Technology and youth on the farm: Bringing Alberta’s agriculture into a new age by: Agri-Info

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Just an hour’s drive north of Calgary, the town of Olds lies at the crossroads of a rich farming tradition and next-generation technology.

The locals dress in cowboy boots and hats but beneath the charm Olds is a serious player in agribusiness. This is due, in part, to blazing-fast internet that’s built on a fibre-optic network. Described as Canada’s first community-owned-and-operated network, Olds’ residents enjoy the fastest internet speeds in the country whether they’re at the farm or in their homes.

Dreaming big

Tristen Norman, 23, comes from a long line of farmers. From this vantage point he sees how agriculture needs new technologies to meet future challenges. For Tristen, applying to work at the Olds College Centre for Innovation was a no-brainer.

“Farming is the future,” Tristen explains. “Food production needs to go up in the next 50 years to feed more people.” From what he sees, the internet will play an increasingly central role: “If not, with all the new precision agriculture and technology coming out, all of these products would never meet their full potential.”

In late 2019, Tristen heard that the College was offering internship positions for youth, funded through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Youth Employment and Skills Program. The Program helps the next generation of agriculture professionals get their career started.

He interviewed for the position in January 2020 but before long, the COVID-19 pandemic started affecting Olds: local businesses shut their doors to customers, and hiring was on hold as uncertainty around the virus grew. When Tristen got the call, it was a big relief. The pandemic may have been turning the world upside down but he was going to be getting an opportunity to work in a field he loved, while applying what he’d learned in class.

Small plots, big potential

Now in his position, Tristen gets to invest in his future while helping to scale up local agriculture.

Small-plot researching was introduced to Olds College in 2013. It has provided a win-win partnership for the wider agriculture community: interns like Tristen can put their college training to use; at the same time, the team’s work helps industry players develop innovative crop breeds. Fortunately, Tristen and his team haven’t been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak: most of their work is done outdoors, while computer-based trials and data entry can be done independently.

These trials are completed under the watchful eye of Dr. Paul Tiege, the College’s Lead Scientist of crops research and the overseer of the interns.

Watching over the next generation

In the seven years since he founded the Crops division at Olds College, Dr. Tiege marvels at how far agriculture has come. He’s worked with many talented Youth Employment Skills Program interns.

One of the most meaningful parts of his job is seeing youth develop into skilled agriculture technicians during their internship.

“Access to this program is as helpful to me as it is to the youth,” Dr. Tiege says. “Through hiring Tristen, we gained a new perspective and a talented worker. In the meantime, Tristen is learning and applying new skills that will give him increased employment prospects.”

Dr. Tiege enjoys harnessing the energy and work ethic that young interns bring. “When I hire students from farming backgrounds, I still see that hard work comes before the technology,” Dr. Tiege says. “Working with drones and imagery is fun and all, but the students need to come in and apply what they know, and not be afraid to get dirty.”

A bright future

If Olds College is the epicentre of agriculture and agribusiness in Alberta and the Prairie provinces, it has also become the epicentre of Tristen’s life: during his directed field studies, Tristen met Alanna, who was in the Horticulture program. Soon enough, he asked for Alanna’s hand in marriage.

“Heck, I found my future wife at Olds!” Tristen laughs. “What are the odds?”

Tristen has a bright future ahead of him, and he credits the Youth Employment and Skills Program with helping him to build up the savings and job experience to get there. Happily for Tristen, it looks like his future will be closely tied to his farming roots.

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