Probably forty per cent of settlers who go on our pioneer farms have no knowledge of agriculture in any country, let alone prairie agriculture, and many make distressing and expensive mistakes largely for want of some person to confer with and advise them. – W.R. Motherwell in 1913
Way back, in 1914, when twenty horse power meant twenty horses, the Better Farming Train could be seen rolling across the Saskatchewan prairies. This traveling road show quickly became an educational tour de force with a small town carnival atmosphere.
Federally funded (Farm Instruction Act, 1913), provincially managed and staffed by the University of Saskatchewan, the Better Farming Train was a one-of-a-kind mobile educational institute that had a simple mission: to tour small towns and provide lectures, demonstrations and activities which promote new technologies and techniques specifically beneficial to agriculture on the prairies.
And tour it did. The train traveled thousands of kilometers, stopped at dozens of communities, and is estimated to have been visited by nearly a quarter of the provinces’ population during its eight year run.
The train was divided into themed sections, (livestock, poultry, field husbandry, farm mechanics, household science and boys’ and girls) with each section consisting of a lecture car and one or two display cars carrying various demonstrations and experiments. Lessons were simple but efficacious; designed to help newly landed immigrants and experienced pioneers alike by focusing on topics that rural citizens found directly applicable.
The success of the Better Farming Train had a significant impact on rural life in Saskatchewan. Not only did the train provide new skills and techniques to help our early pioneers establish successful farms, it was also the first taste of formal education many immigrant farmers received.
Since those early days, education has become a cornerstone of Canadian agriculture.
During the era of the Better Farming Train, one-room schools dotted the countryside and provided basic educational skills to elementary school children. By the 1940s, new legislation made way for larger, better equipped rural schools and the one-room schoolhouses slowly began to consolidate as modern facilities were built in town centers around the prairies.
As the decades rolled on, and technology began to dominate agriculture, farmers began to rely more and more on education to cope with the growing intellectual demands of an increasingly complex industry.
By the 1990s, Canadian farm operators had already invested heavily in education. And with good reason. As farm operations continued to grow and modernize, the business side of farming also evolved with new skill sets like resource/inventory management and basic computer literacy (i.e. typing) becoming as valuable as traditional ones, like farm mechanics, animal husbandry and basic botany.
Come 1996, and 56% of Canadian farmers had a highschool diploma or better; 36% had attained some level of post-secondary education. The trades were the most popular (26%), not just because the skills they offer a natural fit with agricultural life (e.g. heavy machinery mechanics), but many farmers gained valuable insight into business operations and management that were directly applicable to their farm operations.
The trend continued and come 2016 nearly 81% of Canadian farmers claimed at least a high-school diploma, with 53% having attended either trade school (35%) or university (17.9%).
And this investment in education pays off, at least according to StatsCanada. Most notable is the correlation between a farm operator’s level of education and their willingness to adopt new technology; the higher the level of education, the more comfortable individuals tend to be learning and trying new technologies.
This willingness to engage with new technologies will be crucial as a new wave of technology is knocking at our door. Various sensors collect reams of valuable data, automation technologies (e.g. autosteer, variable rate control seeders) are already here, and the wide-spread use of drone technology is just around the corner.
And to cope, farmers are already developing new skill sets. Data analysis, computer coding and machine programming are proving useful in farm operations, while an understanding of international grain markets, advertising, and data management help with the ever evolving business side of agriculture.
Understandably, these skills may seem as alien to some of todays’ farmers as computer literacy did to the farmers of yesteryear but they are the skills of the future. As technology continues to advance, and farming becomes more and more complex, education is set to remain a central pillar supporting Canadian farms.
In 1922, the Better Farming Train returned to the U of S for the last time. After eight years and thousands of kilometers, the train was being retired in lieu of more cost effective and less labour intensive means of education. Rural farm meeting groups were established, mail-order correspondence classes were offered and various provincial programs sent qualified agricultural advisors to rural districts to help guide new pioneers.
Almost a hundred years later, and while the means of education may have changed drastically, Canadian farmers are still following the wake of the Better Farming Train.
Hayes, P. (1996) The Better Farming Train. University of Saskatchewan Campus Newsletter. https://library.usask.ca/archives/campus-history/ocn/ocn_15nov1996-train.php
Tran, K., Shumsky, M. (2019) The Educational Advancement of Canadian Farm Operators. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/96-325-x/2019001/article/00002-eng.pdf?st=2TNjgO-B