubauer, “is we have someone looking after the needs of the livestock and garden during the summer. We’ve hired three summer students who will be onsite looking after maintenance and the day-to-day care of the animals while also providing tours to the general public as an agri-tourism venue.” 

The Discovery Centre is open from 9am-3pm, with 11am and 1pm being the best times to drop by.  There is lots to do, from seeing the kid goats, to collecting eggs and learning about what is growing in the garden and the different crops grown in this region. There is no charge, and the Centre is enthusiastic about having people come to visit. The Centre is in behind the school, located across the railroad tracks. East of the school is a large white pavilion where the Centre is located. 

The first year of the Centre was about working out any bugs. 

“It’s one thing when you have everything in your head or on a piece of paper and it’s something quite different when you apply it,” said Neubauer. 

The long-term goal is to develop a peer-to-peer learning model where students become agriculture ambassadors. Students from Medicine Hat would be invited out to the Centre for a discovery day. 

“The other piece we want to expand upon, is building relationships and connections by utilizing virtual learning opportunities,” said Neubauer. “We plan to connect virtually with subject-matter experts, and host virtual farm tours with students from big cities like Calgary or anywhere else across Canada. We are working to get our Wi-Fi signal boosted out there, which is more of a challenge than we expected. This will allow us to have a SMART board and play videos, providing interactive opportunities for our students.”

The main purpose of the school is two-fold. First it gives students the opportunity to learn about where their food comes from. It allows them to become critical educative thinkers while learning about how a decision made often creates different results and, sometimes, unintended consequences. 

The second piece involves addressing the massive labour shortage in the agricultural industry. Neubauer explained, “we are always struggling, whether it is the hiring of front-line labour, or sourcing specialized expertise from agronomists to veterinarians. We must inspire today’s youth to pursue meaningful careers in agriculture and agri-food. Attracting the best and the brightest will allow the agriculture industry to capitalize on its incredible potential. If we are to feed 9 billion by 2050, we will need to continually innovate the industry by using science and technology. Many students aren’t even aware of what exists, when they think ag, they think farmers are driving a tractor, ranchers riding a horse but don’t understand in this scientific and tech field there are these great jobs that are just going to continue to explode. Inspiring students to explore careers in ag is a key underpinning of the program.”

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