AgScape increases reach during trying financial year

The agriculture education organization continues to grow its outreach to teachers

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AgScape continues to build its connections with urban educators, boosted this year by a formal partnership with the Toronto District School Board.

The organization, which aims to educate the public about agriculture and food production, increased the number of teachers it connected with by 10 per cent in 2018 over 2017.

Why it matters: Organizations like AgScape help connect urbanites, most of them with no agriculture experience, to where their food comes from.

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The organization had a challenging year in 2018 with a financial loss of more than $471,000, from one-time administrative costs, investment losses and an operating deficit. Most organizations with significant reserve funds had losses last year.

The organization also parted with its long-time executive director Colleen Smith.

Glenna Banda recently started as the organization’s new executive director, two weeks after the annual meeting of the organization in early May.

Banda, who comes to the organization from the Children’s Foundation of Guelph and Wellington, said until a couple of months ago she had not heard of AgScape, but, as someone who grew up in Saskatchewan, she says she is excited by the opportunities she sees at AgScape in connecting consumers to their food.

Board chair Audrie Boumeister said that a recent strategic planning process created a new vision for the organization, which includes the aim for the Ontario agri-food sector to be recognized as a vehicle for positive social, economic and environmental impact.

The consultation process showed that AgScape needed to focus more on partnerships and Boumeister says they plan to do that.

AgScape is also putting more emphasis on encouraging young people to consider agriculture as a career.

The organization now runs career competitions focused on agriculture and food. It ran two at Mitchell District High School, one for Grades 6 to 8 and another for Grade 10s. The event cycled students through centres run by local agriculture businesses and organizations, highlighting local agriculture careers.

Another such event was hosted at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School.

“The format is perfect and keeps kids moving,” said Nick Keller, the teacher who runs the High Skills Major programs at Mitchell District Secondary School, which include courses in agriculture, food production and food service. The most important part of the careers competition is being able to learn more about what people they know in the community do in their careers in agriculture, he said during a panel at the AgScape annual meeting.

Lisa Thompson, Ontario’s minister of education and former vice-chair of one of AgScape’s predecessor organizations, spoke at the meeting. She said she will ensure agriculture and food careers are included in the Grade 9 and Grade 10 career guidance this fall. While in opposition, her private members bill requesting that inclusion passed, but was never implemented.

She challenged AgScape to do more with less. The organization receives about $400,000 yearly from OMAFRA.

“You have to be real. It’s tough out there. Find like-minded organizations and figure out how to find efficiencies.”

Mercedes Unwin, AgScape’s program and resource manager, says the organization is increasingly concentrating on students from Grades 7 to 9, earlier than they have targeted before, as students need to consider agriculture as a career at an earlier age in order to make appropriate secondary school course selections.

Unwin also reported on the expansion of the Teacher Ambassador Program, which trains Ontario teachers on agriculture modules.

In 2017, the program gave 136 lessons with 3,296 students reached. In 2018, there were 228 lessons with 5,354 students reached. Unwin said they expect to reach 10,000 students in 2019.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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