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Innovative Canadian classrooms feed students’ hunger for agricultural knowledge

FOOD

Dirty hands, happy students

From beehives to farmers' market stalls, innovative classrooms across Canada are feeding young people's hunger for agricultural knowledge

Lacombe Composite High School’s EcoVision Club was designed 13 years ago to inspire students to make an environmental difference.

On the first day of school last week, students in Steven Schultz's high-school agriculture class in Lacombe, Alta., toured their greenhouse and edible gardens, harvesting gooseberries, cherries and grapes for a canning project. After school, the beekeeping club conducted a postsummer hive inspection, harvesting 60 kilograms of honey from just one of its three hives.

These tasks are part of Lacombe Composite High School's EcoVision Club, designed 13 years ago to inspire young leaders to make an environmental difference. Science teacher Schultz has been with the project since the beginning, when a student approached him after class.

"She said, 'We can talk about the environment until we're blue in the face, but unless we take action, it's kind of useless,'" he recalls. The club's first project was a rooftop solar-panel system, which reduced the school's energy use by about 5 per cent.

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Lacombe Composite High School’s commitment to the club is remarkable, especially considering the challenges hands-on agricultural programs face in public schools.

Every three years since, the club has taken on a new major project imagined and researched by the students themselves. The school's commitment to the club is remarkable, especially considering the challenges hands-on agricultural programs face in public schools. That a large percentage of Canada's growing season falls during summer holidays is one obstacle, but limited time and financial resources are more stubborn issues. Even the most passionate teachers often lack the background knowledge to tackle such projects – and then there's the bureaucracy.

"The hardest part, after they come up with their brilliant ideas, is telling them it will be about two years of research, writing proposals and getting permission," Schultz says.

"You have to get licences, approval from different levels of government, administration and school boards and talk to our neighbours." And yet, the kids have kept doing it.

A Lacombe Composite High School student harvests grapes.

Similar hurdles face educators across the country who want to teach kids about the science, tech and business sides of agriculture, not to mention how to grow their own food.

In Toronto, Paul Taylor is the executive director of FoodShare, which facilitates public-school food and urban agriculture programs as well as community food-security initiatives. It's independently run and funded, and dedicated to helping local schools overcome these problems.

"We're mindful that teachers want to do this kind of thing – they want to engage kids in this way but don't always have this kind of experience, and there are all kinds of other demands on their time," he says. "So we try to come in with our expertise and passion for this work."

Every three years, Lacombe Composite High School’s EcoVision Club takes on a new major project imagined and researched by the students themselves.

Students have grown and harvested more than 13,000 kilograms of produce on school lawns and rooftops through School Grown, FoodShare's schoolyard gardening project. There's also a new pilot project, the Good Food Machine, which allows the most urban of youth to participate using aeroponics, mobile kitchen carts and digital learning tools.

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Students are employed to tend gardens through the summer months, as well as sell the produce they grow at farmers' markets, which raises money to help hire more students.

"We've been able to provide paid jobs for 125 high-school youth and pay out over $200,000 in wages over the past five years," Taylor says.

On the first day of school last week, Lacombe Composite High School students toured their greenhouse and edible gardens, harvesting gooseberries, cherries and grapes for a canning project.

Selling the fruits of students' labour also helps fund the Alpine Edibles program run by the Canadian Rockies Public Schools board in Alberta. There, gardening expert Christian Wright works with teachers to incorporate edible gardens into different aspects of its curriculum.

Elsewhere in Alberta, Lawrence Grassi Middle School in Canmore has rooftop, yard and greenhouse gardens, even a chicken coop. These are outdoor, hands-on learning environments, but they're also real gardens – students harvest more than 450 kilograms of produce, which is used to supply their culinary class and sold at a local farmers' market.

"The shortage of finances always affects programs that are extracurricular – it's becoming a challenge for every school division across the province," says Christopher MacPhee, board superintendent.

A student prepares the smoker to open a hive at Lacombe Composite High School.

"This is somewhat extracurricular, but it's not – it's utilized to enhance the curriculum, and act as our social outreach for the community. We scrounge for money to make sure these types of things continue to happen."

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In Lacombe, the largest EcoVision undertaking to date has been the design and construction of a geodesic dome greenhouse in the field beside the school. "It's hard to come up with a tropical greenhouse that's energy efficient in the middle of Alberta," Schultz says.

But they did it: The greenhouse incorporates geothermal- and solar-energy systems and doesn't utilize any fossil fuels until the temperature drops to about -20 C. It was built in the fall of 2012 and every student in the school participated in some way, from installing boards and panels to taking photos and documenting the process.

Lacombe Composite High School students have started a commercial aquaponics system, raising up to 1,000 tilapia at a time.

Inside there are rows of herbs and vegetables and even a fruit-producing lemon tree, since every year the kids experiment with a tropical plant. Students also had the idea to raise tilapia – a type of freshwater whitefish – in the existing water tank, used to regulate temperature within the greenhouse.

They've since started a commercial aquaponics system, raising up to 1,000 tilapia at a time, some of which are served at the school cafeteria. The rest are given to a community group that volunteers with upkeep of the greenhouse during the summer, sold to locals interested in supporting the project or donated to the local food bank.

Grade 11 student Naomi Delisle is part of Lacombe's newest project, an after-school beekeeping club called Bee Wise. "It gives you different life skills," says Delisle, who looked forward to returning to school largely because of the program.

Bee Wise allows students to earn high-school credits as well as their beekeeping certification through Olds College.

"We give presentations, which helps with our public speaking ability, and teaching others helps us learn a lot better. I just fell in love with the project – I feel like it's already inspired a lot of other people."

Beyond the actual beekeeping, students build beehives and hotels, apply for grants and tend a pollinator garden, while they're mentored by a local apiarist. Bee Wise allows students to earn high-school credits as well as their beekeeping certification through Olds College, the first such program in Canada.

Inside Schultz's classroom, Mason jars are lined on book shelves, each containing a large, slimy SCOBY – a symbiotic culture of bacteria used to make effervescent fermented kombucha beverage. In a hallway beside the cafeteria, an urban cultivator resembling a brightly lit refrigerator with glass doors houses rows of sprouts and microgreens.

Beyond the actual beekeeping, students build beehives and hotels, apply for grants and tend a pollinator garden.

Schultz turns each project into courses and classes in order to keep them going, and sustainable. He tries to make sure each new project can be completed with a three-year time frame – the typical span of a high-school student.

"Capture their dreams in Grade 10 and help them fulfill their dreams – make them a reality – by Grade 12," he says. "It's all about them – they do everything."

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