Midwest Field Trip Offers Closer Look at Bioeconomy
Tour immerses students in U.S. farming heartland
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Formally, it's known as the crop science field trip course. Informally, it's the Midwest tour, a two-week field study course intended to immerse a busload of Guelph students in agriculture and agribusiness in North America's farming heartland. But for plant agriculture professors Clarence Swanton and Rene Van Acker, this year's trip also offered a timely taste of the growing bioeconomy, no small point as the University begins construction of its planned bioproducts centre.
Taken just before the beginning of the fall semester, the tour takes senior undergraduates to cash-crop and livestock farms, processing and manufacturing operations, and markets from elevators to stockyards in the Midwest states.
“It's a unique opportunity for students entering fourth year to get a sense of the power and influence of American agriculture,” Swanton says.
Referring to sprawling livestock and dairy operations and “opinionated, motivated western farmers,” he says: “They see things they don't see in Canada.”
Beginning in Chicago and ending in Fort Wayne, Ind., this year's tour took 49 students on a counterclockwise route through seven states: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana.
Among the 20-odd stops were several perennial favourites, including the Chicago Board of Trade, as well as feedlots and family farms in several states.
New this time was a stop at an ethanol plant, reflecting the growth in the use of crops for biofuels. Recalling the expansive fields nearby in Nebraska, Van Acker, chair of the Department of Plant Agriculture, says: “All you see is corn.”
Students are expected to write daily logs and an essay about the experience.
“It was a fantastic introduction to studying in Canada and meeting people in the same area,” says Zita Ritchie, an exchange student from Australia's University of Sydney who is spending this semester at Guelph.
Van Acker says the course was the highlight of his own crop science undergraduate program here in the late 1980s.
“I had an impression from a distance of what the American Midwest was like,” he says. But only during that first tour did he grasp the size of the U.S. farming giant. “The trip put Canadian agriculture into a different and more realistic context and helped me understand the implications of American farm policy for Canada.”
He says retracing the route this year has given him a fresh perspective on strategic planning in his department, including plans for more intensive research and teaching in the bioeconomy within the planned Centre for Bioproducts Discovery and Development.
The tour began as an impromptu road trip in 1969 when members of the Ontario Agricultural College soil and crop club filled up a convoy of Winnebago trailers and headed west. It became an organized course — complete with a chartered bus — in 1977 when Prof. Rob McLaughlin taught it as a newly minted crop science faculty member that year. He led the trip for five years.
It's been many years since he boarded the bus, says McLaughlin, who is currently under secondment from his U of G position as associate-vice president (research) agri-food and partnerships to serve as chair and president of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.
“Even now on Labour Day weekend, I think: ‘I kind of miss that.' It gets into your blood.”