A manual for 3-H@Guelph, A Summer Dairy Experience Program, sits in a lab at the University of Guelph last week. Summer camp programs like these are invaluable in grooming the next generation of farm operators, writes Owen Roberts.

The University of Guelph campus is alive this summer with camps and kids making great use of the facilities during the school's quiet time, and getting a taste of what it would be like to be a student here.

The agricultural community has a special vested interest in having pre-university students on campus early and often, to excite them about joining the ranks of the storied Ontario Agricultural College "Aggies," who time and again assume leadership positions in Canada's vital and growing agri-food sector.

The sector is taking steps to groom its own leaders, through organizations such as 4-H Ontario — which was one of the groups running a camp on campus last week — the Centre for Rural Leadership, the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, as well as through initiatives by the private sector, such as Syngenta Canada's Leadership at its Best program.

But the sector's always on the lookout for the next generation of leaders with new ideas and skills. Summer camps with an agri-food spin are ideal for getting those leaders started early.

One of this summer's newest camps, which came onstream last week, is called 3-H@Guelph, A Summer Dairy Experience Program.

The 3hs are all about health, say the organizers — healthy cows, producing healthy milk, living in a healthy environment. This week-long dairy camp attracted 14 boys and 16 girls, mostly Grade 10 students, from Listowel to Prescott.

What's key is that among the 30 participants were 11 non-farm kids. That's impressive — the dairy sector, one of agriculture's most technologically advanced and regulated industries — does not usually attract casual observers.

But neither do casual observers often get to experience a fistulated cow (the one with open access to its rumen, so researchers can study digestion and nutrition) at the leading dairy research university in Canada.

Nor do they get to informally rub shoulders with the country's top dairy scientists. Or have a personal audience with the campus's hottest author at the moment, food scientist Massimo Marcone, to discuss consumer issues and food safety matters such as unpasteurized dairy products. Or watch the movie "Jaws" in the University swimming pool while floating around on inner tubes — which doesn't have anything to do with dairy, but sounds like a cool thing to do.

It's no wonder, though, that 3-H is interesting and fun.

It's being almost run in its entirety by students at the university, who are likewise destined to be leaders in the agri-food sector — and in some cases, already are, by participating in programs such as Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture.

The idea for the new camp was developed by long-time Guelph dairy scientists John Walton and Ken Leslie (and funded by the Ministry of Research and Innovation Youth Science and Technology Outreach Program, and the Dairy Farmers of Ontario).

But mainly, it's been Nicole Perkins and a team of 10 University of Guelph students who put the meat on the program's bones and made it happen.

With their diverse academic backgrounds in agriculture, veterinary medicine, biomedical science, population medicine and human kinetics, the students created a well-rounded program that they're convinced will be around well past its three-year anniversary, when the inaugural funding they received from government and industry runs out.

But for now, they're revelling in the fact that they exceeded their projected participation for this year by 35 per cent.

They attribute that number to some good marketing in the regions, and to the fact that kids, including farm kids, have a hunger for knowledge.

A lot of people figure farm kids, in particular, know all they really need to know right now about the crops they grow and the animals they raise. But that belief just stymies their natural curiosity. And besides, they won't always be farm kids — someday they'll be farm operators, if they aren't already, and they'll need and want a broader horizon.

Summer camp, such as 3-H@Guelph, is where that horizon starts.