Young Canadians Set To Change The World Of Agriculture

Before you change the world, it helps to know what the real challenges are. Youth with a passion for agriculture had a chance to do just that at the third edition of the Youth Ag-Summit (YAS), held in Brussels, Belgium last October. Canada was well represented among the 100 delegates from 49 countries. Bayer teamed up with two Belgian young farmer associations to host the 2017 event, which asked 18 to 25 year-olds how they would tackle feeding the world in a sustainable manner.

The summit featured speakers, intense discussions and lots of networking. Participants were sorted into 10 groups and asked to develop innovative ways to tackle one of the five United Nations sustainable development goals from an agricultural perspective. Bayer awarded funding for three “Thrive for Change” projects proposed by the working groups. Keep your eyes on the following young Canadians — they are our changemakers. Time to brag: Canada was the only nation to have a delegate on each of the winning groups.

Cassandra Hayward

Hailing from Halifax, NS, Cassandra Hayward is well on her way to combining a love of agriculture and politics. Urban raised, she discovered her passion for agriculture and dairy farming through 4-H. Learning how to develop better policies supporting agriculture was one of her goals going into the summit.

“I was a little nervous because I was younger than most of the delegates, who are already in their professional careers,” says Hayward. “It was intense, but the conference was incredibly professional.

“It changed my life,” says the Dalhousie student. “It can be easy to feel isolated, since I don’t go to an ag school — my passion for agriculture isn’t really shared by a lot of people here. For me, going to a conference where there’s 99 people my age who are so confident and enthusiastic and so passionate, it was amazing. It was finally being in a group and thinking, ‘Ok, we’re going to do something awesome.'”

Hayward’s group was assigned the gender equality goal and quickly determined the only way to target the issue was through education. Unfortunately, the people most affected by gender inequality don’t have access to education. So, Hayward and her counterparts from places like El Salvador, Indonesia, Europe and Kenya decided they needed to narrow their scope. They came up with the idea of an online platform targeted specifically to women attending university, and to pilot it in Kenya.

“We hope to empower them to get involved in agriculture, with the end goal of going back and becoming leaders in their communities,” says Hayward. “We need women in power positions to really ignite the flame within the nation.”

The platform will focus on local business and legal practices in Kenya, a place where women often don’t have the right to own land. In addition to online courses, they want to provide for scholarship funding, as well as ways for women to access opportunities within their own communities. Their proposal, Agrikua (“kua” is Swahili for “grow”), was awarded the first place prize of €10,000. As well, Agrikua delegates will receive training and coaching to help make their project a reality. Hayward will be heading back to Europe early in 2018 to participate.

“It was awe inspiring to be with such an incredible group of young people,” she says. “The connections are invaluable. It’s also liberating to know that opportunities exist in agriculture that I hadn’t even imagined. I think every single person at this conference has the potential to actually change the world.”

Brandon Hebor

Ever since he first planted seeds in the backyard of his Toronto home, Brandon Hebor’s love of agriculture has sprouted and blossomed. Indeed, the 25-year-old entrepreneur has turned it into a full-time business called Ripple Farms, which aims to bring the farm to the city, reconnect Torontonians to food, and get millennials more interested in agriculture.

“The opportunity to go to Belgium was to hear the issues that surround our world, and to hear them from the horse’s mouth,” says Hebor. “I think we really fed off each other’s energy … of what the future could hold in the realm of technology. Seeing the farmers of the future, the scientists of the future, the agronomists … it was quite fulfilling.”

Hebor’s group, Seeds of Change, was focused on education, and homed in on introducing young people into agriculture in an innovative way. “Our idea was to help stimulate interest by having “ag-vocates” in the classroom — young agricultural champions introducing new ideas and themes around career opportunities in agriculture.”

Hebor was interested to learn what’s already being done in the nine countries represented in his group, and what can be done better. Seeds of Change finished second, receiving €5,000 to help create an online network for the ag champions, as well as some curriculum around shared points of value.

The whole process invigorated Hebor in his own efforts at home to make ag “cool” again in the classroom. “When we first started Ripple Farms, we thought being young was our greatest disadvantage,” he says. “Little did we know it was our greatest advantage. Being willing to come with an open mind, to push ourselves and challenge the status quo is really something I see a lot of younger people doing, so I definitely think a young voice in agriculture is very important.

“The entire experience was really quite amazing. It was the most highenergy week I’ve had in a number of years. Intense but absolutely rewarding.”

Cameron Olson

Albertan Cameron Olson is pursuing a PhD in animal science at the University of Alberta. He was raised in Calgary and didn’t come into daily contact with agriculture until his parents returned to the family farm in 2002. Joining his local 4-H club gave Olson his first and lasting interest in all things cattle, which he pursued through studies at Texas A&M. Olson heard about the YAS from 4-H friends, and decided to give it a shot.

“What primarily caught my interest about the conference was they were inviting people to apply who didn’t necessarily have an agricultural background or education,” says Olson. “You really just needed an agricultural interest. I liked that aspect because I find that agriculture really tends to silo off and separate itself from a lot of opinions and what consumers are doing,” he adds. Bringing together 100 people his own age from different countries, many speaking little or no English and with no agricultural background are the main reasons that made Olson want to apply.

Olson loved how the delegates in Belgium interacted so openly. He was selected to be in a group that looked at retaining youth in agriculture for future employment, where he gained a whole different perspective on the issue of youth migrating from farms to urban centres.

“In North America when that happens, cities have the ability to absorb those defecting to an urban lifestyle, because of our industrialized ag,” he says. “When that same thing happens in a developing economy, it has a much larger impact. The economy can’t buffer that — there may not be a job available or it may be poor paying. Then there’s also the loss of productivity on the ag side for a developing economy.”

Olson’s group proposed putting materials and infrastructure together in shipping containers that could be taken to communities to assist with educating and attracting young people to agriculture by providing tools and knowledge for basic production or processing.

For Olson, YAS was also about making connections. “I now have 99 couches I could sleep on around the world, 99 people that I can bounce ideas off, too,” he says. “I think they will be the next generation of agricultural leaders and, in many cases, already are. It was definitely encouraging to be exposed to all of their ideas and passions.”

Alexis Wagner

Alexis Wagner finished her education as a bioprocess engineer and is focusing further studies on ag supply chain sustainability. Her real-world experience, both as a professional brewer and now in recipe and raw material sourcing for Toronto-based Mill Street Brewing, the largest organic brewer in North America, has shown her the importance of building a reliable, quality value chain.

She wanted to get a global view on food security issues, and the YAS was a good fit for her priorities. “At the root, they’re all tied to agriculture, so I was very interested in getting to interact with people from all different fields of ag at the summit,” says Wagner.

Fittingly, her group’s work focused on sustainable production and consumption, specifically looking at ways to change consumer perspectives so that unattractive produce was seen as equally nutritious and valuable as perfect looking produce. Along with reducing food waste, they were really trying to influence a cultural shift, even in developing countries, to responsible consumption. “Our solution actually won third prize, so our group is continuing to work on a pilot for our project,” Wagner explains.

She says they wanted a different approach from past retail campaigns that offer “ugly vegetables” at discount prices. By selling them for less, you’re just reinforcing the notion that the “ugly vegetables” are not as good as those that look perfect, says Wagner. “That’s not actually helping farmers who have spent the same amount of money and inputs to produce that slightly twisted carrot versus one that looks perfect, she explains. “So, the goal of our campaign was to target children through a charismatic character. One of our group members is an illustrator, so she actually drew this little family of imperfect fruits and vegetables.”

The idea was to build an educational program around the “Imperfect Picks” family to teach children about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables while also emphasizing they’re the same on the inside, no matter their appearance.

Like her Canadian counterparts, Wagner found being part of YAS reinvigorated her enthusiasm for her own work, and for agriculture in general. It’s a movement she believes will have a lasting impact. “It was such an amazing feeling at the end of the week — that we’re all in this together, and there was so much energy, it’s hard to even describe.”

All the Canadian delegates mentioned they’re encouraging others to consider applying for the next Youth Agriculture Summit, to be held in Brazil in 2019. For more information on YAS, check out www.youthagsummit.com. FF