University of Alberta: Students help local food producers boost sustainability

Carolyn Herbert (second right) worked with students from the U of A’s Augustana Campus to create a new quarterly newsletter highlighting her family’s eco-friendly farming practices and the importance of buying local. (Photo: Braeden Kelly)

Camrose-area farmer Carolyn Herbert wanted to connect with her customers about the food she was selling them, but wasn’t sure how best to do it—until some University of Alberta students gave her a hand.

Thanks to the efforts of Augustana Campus students enrolled in an Applications in Sustainability course, her family farm now has a quarterly newsletter that highlights its eco-friendly practices and the importance of buying local.

“We would often email our customers when we wanted them to buy something, but we wanted something more that would tell our story and build our relationships with them,” said Herbert, whose mixed farm sells poultry, beef and eggs locally and raises cereal crops.

The first edition of the newsletter created by the students in collaboration with Herbert quickly proved popular when it was released early this year, she said.

“We’ve picked up new customers as a result of our readers passing it on; it was satisfying to see results within a few days of sending out the first issue.”

Herbert’s project was one of nine that 45 students in professor Greg King’s Applications in Sustainability class tackled this year, working with the Food Artisans of Camrose County, a collection of food and beverage producers and restaurants, to address their various sustainability challenges.

Fresh perspectives on sustainability
The course uses an environmental lens to look at sustainability, and also incorporates humanities and social science perspectives.

The students, enrolled from various degree programs across Augustana Campus, were tasked with helping members of the collective come up with ideas and solutions to their individual challenges.

“The students asked them about specific projects or research questions that they couldn’t tackle on their own,” said King, noting that the students brought a valuable “generational perspective” to the table.

“They bring a passion for bringing change and also access to a tremendous amount of knowledge and research skills.”

The 13-week projects included Herbert’s newsletter, exploring the potential of renewable energy for a pork processing operation, and finding ways for producers to use less plastic packaging when selling their food.

The students’ work helped the group in several ways, said Anjah Howard, manager of planning and development at Camrose County.

“The students were savvy on what works for communication strategies like social media outreach, and they brought skill sets in technology and being able to conduct research that the producers don’t have the capacity or time to do. They also brought ideas on how producers could shift their operations to be more sustainable.”

In Herbert’s case, students crafted a handful of stories around sustainability for her newsletter, including spotlighting how the farm diverts food waste from a local grocery chain to help feed its livestock.

“They got me thinking more broadly about how to put into words the ways we are sustainable and the stories we have to tell,” said Herbert. “They were willing to ask about our key values and mission to really know what the heart of our farm was.

“People reading the newsletter really enjoyed the information, and since our goal is to help customers become more passionate about buying local, to articulate our stewardship of the farm can be important to them,” she added. “Long-term sustainability for a farm is important, and if we have advocates in our customers in understanding that, that’s a really good benefit.”

The group of food artisans is making good use of the students’ work, said Howard.

“All of the projects were successful in some way, and it made the producers more aware of changes they can make that have a big impact, like taking a different approach to social media or tweaking their operations to save costs. The students were able to provide a laser focus on ‘if you do this, you get these results,’ so producers now have the knowledge to start making decisions on four-, 10- or 20-year plans.”

Learning while serving the community
Through Community Service-Learning (CSL) placements, Augustana Campus students have already been working with Camrose County for a decade, with this course project being the latest success, said Howard, a U of A graduate herself.

“We’ve been doing CSL for a long time, but this year in particular the work and the passion that the class brought really showed through. Our group now has several action items coming out of the students’ final presentations that we want to move forward on. They always do good work, and we had an expectation of what we were going to get, but they raised the bar.”

The course also builds awareness for students about their own ability to make a difference, said King.

“It develops a way to look at problems through a sustainability lens, and it can apply to how they look at their own lives, how to contribute to their communities and ways to find potential jobs in sectors they didn’t know existed. That lens can change the way they look at the world and how they interact with it.”

It also helps students realize they can have an impact, said King, adding that Augustana’s new project-based core set of courses—including classes like Applications in Sustainability—will help future classes deepen their involvement through community-based projects.

“Their projects get compliments from their community partners, and a student can say to themselves, ‘I helped with this and I helped make a change for the better.’”

“It was great that we weren’t just writing a paper on sustainability, but actually doing something for a person’s business. Our work felt more important,” said Ally Hamilton, a bachelor of science student whose class group built a website and created social media posts and a marketing video for a Camrose-area farm.

Hamilton and her classmates wanted to help TME Farms market its meat products, particularly to attract younger customers, by showing that buying local was comparable to buying at a large commercial outlet, and more environmentally sustainable.

“We did a project about the true cost of local food to tackle the assumption that it cost too much to buy locally. We broke down the comparison to show the costs weren’t that different to encourage more customers.”

They also listed the benefits of locally produced meat on the website, including lower environmental impacts.

Hamilton said she gained a new appreciation for working on a hands-on, community-based project, and will keep it in mind as she plans for a career as a school teacher.

“Involving the community is a different way to do things, and you can learn a lot by interacting with the community next door or down the street. It was awesome how much time community members were willing to give us and how welcoming they were.”

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