By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
The agricultural way of life teaches those involved in it some important lessons about where our food comes from, the need for us to respect the land and to give us an insight and reverence for local history.
The Neubauer family has been farming in south east Alberta for the past 106 years, but it is the latest generation of Neubauers who have most successfully brought the farm to the city with their “Growing Minds Program” aimed at school age kids.
Nichole Neubauer, her husband Mark and her children Evi and Logan have hosted nearly 12,000 students from the Medicine Hat area on their farm since starting the program about a decade ago. They have recently been acknowledged for their education efforts by winning the BMO Farm Family of the Year Award for 2016.
“To be recognized for bringing that message to the community, bridging the gap between rural and urban with our agriculture education program… is both very gratifying and very reassuring we are on the right track as agriculture advocates,” says Nichole. “It’s very affirming, and it fuels the fire, so to speak, to say we need to continue advocating for agriculture.”
Nichole says it seems slightly surreal for her family to win an award for something they love doing.
“We were kind of shocked and surprised,” admits Nichole. “Because we don’t really view what we do as something amazing to get on the stage for. It’s just what we do. There is a saying that goes: If you find a job that isn’t work, you will never have to work a day in your life. For us, hosting students to our farm to teach them about something we love, and share passionately about, brings us great joy.”
However, she does see a huge problem developing in society going forward as fewer and fewer kids are now growing up in the agriculture industry.
“Research has shown recently that less than two per cent of the population lives in a rural setting,” she says. “The vast majority live in big centres. What comes along with those living conditions is that disconnection with agriculture, which ultimately leads to a disconnection with your food and the land that feeds you. Every student that visits our farm learns on a very basic hands-on level where their food comes from.”
She says when farmers don’t speak up for their industry they allow others, many misinformed or willfully blind, to fill up the air space with nonsense.
“We have a lot of other people who are telling the story of agriculture that aren’t connected to the land. Social media is incredibly powerful, and has a powerful voice. Really who better to tell the story of agriculture than those who know what happens day to day on the farm? There is no one better than the professional experts who engage and deal with these matters in a daily basis.”
Farmers should not be shy about speaking out or expressing their pride in their own industry, she says.
“The story of agriculture is incredibly positive, very innovative, and lots of technology and science behind it. We have to promote our own business from within so we don’t have others telling our stories for us.”
The Neubauers have recently taken over their family’s original 106 year-old homestead from Mark’s parents. Many of the early buildings are still standing and in good repair. They are in the process of upgrading the farm to make it a bit more 21st century friendly without losing its historical charm. Nichole sees the potential to add an historical appreciation element to the family’s Growing Minds Program, and local teachers are already calling.
“We can stand firmly with one foot in the present and one within the past,” confirms Nichole. “We can take a little stroll, for example, through our machinery graveyard, so to speak. Truthfully the original, horse-drawn, single bottom plough and the old dump rakes and cultivation equipment that were used to break the first prairie sod are all still right here.
“When students look a hundred years later at things like our air seeder with variable rate, to use GPS or auto-steer, the Round-up ready seed we sow, there is just so much more technology available for farmers over what our ancestors had. It’s always very humbling to look back at the beginnings. You take a shovel and try to dig out in that prairie grass, it’s as hard as a rock. Those folks persevered and really worked hard to establish themselves here. They sacrificed everything, in many cases, so we can have the life we live today.”
Evi Neubauer concurs with her mother strongly on this point.
“We feel really lucky that we actually do live on a farm because a lot of people do live in the cities,” Evi adds. “It’s pretty cool to live on a farm. I think it is really cool to think this farmland has only ever been owned by Neubauers. And to think it all would have be ploughed by horse… It’s amazing!”
Her brother Logan wholeheartedly agrees.
“It’s humbling,” he says, “and we are aware that this is a 106 year-old farm. It reminds us of that heritage every time we come out to this farm. I was cleaning out behind the barn today and I noticed this old tin spoon that was just buried in the ground, and, I thought, ‘Oh wow, someone dropped this here a long time ago.’ It was rusted, and it wasn’t curved like the spoons we have today. Someone probably went to take it over to the barn and it fell out on the way.”
Evi is also thrilled to see all the old horse harnesses still hanging in barn after all these years.
“When we were cleaning out the barn, there were still yokes and harnesses hanging there from the last time they were used. Someone just hung them up there after using them one day, and they have stayed there ever since. They still have the smell of the animals they used on them. Probably my grandfather hung them up there one day and just left them.”
When Nichole hears her own children, used to a life on the farm, talking this way, she can only imagine the impact such things could have on a kid from town who has never seen anything like it before.
“It really gives me goosebumps,” she confirms. “To see they can form an appreciation of this place, and a love for the history—they are very fortunate because they know where they came from. Their roots are firmly placed in this ground. We have a one room school house here even, the old Clover Hills School, on our land. When we cleaned out the attic, we found their grandfather’s scribblers with the cursive writing in it and poetry he had written and algebra he had completed while attending that school.
“We plan to clean the school building out, restore it and open a museum. I have had one teacher calling me already about coming out. She wants to make a whole curriculum around that school and the history of early country life.”
As for Mark, he is content to let Nichole, Evi and Logan do most of the talking, but he says it is good to see his children learning an appreciation for what his early ancestors went through in breaking this land.
“I think about the tremendous hardship all the families went through when this area was homesteaded. It was complete survival mode in those days, and, in fact, many didn’t survive. We are pretty proud of the fact that have been on this land for so many generations… As far as the Farm Family Award goes, we are pretty humbled by that award, and we would like to share that with the entire ag. community out there.”