Young farmer finds unique education

Abbey Taylor spent much of last year working her way across the country as she exchanged the classroom for experience

Abbey Taylor has chosen to make Canada her classroom.

Instead of the usual course of action, the 22-year-old opened up her agricultural education by following her interests to gain experience working on farms across the country.

Last year after spring planting was completed at her family’s grain farm near Belmont, Ont., and after her summer job was cancelled due to COVID-19, Taylor hit the road for other learning opportunities.

Livestock, in particular, was on her mind.

“I decided it was time to chase my dream. I’d always wanted to work on a smaller scale farm and lots of these kinds of farms do apprenticeships,” she said.

It wasn’t long before she found an eight-week position as a grazing assistant at an organic livestock farm in Wakefield, Que.

“I was hired specifically to move the sheep and cattle to a fresh pasture every day. They were grazing in the Gatineau Hills, so it took a long time to move them. I was out hiking in the hills, carrying portable fence and working in the forest. I loved my job,” she said.

Wherever she travelled, Taylor said she was careful to follow the rules related to COVID-19, wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing protocols.

“If I did a farm tour, I was very careful when I reached out to people to say, ‘I will definitely wear a mask and follow any precautions,’ or ‘if you don’t feel comfortable then say no’ kind of thing,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone turned me down, as I recall.”

Like all good travel, what started as an educational excursion quickly became a pilgrimage of sorts, which allowed Taylor to learn more about herself.

“It was while I was working this job that it turned into more of a journey because I was really enjoying it. I just wanted to keep doing more of that work on some other farms,” she said.

“I was learning a lot about different styles, different people’s practices and different types of farming.”

While in Wakefield, she read Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who published his journey into regenerative agriculture.

Starting with the soil, Brown describes transforming his degraded farm’s ecosystem into one full of life.

Brown dropped the use of most herbicides, insecticides and synthetic fertilizers, switched to no-till planting and diverse cover crop mixes and changed his grazing practices.

“That book was a big catalyst because it got me excited about the possibilities. It talks about a grain farm that has successfully integrated livestock and it gave me lots of ideas,” she said.

When the grazing assistant work ended in September, Taylor decided to take a “gap year” from her University of Guelph studies in agricultural economics.

With her courses now online due to the pandemic, she decided to continue her agriculture venture further west.

Sleeping in motels along the way, she drove her pick-up truck four days and four nights to the farm of Derek and Candace Axten at Minton, Sask., who were mentioned in Brown’s book.

“I sent them an email, basically seeing if they wanted help. I was quite surprised that they said I could come any time and were looking for fall help. COVID kind of messed up some of their employee plans, so I decided I would work for them,” she said.

No stranger to combines, Taylor said she spent five weeks operating one, as well as some after-harvest spraying.

“It was quite the adjustment. The job I was doing in Quebec was super physical — walking, moving fence, outdoors all the time. And then back into the combine seat, which I’m used to at home,” she said.

“I really liked working for the Axtens. They were awesome. They answered all my questions and it was a really cool experience for me.”

However, adjusting to the southern Prairies took time and was a real eye opener. Minton is located near the Canada-United States border.

“The climate was so different. Fire was such a bigger concern than at home. The other thing was that it never rained. At home, it will rain here and there. I feel like that gives you a bit of downtime. But I had a couple days off the whole month in Minton. I’m used to that, but that was a long stretch,” she said.

“But I missed the trees. That was a bit of an adjustment and it made me appreciate it more when I would drive into Regina and see all the trees in the city.”

After her first prairie harvest wrapped up, Taylor again hit the road and spent two weeks driving west to the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, which is where she has family.

Along the way she stopped at the University of Saskatchewan, Lakeland College and Olds College, as well as toured several farms.

“Part of my journey was wanting to learn about a lot of different kinds of agriculture. A lot of farms, I just emailed them to see if they felt comfortable if I came for an outdoor tour and pretty much everybody was happy to do that,” she said.

She also spent a week WWOOFing, as part of the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

The program links visitors with organic farmers to promote a cultural and educational exchange, while promoting ecological farming and sustainability practices.

During that time, she worked in an abattoir at a sheep and beef farm learning some new-found butchering skills.

She said she was offered a full-time job there but decided to fly home in December as the spread of COVID-19 increased lockdowns and social distancing procedures.

“It definitely changed the trip from what it could’ve been,” she said.

However, with her truck left behind in B.C., she said the journey is not over and she looks forward to flying back, hopefully this spring.

She plans on stopping into several livestock operations on her way home.

“I plan to buy some livestock. Whether I end up buying my own or working with my family and having my own livestock, I’m going to learn a bit more before I do that. That’s what I’m figuring out right now,” she said.

Besides a broken muffler, her agriculture venture went without a hitch.

However, the highlights were immeasurable she said.

“Everybody that I met was so kind to me, so generous. Canadians are just very giving. Happy to teach me things, pass on contacts that they knew or just help me out. That was pretty cool,” she said.

“It was a different kind of education, but I felt like I learned a lot more this way than I could by studying online because I was creating my own education. Even when I vacationed with my family in B.C., I was doing a lot of reading, studying and learning skills for my own farm and researching grazing principles and things I was interested in.”

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