Parksville’s Career Centre has planted the seeds for the next generation of farmers in the mid-Island region.
Now, it’s ready to watch them grow.
Ten youth students, ranging in age from 17 to 30 years, are in the process of completing a pilot of the GoodSeeds Project, intended to help young people enter the workforce in agriculture.
Then they’ll step into the workforce for a four-month, subsidized work experience that, ideally, will land them permanent employment in the agriculture industry.
“This program is for youth who are interested in growing food and taking care of animals,” said Colleen Dykslag, youth employment specialist with the Career Centre. “New entrants into agriculture were what we were really hoping to recruit.”
GoodSeeds, which is funded through the Government of Canada’s Skills Link program, provides a comprehensive education with the aid of multiple community partners, Dykslag said.
Eligible students spent 10 weeks in classroom training at the Career Centre in downtown Parksville, then embarked to area farms to get hands-on work experience in food growing, animal husbandry, construction and more.
“To be a farmer you need a rather varied skill set,” said Janet Thony, president of the Coombs Farmers’ Institute. “And to be able to make the economics of small-scale agriculture work, you need to be your own carpenter, soil scientist, mechanic, builder, animal husbander and lettuce-grower.
“For Colleen’s team to be able to provide this level of training for young people, it incredibly enhances their ability to be successful when they go out and get onto their own place.”
Through the Coombs Farmers’ Institute’s partnership with GoodSeeds, Thony has led the program’s animal husbandry instruction, with the assistance of the 4-H Clubs of B.C., which provided training materials, said Dykslag.
She said the program has also featured classes by horticulturist and agrologist Donna Balzer on growing vegetables; on water wise and good irrigation practices by Regional District of Nanaimo staff; courses on self-employment; and classes in nutrition, health and wellness from a variety of other instructors.
Earlier this month the students embarked on a six-day construction skills training session at the Errington farm of Sam and Sharon Pickard.
After building compost boxes and planter boxes, they moved on to the construction of a small farm shed, complete with concrete pad, with the help of instructors Jesse Schroeder and Andrew Reimer.
“The outdoor parts of the GoodSeeds program are taught here on this farm, because it allows the students to work on different parts of the skill set they require,” said Thony. “We pulled weeds, dug gardens, pruned fruit trees, planted some seeds, planted some potatoes, had a good yak about what the sheep were doing in the barn.”
“There have been a lot of courses through AgSafe, so safety’s been a real focus,” Dykslag added.
“Youth have also achieved all kinds of certifications, like first aid, fall protection and forklift operator. We’ve done quite a few farm tours, visited local farms in the area, and the youth will all land in farm work positions, hopefully in a couple weeks.”
Those jobs will come with funding designed to promote a symbiotic relationship between the youth and the employers over the course of the four-month work experience, Dykslag said. The federal Skills Link program will fund half of the youths’ wages to offset the host farmers’ training costs, and the farmers will be upgrading the youths’ knowledge and farming experience in a real-world setting.
“One of the reasons it’s hard for people to gain skills in farming is because it’s hard for the farmer to find the time and the money to actually pay somebody in a situation like that,” said Thony. “To send them onto a farm on a wage-subsidy program helps both sides of that equation.”
Thony, who connected with Dykslag and the GoodSeeds program through her work with Career Centre executive director Cheryl Dill on a City of Parksville economic development working group, said the time is right for both the program and for this first cohort of student farmers.
“There’s a rapidly growing body of people who have become concerned about the provenance of their food,” said Thony. “And in that process they’ve discovered they know nothing at all about where their food comes from, its safety, the sustainability and the ethics behind how it’s grown, whether the nutritional ethics or the political ethics.
“The fact is, it’s very very simple. Eighty years ago, you were normal if you grew your own food; you were abnormal if you didn’t. So everybody’s backyard had a garden, had fruit trees, had berries, had chickens, and very often also a milk cow and a couple of pigs in the corner. The system is so perfectly symbiotic.”