New agronomy courses let students dig into the science of prairie farming

Field trips in central and southern Alberta take learners beyond the classroom to gain a career edge in a global marketplace.


Agriculture students get hands-on experience with the science of crop nutrients during a trip to the Breton Plots southwest of Edmonton as part of a new course on agronomy. (Photo: Linda Gorim)

Crouching in a farm field one dewy Alberta morning last August, Nicole Barrett was struck by the patchwork of forage plants thriving under her feet.

“It looked like you had just walked into a wild meadow,” the second-year University of Alberta bachelor of science in agriculture student recalls. “There were sunflowers, faba beans, peas, wheat, over 25 different species. It was beautiful. All the plants looked so healthy and vibrant.”

The sight of so much experimental variety growing on one piece of land gave Barrett, an aspiring agronomist, a sense of excitement for a planned career in helping farmers meet the future.

“It showed me there is potential for non-typical farming practices, and gives me hope that we can change the way we farm to improve our soils and increase sustainability to improve the environment.”

Barrett’s visit to the farm was part of Exploring Field Crop Agronomy, a new course offered this year in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

The course — one of two created and taught for the first time this year by Linda Gorim, assistant professor and WGRF Chair in Cropping Systems — gives undergraduate agricultural students hands-on learning about the science of soil management and crop production on central and southern Alberta farms and fields.

The course is designed to give students “a solid background in prairie agronomy,” says Gorim.

“That knowledge builds trust with the farmers and other agricultural clients they’ll be working with in their future careers.”

Gorim’s class takes the students on field trips to learn about the equipment and processes farmers use to plant, grow and water their crops.

“We wanted to get them as dirty as possible,” Gorim says. “What you see and touch is easier to learn than memorizing slides in a classroom or watching videos. These are tools that they’ll need to be familiar with as agronomists, as they work with universities, research associations and farmers.”

Site visits include a stop at the Gateway Research Organization, an agricultural research centre in Westlock, Battle River Research Group near Forestburg, and the U of A’s Breton Plots.

The sites provide opportunities for hands-on exercises such as identifying nutrient deficiency in common crops like wheat and canola and soil-borne diseases such as clubroot. The students also learn about seeding processes, view drying bins for grain, and visit the Brooks area in southern Alberta to learn about irrigated agriculture, and visit Quattro Farms, a Bow Island seed retailer.

Twice-weekly classes in the course also teach core concepts in agronomy including crop nutrition, fertilizer use, yield, and crop stressors like drought. Guest speakers from various growers’ commissions and experienced producers and agronomists contribute to topics and share experiences that will help students in their future careers, Gorim adds.

“We want the students to learn how to combine what is scientifically sound with what is logistically feasible to put money in a farmer's pocket,” she notes.

Hands-on experience adds to “head knowledge”

The second course, Experiential Learning in Agriculture, ran for the first time this past summer, with 11 students working in paid internships from May to August as sales agronomists, agronomy associates, and research, horticultural and veterinary assistants.

The real-world experience of working with an employer and for clients in the field adds to the “head knowledge” students learn in class, Gorim says.

Most students also come from farms “where they have worked with trusted family members who love and care about them, which likely means that when they complete their degrees, we expect them to ‘just do well’ in the workplace without any prior preparation,” Gorim says.

“The course lets them dive into what kinds of transferable and soft skills they want to develop, and they also realize that when their employer assigns them a task, they’re always working with several skills.”

They learn how to identify, avoid and manage conflict, and manage their time effectively.

Students also attend a lecture from agricultural company Syngenta, to learn about work-life balance, “so they learn how to recognize early on in their careers what type of ag employer would be a good fit for them,” Gorim says.

“All these skills will better equip and increase the quality of U of A agriculture graduates.”

For agricultural business management student Adriana Van Tryp, the experience helped her build industry contacts for a planned career either in agricultural banking or as an agronomist.

Her placement brought her back to a southern Alberta farm where she’d already worked many summers as a teen, helping her cement the connections she’s made over the years with the farmer and industry agronomists.

“I like being able to have them as knowledgeable connections and resources, to be able to ask them questions.”

Agricultural business management student Adriana Van Tryp stands beside a tractor trailer on a farm. (Photo: Supplied)
Agricultural business management student Adriana Van Tryp says her paid internship as part of the Experiential Learning in Agriculture course helped her build industry connections and job skills for her future career. (Photo: Supplied)

Supplemented with a week of classroom instruction, Van Tryp and her fellow students worked on learning how to communicate effectively, work alone and as part of a team, and manage their time.

They were required to journal their progress throughout the summer and check in with Gorim for feedback, which Van Tryp found invaluable.

“It helped me become very intentional and mindful in what I was saying and doing on the job, and week to week, I reflected on that. Taking that with me (into a career), every month I’ll reflect on how work is going and what I could improve on, and push myself to ask questions and do better.”

Training tomorrow’s stewards of food sustainability

Both courses give U of A students an edge in the workplace, Gorim believes.

“They are going to compete for jobs globally. Everyone has a degree, but having the experience is something else.”

The courses also help equip the students as future stewards of sustainable food production in the face of climate change and the environmental stresses it brings, Gorim believes.

“The students we train will have to find solutions to make sure that agricultural systems don't collapse. It’s important to have the knowledge about what to expect in terms of drought, flooding, and how agronomic practices need to shift, to make sure food production is sustainable in the future.”

Funding and in-kind support for the agronomy course was provided by the Alberta Barley and Wheat Commission, the Alberta Canola Producers Commission and Western Grain Research Foundation. Support for the work experience course is provided by Val and Morley Blanch.