Young agriculturalists travel across the ocean and half a continent to gain first-hand farm experience
Debra Gilson makes cookies on a kitchen counter in her busy home, while three smiling young adults gather around the table, one shouting “Grandma” when her mother-in-law Rlee Gilson walks into the house.
If it wasn’t for the distinctly foreign accents, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just one big farm family, but in fact Debra and her husband Scott Gilson are hosting three farm interns from Germany and Austria.
“When they come here they are family,” said Scott Gilson. “It’s just a wonderful experience; we really have enjoyed it.”
Six years ago one of the Gilsons’ neighbours, originally from Germany, set them up with their first intern and since then word of mouth has spread the news — the Gilsons is where it’s at.
“I had learned about it from friends, who had come here too,” said Sebastian Auburger, who arrived at the dairy and beef operation this April and will stay until September.
The 25-year-old has just finished a masters degree in agricultural economics and wanted a new experience before returning to Germany to work on his PhD.
Auburger hopes his time in Canada improves his English, but he has also gained valuable farming experience.
“I had a little experience before because my uncle is a dairy farmer, I know what a cow looks like, where the milk comes from and where is the back and where is the front,” he laughed. “But now I have learned to milk, and to handle the animals… I was not scared of the cattle before, but I was not used to them.”
Verena Krapfl didn’t grow up farming and isn’t planning to study it at university. However, the 21-year-old Austrian — who will begin studying medicine this fall — wanted a chance to experience working with animals and farm life before embarking on a long-term education plan.
“I went to a school that specialized in agriculture and learned a lot, but a lot of theory,” she said. “I came here to know what farm life is really like, how people do this six days a week.”
With the words “six days a week” the Gilsons’ kitchen erupts in laughter.
“We didn’t know you were getting one day free! When did this happen?” jokes Auburger.
But between feeding, milking, tilling and picking stones, there has been time for the students to explore Manitoba and travel as far afield as Alberta.
“It’s kind of a different lifestyle, you are so far away from everything, any city or town,” said Katrin Wagner, who came to the Interlake from Bavaria. Although Wagner hails from a village an hour and a half outside of Munich, she said it’s easy in Germany to drive 10 minutes and be in the next town, or hop on a train to the closest city.
“Here you always have to plan to drive… that is something that is very different to me,” she said.
For Auburger, surprise came in the form of similarity with a farm internship he did in another European country.
“I was really surprised that Canada looks like Ukraine,” he said. “It’s not exactly the same, but the land is very similar.”
But despite being drawn to farm life, none of the Gilsons’ current interns plan to go into the production side of agriculture.
“I would say owning a farm is not likely at all,” said Wagner. “It’s something you have to inherit or get from your parents; buying is not so much an option.”
Like Canada and many other countries, Germany is also seeing a consolidation of farm ownership. As small farmers retire in Germany, no one is there to take over, and large landholders swoop in, Wagner said.
“There are many reasons for this,” she added. “It’s very hard work and you don’t earn that much money with it unless you are really big.”
However, that doesn’t mean the experience they get in Canada won’t assist them as they move into their careers.
Auburger hopes to teach one day, and will continue to focus on agricultural economics. Wagner on the other hand, plans to work for an agricultural industry, possibly an equipment company.
“The whole thing is a good experience. Here you can try a bit of everything, not only the dairy and not only the fields, but a little bit of everything,” said Wagner. Auburger said his ground-level experience on a small farm will have a positive impact on his understanding farm economics as he continues his studies.
But the exchange of knowledge hasn’t been a one-way street. Scott and Debra Gilson have also learned a lot about life and farming in Europe along the way.
“Last year we visited Germany and Austria to see some of the kids and meet their parents,” said Scott Gilson. “It was really an amazing experience.”
He added that having grown up with stories and photos of postwar Europe, he was surprised to see how similar it was to Canada.
“It’s also been really interesting to watch our kids interact with them and see what they have learned,” said Debra, adding their daughter is now dating a boy from Austria.
“So I guess we’ll all have to go back,” she said smiling.