The kids were heading for their buses as I arrived at the 40th Manitoba Conservation Districts Association (MCDA) annual convention in Brandon last week, just in time to help hand out plaques to the district award winners.
There were hundreds of them, students brought in for the day by the association with support from community and business sponsorships.
The day featured several speakers of the kind that might well connect with a younger audience whose interest in and knowledge of environmental issues is in its formative stages. Incidentally, they were also the kind of speakers that grey-haired delegates were still talking about as they gathered for the evening’s banquet.
Manitoba farmer and youth leader Clayton Robins talked about polycropping. Ontario farmer Harry Stoddard talked about changing the language of agriculture from “sustainable” — which implies doing less harm — to “restorative,” a concept that sets the bar higher.
The event featured workshops about shelterbelts and harvesting cattails, and by Chad Pregracke, founder of the Living Land and Waters Movement in the U.S. Pregracke began single handedly cleaning up the Mississippi River when he was 17 years old. He now heads up an organization of 70,000 volunteers who have collectively removed eight million tonnes of garbage from the Mississippi and 16 other rivers.
The day was capped off with a presentation from the popular CBC and Discovery Channel science journalist Jay Ingram.
The MCDA, which like most umbrella organizations is chronically underfunded and highly dependent on volunteers, continues to punch above its weight when it comes to delivering on the educational component of its mandate.
In the past, that teaching and mentorship role was focused at forming connections with farmers and building their capacity through knowledge, infrastructure and technology to improve their water and land management.
In recent years, the MCDA’s outreach on water and land stewardship issues has turned to youth.
From competitions and scholarships, to partnerships between districts and local schools, the MCDA has morphed into an organization that truly educates through mentorship and hands-on opportunities.
Considering current trends in agriculture, most of the young people growing up on farms and in rural communities will become urbanites as they reach adulthood. So by engaging with youth, this conservation community is forming important and potentially long-lasting connections with the broader community.
Teaching and mentorship is showing up more often in the annual conservation district awards as well, for which the Manitoba Co-operator is a proud sponsor. For example, this year’s lineup included the Gaynor Family Regional Library in Selkirk, a community learning facility that boasts an outdoor classroom with an interpretive trail through native tall-grass prairie.
The Pembina Valley district recognized lifelong teacher Kent Lewarne. In the Turtle Mountain district, Rick Schoonbaert and his wife Helen were recognized for how they farm and for his contribution as a high school teacher. Whitemud district recognized the Austin Elementary School for multiple projects undertaken in partnership with the local district.
Farmers continue to figure into the scene. Dennis and Ardith Burdeniuk were honoured by the Intermountain district for their donation of land for a tree plantation and nursery. Gord and Margaret Hammell were recognized by the Little Saskatchewan River district for their commitment to maintaining natural lands on their farm, and Grant Edel by the Seine Rat River district for his development of a system to hold back water on his farm as a form of flood control.
But the common theme through all of these is leadership — through example, innovation and teaching.
These are important inroads to make in light of news this week that suggests global governments are finally getting serious about confronting the challenge of climate change.
In an agreement hailed as setting the course for a “historic transformation of the world’s fossil fuel-driven economy,” world leaders agreed to seek a balance between output of man-made greenhouse gases and absorption — by forests or the oceans — by the second half of this century.
Achieving this will require a very different ethic in how the landscape is managed, putting farmers the world over on the front lines of this transformation.
It implies less of an emphasis on what the land can produce by way of yield and a more robust consideration of its ability to provide environmental services. All of this makes the MCDA’s efforts to help tomorrow’s leaders understand the connections between agriculture, conservation and climate even more relevant.