Belmont-area Ridgetown College grad Abbey Taylor recently returned from several months working her way from farm to farm across Canada, learning about a wide range of products and production strategies.
She was inspired, in part, by a podcast created for the Canadian Gap Year Association.
Taylor most recently returned to Ontario after leaving a position as a “shared labourer” hired by a co-operatively governed organization in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia called the Pender Island Farmers’ Institute. In that role, she was assigned to help out whichever member of the group needed an extra hand that day.
Why it matters: Agriculture needs young people to find inspiration and experience if the sector is to have successful food producers into the next generation.
Taylor’s previous month’s experience had left her prepared for just about any farming job.
Since being hired on as a “grazing assistant” in the spring of 2020 on a mixed livestock farm in western Quebec, Taylor experienced a breadth of Canadian farm roles, ranging from long-hours combine operator, to bison ranch control gate handler, to on-farm abattoir labourer.
Holder of a DZ licence needed to drive trucks and always eager on her family’s crop farm to run a grain truck, combine or sprayer, Taylor set her sights in 2020 on helping with spring planting and then finding away-from-home work for the rest of the summer.
She had begun the 2019-20 school term embarking on an agricultural economics program on the main campus of the University of Guelph, but decided by the end of first term that it wasn’t the right time to be back in a formal classroom.
In particular, she wanted to explore options in what she describes as her farm-related “passion” — small-scale livestock production. “I’ve always been into direct sales,” she said. When she was nine, she started raising laying hens, a venture she continues.
In the intervening years, Taylor has dabbled in various types of livestock, including free-range and/or grass-fed beef, turkeys and meat chickens. She even built her own portable chicken tractors to rotationally graze broilers.
The onset of COVID-19 in March made finding summer work more complicated. But Taylor also described the pandemic as “a good time for me to re-evaluate.”
She began looking further afield for employment and educational opportunities, and the one she settled on ended up being nowhere near Belmont.
“One of my dreams was to work on a smaller, ecological farm, doing livestock.” She found exactly that near Wakefield, Que. Rock’s End Farm raises organic livestock — Icelandic sheep, Angus beef, pastured pork and pastured poultry. Taylor was hired as a “grazing assistant” — managing the movement of livestock in a rotational manner into paddocks nestled in the Gatineau Hills.
“It was a lot of hiking (but) I loved learning about grass,” especially the soil health aspects, including rotationally grazed livestock in a farm system.
Along with the Gap Year podcast, she also was reading the 2018 book “Dirt to Soil” by North Dakota soil health guru Gabe Brown. There, she found information about Axten Farms in Saskatchewan.
“I decided then that the idea of having a really purposeful gap year was what I really needed. It seemed like the signs all pointed to taking a year and doing more things like (Rock’s End Farm) across Canada.”
She contacted Axten Farms and learned that some of their regular workers were unavailable for harvest due to COVID-19. So she sent a resume, and was hired on to service and operate a combine. She said goodbye to the Gatineau Hills, steered her car west, and worked a month of long days in the combine.
“Fulfilling” and “educational” are words she used to describe that month. The Axtens grow about 13 different crops, with soil health best management practices including intercropping and cover crops. The farm has its own seed-cleaning mill to enable access to specialized seed.
“They’re all about soil biology and soil health, and I learned a lot from them.”
Not the least of what she learned is that regenerative and ecologically sensitive approaches can be implemented on larger-scale farms, as well as on smaller-scale operations.
From there, Taylor followed a two-week, meandering route to stay with extended family on Pender Island, B.C. Stops along the way included agricultural colleges, and helping out at farms or touring farms that she was able to contact as she went.
This included a cranberry farm, a sheep farm and a dairy farm, as well as a ranch near Vermilion, Alta., where they rounded up bison and cattle on horseback for pregnancy checks. She handled one of the gates for the day — an experience she said was one of the highlights of her year.
It also became clear to her that day that the world has opened up for women seeking careers in agriculture. At both the bison ranch and Rock’s End Farm, the main farm operators are female, and Taylor counts that as one of the main lessons of her experience.
Settled in at Pender Island, she again sought out farm tours. It was on one of those that she was put in touch with the Pender Island Farmers’ Institute.
Before that, however, she enjoyed her other “most unique” experience of the trip: “WWOOF”-ing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) on a sheep farm on Saturna Island with its own on-farm abattoir in which custom-killing and wrapping was done for other area livestock producers.
She spent a week working in the abattoir. During that time, they processed seven steers, which had been transported to Saturna on a ferry.
“It really meant a lot for me to see how animals are killed and cut. Until then, I’ve just had the privilege of sending the animals away and having someone else do that work,” Taylor said.
“It’s a rare opportunity…I really liked seeing the whole process.”
About the entire trip, she said, “I learned so much. There was lots of agriculture, but there was other stuff too. There was history.”
She picked up a book entitled “The Pioneer Years” by Barry Broadfoot, which was written in the 1970s and features interviews with rural Canadian prairie dwellers, who were in their 90s at the time. As she crossed the country, she imagined how the landscape looked when those interviewees were her age. “It’s crazy how recent that was” — as well as how it looked when Indigenous people lived by hunting vast herds of bison.
Asked about advice she would give young people thinking about careers in agriculture, Taylor said, “never turn down a farm tour.”
And, she said, young people shouldn’t be shy to ask. Many times people are eager to provide answers. “And it doesn’t have to be across the country; it could be right in your own community.”