Students gather to discuss food sustainability

The cross-country project is a collaboration between McGill University, Dalhousie University and Lethbridge College

The recipe:

15 students

3 institutions

1 topic

A dash of ag-related input

Method: Mix ingredients together, bake for three days and see what ideas arise on the issue of food sustainability.

The recipe is called McDalBridge. It’s a project involving agriculture students — or those with an interest in the field — from McGill, Dalhousie and Lethbridge College. The group met at the college last month for a cross-country collaboration organized through the Agriculture Entrepreneurship in Training (AgENT) program.

It’s the first of a two-year pilot funded by Farm Credit Canada and participating institutions.

Dalhousie University has a program similar to AgENT called Cultivate, and through discussion among the two programs’ instructors, an idea was born.

“We just started hatching this idea. Let’s do a cross-country collaboration, competition, something, and have the students from our institutions working together on the things that we’re teaching in our different programs,” said Megan Shapka, manager of innovation and entrepreneurship at the college.

McGill’s involvement arose from discussion among deans and plans were made to bring five students from each of the institutions to Lethbridge. Once here, they were asked to develop solutions to problems surrounding food sustainability.

“I’m looking for stuff like this. I’m networking. I’m looking for a long-term career and when they started talking about entrepreneurship and the connections you make, that’s me. I went in the next day and signed up,” said Lethbridge College agriculture sciences student Eric Lykins.

His team, like the others, had one student from each of the three institutions. Each of five teams presented their potential solutions to a panel of instructors on Sept. 22.

Lykins, Jeremy Chevalley from McGill and Caitlin Chambers from Dalhousie quickly agreed on a topic.

“We focused on the education side of things, and targeting urban centres to get the education through because there’s a lack of kids growing up on farms nowadays,” said Lykins.

“It’s just a smaller and smaller group so the workforce is in the city. That’s where we’re going to have pull from, so our project was basically to lobby school boards, try to get some mandatory ag education in there.”

Patrick Hennessy, a student at Dalhousie pursuing a second degree, was teamed with Alois Kerckhof of Lethbridge College and Stacey Godin of McGill. They saw land management practices as a way toward food sustainability.

“Right now there’s a lot of interesting technology that helps farmers manage their land, know what parts of their land are yielding well and which areas could be improved,” said Hennessy.

“I think we can do much more precise yield mapping and much more precise land management in terms of where fertilizer needs to be put down and where certain agri-chemicals need to be sprayed. But in order to do that, we need data over the long term to see how the field reacts to these things.”

McDalBridge is a non-credit, extra-curricular project so it’s unclear whether or how the students’ ideas will bear fruit. However, Shapka said they will be encouraged to keep in touch and keep working on the issue of food sustainability.

Overall, “it’s really about the networking and teaching them to be problem solvers and innovators,” she said.

Kenny Corscadden, associate vice-president of research at the college, said the project demonstrated that although the three institutions have different ways to approach entrepreneurship, the results from students were similar.

“I was really impressed with the outcomes and the ideas,” he said.

“I really hope that we can expand on this. There’s only three institutions involved but it just shows you that when you put these young minds together they really do have some ideas for the future.”

As for the topic, Shapka said it was deliberately broad to provide latitude.

Sustainability means different things to different people, a fact that Lykins said is a challenge in itself.

“When I talk to people who are outside of ag, their version of sustainability seems to be Mom and Dad’s family farm, where we have some cows and some pigs and we do some of this crop and some of that crop and it’s all organic.

“I don’t know that that’s necessarily the sustainable model. I think there’s a place for corporate farms because we have to feed however many billion people now. Mom and Pop’s operation isn’t going to do that. I think it’s a combination.”

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