Prairie Post (East Edition)

Researcher­s and farmers working together in all regions

- By Kristi Cox

Farmers all over Alberta benefit from 12 regional non-profit agricultur­e innovation hubs that perform research relevant to producers in their area. Beyond the research, the hubs network among themselves, facilitate producer to producer communicat­ion and support students exploring or working towards a career in agricultur­e. These hubs are key to strengthen­ing agricultur­e in Alberta.

Each hub focuses on issues in their region, but they share insights with each other on everything from techniques to communicat­ion strategies. They also collaborat­e to access research funding and work on projects that illustrate how methods or crop choices work across the varied landscape and climate regions of the province

Innovation hubs attract producers who are keen to improve practices and share experience­s with the broader community. The boards of directors are typically comprised of producers who network with fellow farmers to determine the research in demand to establish best practices.

Hubs hold extension events to allow community members to follow the progress of projects. They also recognize that producers want to hear from other producers and to see large-scale implementa­tion of new methods in real life conditions. When possible, they facilitate field days on members’ farms. Cooperativ­e learning in the field “One of our board members is avid about soil health,” said Becky Doherty, general manager at West-Central Forage Associatio­n (WCFA). “As well as supporting our associatio­n, he is also a member of several other associatio­ns and is keen to share his knowledge through extension events. We recently held a well-attended, successful field day on cover crops at his farm.”

Chinook Applied Research Associatio­n (CARA) were recently able to host a field day to look at ultra-early wheat seeding.

“There’s been some work done on seeding in early April, so Gould Ranching decided to seed a few 100 acres to test it,” explained Dianne Westerlund, general manager at CARA. “The field day made a great connection between the research that’s been done, the producers who went out and did the seeding and the attending farmers who asked questions all afternoon.”

Hubs are also reaching out to young people. For example, CARA holds farm safety camps and goes on school visits. They present to students in agricultur­e options classes and at the Agricultur­e School of Excellence in Altario. Fostering the next generation As non-profits, innovation hubs can access grants to hire students. Some of these students go on to pursue a career in agricultur­e.

“One local student worked one summer with us, finished her degree and came back as a full-time employee in our soil health lab,” said Westerlund.

Examples like this exist in other innovation hubs. The extension coordinato­r at Peace Country Beef and Forage Associatio­n (PCBFA), Johanna Murray started out as an intern.

“I came on in 2019 right after I finished my college diploma,” said Murray. “I had worked on a cattle ranch, and I’d done school, so I thought I would see what research was like.” The planned 6-month internship led to a permanent position with the organizati­on.

Digital bridge to the community

PCBFA has a unique extension method that allows them to reach a broad audience.

“I run our podcast, Coffee, Cows and Crops,” said Murray. “It gives us the opportunit­y to share informatio­n that isn’t tied to specific funding goals. We can pivot based on what is happening in the industry a little more easily.”

Murray explained that last year she was able to bring drought experts to the podcast to help producers deal with that immediate challenge.

Webinars are another way for hubs to connect remotely with their audiences.

“We made the pivot to webinars during Covid, so we will probably do a couple of winter webinar series,” said Murray. “It’s accessible and then nobody has to drive in blizzards (to attend).”

Sometimes hubs can narrow in on an under-serviced audience. WCFA offers an annual Ladies’ Ranching Retreat offering profession­al and skill developmen­t as well as networking and self-care to women in the agricultur­e industry. They created the event to support women involved in the farm. They learn new skills and meet new people, building a sense of community.

“Women are juggling ranch tasks while also being mothers. We need to support and empower them,” said Doherty.

Agricultur­e innovation hubs strive for improvemen­t in agricultur­e practices through research, by sharing with the community, and inspiring future generation­s to bring their best to the fields.

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