Finding inspiration in light bulb moments

Passion for industry allowed Becky Parker to travel around the work to gather ideas and solutions to challenges facing Canadian agriculture

There are people who like their jobs, those who tolerate their jobs and the unfortunate ones who hate their jobs.

Becky Parker is one of the lucky ones. She loves her work, educating students about the opportunities in Canada’s agri-food sector.

“I love that light bulb moment. When you’re talking to students … I love that moment where they (say) … ‘I didn’t know that about agriculture,’ ” Parker said.

“That’s what I love. There’s nothing better than connecting with somebody and helping them to understand something on a different level.”

Parker lives in Penticton, B.C., but works as a project and partnership strategist with Ontario Agri-Food Education (OAFE) in Milton, Ont.

OAFE, which is affiliated with Agriculture in the Classroom Canada, collaborates with schools and other partners to deliver education programming about food and farming.

Parker moved to Penticton from Ontario three years ago when her husband took a job at an Okanagan winery.

However, she hasn’t spent much time in either Penticton or Milton over the last 12 months.

That’s because in 2014 she re-ceived a Nuffield Scholarship, one of the most prestigious agriculture awards in Canada, worth approximately $15,000.

Nuffield Canada is part of the global Nuffield program, which operates in Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, New Zealand and France.

The program provides funding for 25 to 45 year olds working in the agricultural sector so that they can study a topic of interest.

Parker has travelled to France, Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand and Washington state since early 2015 to research how to attract more young people into the agri-food industry.

“I was interested in looking at what are the roles of the agricultural and food sector, what are the roles of the education system and what role can positive youth development organizations … play in exciting and engaging young people (about) agricultural career opportunities,” she said.

Parker grew up on a seventh generation mixed farm near Guelph, Ont. She earned a bachelor of applied science degree at the University of Guelph, followed by bachelor and master’s degrees in education.

Living 4,000 kilometres from the office isn’t typical, but Parker’s drive and passion for agricultural education fills the geographic void.

“She started at the front desk and has occupied a number of positions. We keep changing the position to suit her enhanced abilities,” said OAFE executive director Colleen Smith.

“I thought that her (master’s degree) was pretty ambitious to complete, while holding down a full-time job (with OAFE).”

Smith said the Nuffield scholarship is challenging for OAFE in the short term because Parker is often out of country.

However, the investment will pay off in the long run because Parker is “like a sponge” and will bring in-valuable knowledge back to Canada and the OAFE program.

“You don’t get those insights sitting in front of your desk every day.”

Canada’s agri-food industry desperately needs insights and solutions to solve its human resource problem. Surveys suggest there are 25,000 job vacancies in the sector, and that number is only going to rise.

“We expect that to grow to 50,000 if we don’t do something about it,” said Doug Chorney, a Manitoba farmer and vice-chair of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council.

Parker, who will continue to travel this year, said the problem isn’t isolated to Canada.

Her travels and conversations with fellow Nuffield scholars have showed her that many western countries are struggling to promote agriculture as a career.

“There’s a misconception and a disconnect,” she said.

“Young people, unless they come from a farming background, aren’t even thinking about working in the agri-food sector.”

Parker said many countries have agricultural outreach programs, but Australia and New Zealand are leading the way.

“Probably one of the most im-pressive organizations I saw, in my travels, was the New Zealand Young Farmers,” she said.

“They do a great job of … working with the different commodity groups and focusing their agriculture education efforts.”

Parker also met with representatives of the Art4Agriculture Young Farmers Champion program, which allows Australians in their 20s and 30s to speak at schools and spark an interest in agriculture as a career.

“We need those strong ambassadors that can be the voice of the agri-food sector,” Parker said.

“That can go and connect with some of these students, sitting in high school, and make them realize how great an opportunity … there is in agriculture.”

Parker said Canada is doing a good job of promoting agriculture to young people, but more collaboration is needed between youth groups, agriculture industry groups and the school system.

Parker is required to write a re-port on her topic of interest and make a presentation in November. She has more travel plans before writing the report, including a possible trip to Japan, but she said the Nuffield program has already changed her life.

“(It’s) been an absolutely incredible experience,” she said.

“The challenges you face, traveling around the world, it really forces you to grow as a person…. It’s been an amazing professional development opportunity.”

Parker is scheduled to speak at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon next week.

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