A starter kit for those wondering how to start farming in Alberta. Young Agrarians (YA) is a farmer to farmer educational resource network for new and young ecological, organic and regenerative farmers in Canada. Read more about us here.
Young Agrarians recognizes the unresolved Indigenous land title and rights in the diverse territories in what is today called Canada. As we live and work in the context of and in response to a colonial system of laws and policies, it is important to acknowledge the historical and ongoing impact of agriculture and land enclosure on Indigenous lands and food systems. In this context, we acknowledge our collective responsibility to bring forward the voices of Indigenous Peoples and their experiences with colonization so that we can work towards reconciliation that places ecology, land stewardship, and Indigenous land title and rights at the forefront.
As you are getting started, we invite you to learn about the historical and ongoing impact of agriculture and land enclosure on Indigenous lands and food systems. Here are some places to start:
- Indigenous Climate Action
- Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel
- Indigenous Food Systems: Concepts, Cases, and Conversations. Edited by Priscilla Settee and Shailesh Shukla
- Farming in Canada: Who Else Do You Have to Thank by Kyla Pascal
- Miyo Mâmawi Atoskewin: Working together to Cultivate Soil Health on First Nations Lands (Presentation by Dr. Melissa Arcand at Organic Alberta’s 2021 Conference)
- Undermined at every turn: the lie of the failed native farm on the Prairies by Chelsea Vowel
- Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy by Sarah Carter
Photo credit: Kevin Kossowan | Farm: Lady’s Hat Farm
STEP 1: FARMING STARTS WITH A (DAY)DREAM
Do you care about the environment and want to better the planet? Maybe you envision yourself selling fruits and veggies at your local farmer’s market? What about offering ethically-raised meat options in your community? Did you grow up in a farming community and want to get into farming yourself? Are you a foodie with a love for quality, local food? Or are you tired of your office job and want to spend more time outdoors? Regardless, you’re here. Let’s help you explore a career in regenerative farming.
It started with a daydream and now it’s time to go one step further – how do you turn that daydream into a reality? Our suggestion: homework. The realm of farming is vast and it requires research coupled with trial and error to figure out what fits for you.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What do you want to farm?
- Are you an animal person, a grain person, a vegetable person, a cut-flower person? Or have an affinity for something else?
- Do you like interacting with customers?
- Is your focus feeding your local community, families, or selling at grocery stores or restaurants?
- Do you like food-processing/value-added products?
- Do you have the discipline for dairy? The might for fieldwork? The patience for regulatory labyrinths? The stamina for farmers markets?
You might not immediately have the answers to these questions but what follows will hopefully help you to figure some of them out.
The realm of farming is very vast and it requires research coupled with trial and error to figure out what fits with you.
A great place to start is to find farms that inspire you. The Young Agrarians U-MAP is a great resource for finding farms nearby. If possible, try to arrange a farm visit with the farms you’re interested in to get a better understanding of their day-to-day life. Chat up the vendors at your local farmers’ market. Take on the opportunity to start making some farmer friends and begin honing in on what it is you love most about farming.
Still interested? Continue on!
STEP 2: GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY
The only real way to learn about farming is to get your hands dirty. REAL dirty! Learning from others who are more experienced is invaluable. We recommend volunteering for a farm, working seasonal farming jobs, or interning/apprenticing at a farm.
Some farms have structured educational programs while other farms may be more informal. Either way, you’ll likely be fully immersed in day-to-day activities and be building your skills as you go. Seasonal work is also a great option. A summer job on a farm might be a great fit or helping out a farm through calving or harvest. Check out the YA Apprenticeship Program, our Job Board, and the Young Agrarians Alberta Facebook group. Usually opportunities for experience start being listed in January/February. Whatever route you pursue, gaining exposure to farming is key to knowing whether farming is for you in the long term.
Learning from others who are more experienced is invaluable.
There is so much learning that happens when you’re fully immersed in a farming operation. Whether it is a good or bad experience, it will contribute to your skills and knowledge and will inform how you choose to approach farming in the future. Maybe you like your tools organized a certain way, or like particular systems to feed animals, prefer to work markets or sell through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. Acquiring experience on a few different farms can help you understand whether you want to start a farm business, work on a farm, take over a farm, or anything in-between.
Not quite ready or able to commit to learning on a farm full time? Here are a couple places to start:
Community Gardens are a great way to get first-hand experience with growing plants and connecting with your community. There are various types of community gardens including:
- Individual Plot Gardens where the space is divided into different sections and each individual is given a section to grow whichever crops they choose. Great for experienced individuals or people who want more autonomy with their plot.
- Group Gardens are one large garden that is shared amongst the group. These are great for small groups and are excellent for building community.
- Mixed Plot Gardens are a combination of the two above.
- School Gardens help children and youth learn about growing fruit and vegetables while integrating it with coursework.
Community Gardens in Alberta:
- Black Diamond
- High River
- Red Deer
- Strathcona County
- Sylvan Lake
- University of Calgary
- University of Alberta
Volunteering is a great way to start and many farmers appreciate an extra set of hands, even if you only have time in the evenings or weekends. As a bonus, a lot of volunteer-led farms allow volunteers to take home some produce. One well-known organization that posts farm volunteer opportunities is WWOOF which stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, where “in return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.”
Photo credit: Kevin Kossowan | Farm: Lady’s Hat Farm
Volunteer Opportunities on Our Radar:
- Prairie Urban Farm in Edmonton
- Goodnote Community Farm
- Grow Calgary
- Land of Dreams
- Operation Fruit Rescue
- VEG in YEG
STEP 3: LEARN, RE-LEARN, AND GROW YOUR FARMING NETWORK!
If you’ve reached this stage, you’ve gained some hands-on farming experience and have narrowed down some options of what you want to do. But as you have most-likely experienced by now, farming is a continuous learning process. There are so many approaches to farming and every decision is context-specific – it’s important to figure out which practices you want to take on in alignment with your personal values and time.
There are several educational programs available in Alberta that offer further learning in farming and horticulture.
Alberta Native Plant Association
Northern Native Plants and Ecosystems
A one-day workshop featuring presentations from panelists on topics relating to northern ecosystems, restoration and featuring vascular and non-vascular plant species
Calgary Horticultural Society
Gardening Fundamentals Course
A 2-day course aimed at beginner to intermediate gardeners. Topics include: soil characteristics, composting, fertilization, basic botany, categories of plants and their care, trees and shrubs and the basics of planting and pruning, concepts of vegetable growing, starting from seed, propagation and division of plants.
Calgary Horticultural Society
Garden Journaling Course
Keeping good records of these observations will help the gardener avoid or combat reoccurring issues, remember details about challenges and successes, identify favourable conditions for plants and create a plan for the future.
Calgary Horticultural Society
The Master Gardener practical and theoretical program is for those interested in learning more about the art and science of gardening such as botany, plant identification and propagation, pest and weed management, sustainable gardening techniques and more.
Master Gardener Training Program – Alberta
This online Master Gardener training program caters to participants who have a passion for gardening, wanting to expand their knowledge in the horticulture field, or wanting to become a Master Gardener.
Agricultural Sustainability Diploma
A program that bridges agricultural and environmental sciences. Includes field labs which focus on skills related to soil science, water management, grasslands, livestock production, and crop production.
Sustainable Agriculture Course
A study of theory and practical applications for optimizing long-term returns in agricultural systems while maintaining the long-term viability of natural resources. Topics include possible contaminants in natural, urban and rural environments, preservation of soil, air and water, best practices for resource management and social license.
Medicine Hat College
Agroecology Technician Diploma
The agroecology diploma gives you exposure to a variety of topics preparing you to diversify your current operations or start a venture. Expand your knowledge in areas such as holistic (grazing) management, mycoculture, permaculture, rangelands, vermiculture, eco-system, and systems thinking.
Sustainable Environment and Permaculture
NAIT’s Sustainable Environment and Green Culture series of courses provide insight into how to thrive within your house and home, local culture and community. Courses include Beekeeping, Permaculture, Sustainable Home and Property, and Residential Landscape Design.
Northlands Urban Farm
Northlands Urban Farm School offers a free, fresh-air educational experience that connects Edmonton-area students of all ages to urban agriculture. Northlands Urban Farm is a 1-acre plot in the heart of the city that grows greens, houses chickens, and supports a beehive. Through an hour and a half of tasting and touching, looking and listening, students clearly come to understand how food can be produced even in the middle of the city.
Stony Plain Multicultural Heritage Centre and the Demonstration Farm
Organic Master Gardener Program
This program is offered in cooperation with Gaia College and SOUL (Society of Organic Urban Landcare). The program takes place over 9 months, February to October for a total of 27 classes.
University of Alberta
Sustainable Agricultural Systems – Bachelor of Science in Agriculture
This program teaches you how to maintain and enhance the performance of agricultural systems (including people, plants, animals, soil, water, and other resources) in efficient and sustainable ways. Key areas of study include agricultural production systems, natural resource management, and their relationship to social and economic systems.
Permaculture Design Course
Discover the principles for designing and implementing regenerative human habitat. Learn practical preparedness, with a focus on cold and temperate climates, from a team of urban and rural permaculture designers/consultants, ecological engineers, business and marketing mentors – all successful entrepreneurs.
It’s important to figure out which practices you want to take on in alignment with your personal values and time.
GROW YOUR NETWORK
To be a successful farmer, having a strong network is vital to your success and this is a never-ending process. It can be helpful to build your community before you build a farm. Having a strong network is beneficial to your career as a farmer because it can help with:
- Peer-to-peer support
- Intergenerational learning
- Accessing land
- Obtaining equipment or help
Photo credit: Kevin Kossowan | Farm: Lazy T Farm
How do you grow your network? It started with Step 1 when we spoke about talking to farmers in your area. Join local online or in-person communities where you can find others who share the same interests as you. Find a farm friend (or many farm friends)! Be a regular at the farmers’ market. Ask your questions to those in the Young Agrarians Alberta Facebook group. Attend networking events and go to on-farm visits. Hint hint: Follow Young Agrarians on social media, join the Young Agrarian newsletter, and check our website frequently for upcoming learning and networking opportunities!
It’s the same concept as all your other interests. If you like reading you will probably go to the library lots and potentially join a book club. And if you want to get into farming you will start to visit more farms and join a farm club (yes, that’s a thing!). Reach out to people and keep trying. You might be surprised at what knowledge others want to offer!
Events can be opportunities to meet like-minded folks:
- Young Agrarians Mixers, Farm Tours, Workshops, and more!
- Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association Annual Conference
- Edmonton Resilience Festival
- Edmonton Horticultural Society: Free Speakers Series
- Organic Alberta Conference
- Western Canadian Grazing Conference
- Verge Permaculture: Various Workshops, Events and Webinars
STEP 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…IT DOESN’T STOP HERE
Farming isn’t going to happen overnight and it takes a lot of commitment. This is where your networks come in handy. Ask your peers for help when you need it and reciprocate the favour. If you feel a bit lost, go back a couple steps and learn through experience at other farms and/or further education.
When you’re ready for the next steps, take a look into other YA resources including the:
- Business Bootcamp for New Farmers – This online, community-based program will give you the space and skills to write a stellar business plan for the farm of your dreams.
- Alberta Land Access Guide – A guide to help new farmers look at options into accessing land to farm.
You’ve got this and remember that we are all in it together!
Do you know of any other resources that might benefit readers of this guide? Email email@example.com.