Producers want to create journeyman farmers

It seems appropriate to have a “light bulb” moment while talking to an electrician.

That’s exactly what happened to Kristjan Hebert last summer when a couple of electricians were working at his farm near Moosomin, Sask.

Hebert was quizzing the electricians about their profession and what it’s like being a journeyman electrician. That’s when the light bulb switched on.

He realized agriculture needs journeyman farmers — men and women with the specialized skills and knowledge to work on modern farms.

“I don’t know about anyone else … but I need journeyman farmers. I need people who get it done,” said Hebert, the managing partner of Hebert Grain Ventures, a 22,000 acre farm with about 10 employees.

Hebert is still refining his idea, but the basic concept is a certification program for people who want to work on farms. Like an electrician or plumber, the worker would take training, become an apprentice on a farm and after enough hours on the job, be certified as a journeyman farmer.

“It (agriculture) is the biggest industry in our whole country,” Hebert said, while speaking at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon. “What if we had a plan like that, of education and co-op time, for people who wanted to work on farms…? If you look at the technology and the sizes of the businesses we have now, I think we could pull it off.”

For Hebert, this is more than idle talk at the coffee shop.

He collaborates with three other farmers and they want to make this happen.

“Our peer group, we ranked it as the number one thing we want to work on in 2020 … getting a pilot project of a farm journeyman,” he said. “We’re just in the process, between the four of us, of hiring someone full time to focus on it because we believe in it that much.”

To this point, Hebert and his peers have spoken with representatives of a few community colleges and others about the concept.

Larger farms and mid-sized farms across Canada could use such a program because there is a severe labour shortage in production agriculture. Job vacancy rates are 5.4 percent in agriculture, nearly double the national average of 2.9 percent, says a report from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council.

“Farmers … reported $2.9 billion in lost sales because of unfulfilled vacancies — an increase from $1.5 billion in 2014,” CAHRC said.

Johanne Ross, executive director of Agriculture in the Classroom Canada, praised Hebert for his idea and initiative, but she believes the ag industry needs to focus on basic labour challenges, such as getting young people to think about the opportunities in agriculture.

“They’re not even curious about ag…. They think, ‘I can’t go into ag because I don’t own a farm.’ ”

After 20 years with Agriculture in the Classroom, Ross understands that the education system is difficult to change. She tried to get agriculture included in the core curriculum of Canadian schools, with little success.

“What (Kristjan) was saying, I actually love. But it would take quite a bit of lobbying to get it done.”

Instead of talking to deputy ministers of education, Ross and Ag in the Classroom are trying to build a buzz around agriculture. One part of that effort is something called engAGe. It will follow the formula of We Day — high-energy gatherings that encourage youth to shift their thinking from “me” to “we.”

Last fall, about 500 high school students attended the first engAGe event in Montreal. Two more are scheduled — Feb. 11 in Vancouver and April 7 in Toronto.

Passionate speakers and interactive experiences are key parts of engAGe. The one in Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia, will feature chef Trevor Randle. He will do a cooking demonstration and explain where the food came from.

Cherilynn Jolly-Nagel, who farms in Mossbank, Sask., will speak at the engAGe event in Toronto.

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