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How Picture Butte’s Farming Education Program is cultivating resilience in youth

Posted on May 16, 2023 by Sunny South News

By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News

Picture Butte High School’s (PBSH) innovative Farming Education (Farm Ed) program is building a culture of resilience amongst students.

One year in, the program is already well on its way to realizing the big plans for the various parts of the curriculum which include bee-keeping, aquaponic systems with tilapia, composting, a greenhouse, outdoor community garden space, chickens, and more.

PBHS’s principal, Mark Lowe, who oversees a farming program at the high school, believes the implementation of the program has been a catalyst for some pedagogical shifts. According to him, incorporating the idea of “failing forward” within the farm ed program allows students to learn from their mistakes, promotes resiliency, and empowers them to try without the persistent fear of being seen as flawed or inferior when they make mistakes.

As part of the program, students have contributed to the construction and design of the school’s chicken coops, and various other program infrastructure. Though students have made some mistakes along the way Lowe said this has provided them with the valuable opportunity to correct and learn from those mistakes.

“It’s been redone a couple of times,” said Lowe, pointing to the wooden gate at the entrance of the chickens enclosure, “but that’s all part of the process.”

“We really wanted to just give the students the opportunity to learn by failure.”

Lowe’s own way back into farming has been a testament to maintaining an attitude of resilience.

Lowe said fears of mechanical shortcomings earlier in his life restricted him from continuing on with family farming. “I didn’t know if I could fix all of the machinery.”

Lowe said it made sense for the school to start up a farming education program.

“Growing up on a farm, I’ve always had a passion for it, and was a bit sad that my kids grew up in the city and never had the chance to experience the farm,” and added despite what some may think, “only about 30 per cent of the students at the high school actually come from farms or farming backgrounds,” said Lowe.

“You want to always identify the strength of your community and build on it,” he continued, “I always look for whatever opportunity is there.”

Like any worthwhile endeavour, it will take time for the operation to become fully optimized. Even still, the progress over the past year is substantial. Plans have been set in motion, and structural designs have come alive. The greenhouse is set to break ground on June 5. Although the changes from 2022-2023 are immediately obvious to an outsider, Lowe said, “For our students, sometimes it feels like it’s happening because the progress happens slowly until you look at it (closely).”

In turn, the program’s milestones are updated weekly on a bulletin board which is visible to students to remind them that slow progress is still progress.

Lowe gave a tour of the program in May 2022, just as things were starting to take off. A year ago, the Town had just passed an Urban Hen Bylaw, and were still in the early steps of calibrating a vision for the program and sorting through logistic considerations. In 2023, mature egg-laying chickens roam the coop behind the school, and more young “teenage” chickens are housed indoors in a converted classroom space.

The first year saw challenges, and even with the dedicated efforts and commitment to getting the program up and running, hail wiped out garden crops, and limited food for the onsite beekeeping part of the program. These kinds of unexpected real-world challenges can and do stifle real-world operations all the time, and again offered valuable, if not a bit frustrating, learning opportunities for school staff.  Lowe said that the “failing forward” ethos applies to both students and plants. Perfect scores don’t make perfect learners, and perfect conditions don’t make for perfect plants.

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