Devin Dittmer

Devin Dittmer, U of A Unit Supervisor DRTC (Dairy Research and Technology Center) - Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sci – AFNS Dept. and Founder, Homeroom Holsteins Program How do you bridge the gulf between urban kids in classrooms and the real, hands-on world of agriculture? Devin Dittmer has found a way. He created a program called Homeroom Holsteins where he honestly shares the hard truths, joys, and circle of life on the farm. The program is currently available to Alberta classroom kids from K - 12. Launched in 2022 from the Dairy Unit at the U of A, the program has exploded in popularity in just one season. Plans for multiple commodities to hop on board are hatching everywhere. Read on to learn what inspired Dittmer and how his talent for straight talk and real connections is truly making a difference.

Devin Dittmer comes from a long line of farmers, growing up south of Spruce Grove, AB, on a farm that has been in his family since 1902. Operating as a dairy farm in the 1970’s, the family has recently shifted to beef. Although the opportunities to learn were there, Devin’s father discouraged his kids from following in his footsteps, feeling that farming was “too much work for too little pay.” 

Devin was encouraged to be a teacher, and he will complete his B.Ed. from the U of A in the summer of 2024. While still a student, he began working at the U of A Dairy Unit as a weekend technician, milking, feeding, and helping out as needed. 

“I worked basically throughout my degree at the unit, and then just kind of fell in love with it more and more,” he recalled. 

His superiors took notice, and he was offered the position of Dairy Unit Supervisor in 2022. 

“Although my dad really wanted me to become a classroom teacher, he can see that I enjoy what I am doing and that there is a real future in it for me,” said Devin. 

Teaching has remained a constant thread in Dittmer’s story. Although his work at the dairy unit includes chores and hard labour, he has found the time to develop an educational program that links students from kindergarten to grade 12 with hands-on dairy farming. 

“I feel like it’s a really good split between the hard labour of the job and having the freedom to do education at the same time,” said Dittmer.

In his education studies, Devin was shocked to learn that there was little to no information about agriculture being taught in schools. The limited amount in the curriculum was stereotypical and dated. He was curious to see if any programs existed to link students to actual farmers and modern farming practices in Alberta. When he talked to fellow teachers, he learned that “a lot of teachers from Alberta had to reach out to somewhere in the States to learn about the cows we have here.”

He started cooking up an idea for a local program to connect a classroom of kids with their own Homeroom Holstein calf. He had conversations with teachers to see what formats might be viable. 

“The idea stemmed from something that my dad said,” said Dittmer. “Years ago, 10% of people used to come from the city and 90% from the country. And those 10% had to teach you about city life. Now 90% come from the city and 10% from the country and the inverse is taking place.” 

“There is such a large amount of knowledge with such a small group of people and if you don’t work really hard to get it out there, it’s lost in the fray of everything else.” 

Dittmer’s idea was to introduce the students to a calf and have them follow that calf throughout its life, learning about all aspects of dairy farming along the way. 

“I never wanted just a 15-minute interaction with the kids,” said Devin. “I wanted to develop a relationship over the school year where, three months down the road, the kids can start asking tougher questions. There are variables they begin to understand when you can follow through for nine months.” 

When the pilot idea was posted on an educational platform for teachers on a Saturday morning, Dittmer was curious to see if it would spark any interest. By Sunday morning, 100 classes had signed up. 

The Homeroom Holstein Program

There are 10-12 Holstein calves that the students follow over nine months. In months 1 – 3, most of the activity takes place in the barn, where Dittmer explains about calving and the birth process. Once the calf is born, it is day one in a story framed around the life of that particular animal, which the classrooms “adopt” as their own. In months 3 – 6, students follow the growth of the calf and learn how housing and nutrition work in the winter season. Months 6 – 9 illustrate weight gains and targets that the farmers need to meet for future breeding. 

“Usually, the kids are pretty shy from September into December,” said Dittmer. “When they return from the winter break, they have developed a real connection to the calf and teachers report that it’s the first thing they ask about.”

At this point, the questions start to come.

“It starts to transition from ‘what’ questions into ‘why’ questions,” explained Dittmer. “That’s the direction that I was hoping the students would take. ‘What’ doesn’t matter if you don’t know the ‘why.’”

Answering questions is a big part of the program for Dittmer and he expands his posted videos and communications to follow the interests of the students.

“They love being able to see the mom. And then, even in kindergarten, a lot of them will start asking about genetics. Why do they look like their mom, why are some all black or all white or a mix? Lots of ‘why’ questions.  And then, in the last month or 2, we start to explain the breeding process and what their life will look like from 14 to 23 months. It’s basically kind of a storybook of what happens from month one to 23.” 

Pictures and videos are uploaded every week to a shared google drive that teachers and classes can access, including a question board that teachers can send to Dittmer. He chooses five questions and shares answers and relevant facts to send out to all the teachers. Each class has their own calf to follow, but they can also access all the calves on the google drive. Dittmer also sets aside several afternoons a week where classes have the option to sign up for a live session. He walks around with his camera, shows them activities at the barn and answers questions in-person. He facilitated 8-10 of those sessions every week during the school year, on a first-come first-served basis.  

“I’ll ask them if they want to see the milking bar, or their calf or I might talk about farm safety and show them tractors,” said Dittmer. “When they want to see their calf, I find it at the unit, and then they can ask me questions about its life. Every zoom call is unique.”  

This season, Dittmer did all of this work on his own, in addition to his full-time job as Unit Supervisor. The plan is to find funding for an educational assistant to help him which will allow for expanded programming and engagement opportunities for the classrooms.  

The response to the program has been phenomenal, from kids and teachers to university leaders both on and off the dairy unit. The university saw the positive applications for industry and the bridge for public engagement and teachers recognized a resource that was invaluable for their curriculum. People want to know where their food comes from, and, with no consistent information streams, misinformation is rampant. 

“Farmers are sometimes demonized but people don’t understand that every second of the farmer’s life revolves around the well-being of their animals,” said Dittmer.  

Kids ask the tough questions and Devin answers them with honesty and transparency. 

“I found that students of every grade often don’t understand the cyclical ways that the world works,” he explained. “You have to have agriculture to eat, and you have to have birth to have life to have death, and so on. It’s a lot of explaining very basic principles that I don’t think schools really touch on.”

After these discussions, students generally understand and accept the information. It is shared honestly, with every question answered, giving students the ability to form their own opinions and beliefs.  

Homeroom Hens and more commodities coming soon! 

Dittmer has set his sights on expanding the Homeroom Holsteins to as many commodities as possible. Next on the agenda is the Homeroom Hens, a program that will be similar in format to the Homeroom Holsteins with the U of A Heritage Chickens providing the chicks, pullets and laying hens to educate and entertain the students. Dittmer projects a sequence of years where the focus moves from laying hens to broilers, breeders, and turkeys. The U of A Swine Unit is working with Christina Quinn, Agriculture Education Coordinator from Alberta Pork, who is currently teaming up with Devin to create a similar swine program for K-12 students (Homeroom Hogs.) Hopes are that the program expands to all aspects of agriculture over time. 

“I want agriculture education to be a staple in the classroom,” said Dittmer. “This should have happened years ago. And, as we expand, I am hoping that university students can become the face of the program to get the teaching experience and share their expertise. And then, hopefully, other schools and other universities will see it and recognize the benefits and the need.” 

With 250 schools already signed up for the 2023/24 school year, for the dairy program alone, the sky is the limit. 

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