A SCORE OF nine-to-12-year-old kids untangle their bikes from the Crystal Pool rack as camp leader Carson Sage reminds them to stay in a line. August sunlight beams through the chestnut trees, and junior camp leaders check helmet straps and dole out sunscreen. A nervous energy animates the chattering voices. They’re about to set off on the first Bike2Farm ride. First stop is Lisa Helps’ house—not to meet the Mayor of Victoria, but to see her chickens.
Bike2Farm is a joint enterprise between Capital Regional District’s (CRD) People Power Program and the Capital Regional Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR). CRFAIR’s events and outreach coordinator Jelena Putnik describes Bike2Farm as “an opportunity to get kids connected to food grown in their region in a sustainable and healthy way, to connect the dots between the farm and their table so that hopefully they will bring this back to their families and their own lives.”
While programs for children like Growing Chefs and Growing Young Farmers exist in communities like Victoria, few continue past elementary school. The organizers of Bike2Farm want to change young people’s relationship with food as they grow into adults. Some of the energy arises from the movement for more sustainable, local, organic food. But much of the boost comes from teachers and community members with a desire to improve kids’ health and to pass on a passion for farming and a connection to the land.
Timing is everything. According to the 2011 census, nearly 62 per cent of farm operators in B.C. were over 55 years old. And only six per cent of farm operators were less than 40, a 14 per cent decline since 1991.
So who will grow the food? Census data points to larger and more mechanized farms. Between 2006 and 2011, the average Canadian farm grew by seven per cent. The number of farms reporting $1 million or more in receipts increased by 31 per cent while the number reporting less than $1 million fell by 12 per cent.
Programs like Bike2Farm encourage participants to question that trend and get involved with how their food is produced. New and improved agricultural courses at some B.C. high schools demonstrate that becoming a farmer can be as legitimate a career goal as a teacher or engineer.
At the mayor’s house, the group gathers at the wire mesh of the chicken coop. Marianne Unger, a friend of the mayor, opens a worn egg carton. Inside, a rainbow of colours: teal, copper, beige, and olive. Unger lets the kids handle them and explains—different chickens, different eggs.
“Five minutes,” shouts Sage, and the kids take turns kneeling at the mesh to cluck their goodbyes. Their next stop is just a few blocks away. At the corner of North Park and Chambers, a chain link fence surrounds the lush raised beds of the Compost Education Centre (CEC), where edible perennials and organic vegetables have grown thickly over the summer. CEC workers view the centre as a demonstration site, a place where they can show the whole lifecycle of food.
A few kids wrinkle their noses as CEC education coordinator Kayla Siefried pulls back the lid of one of the compost bins. Siefried describes how every time food goes in the garbage it contributes to global warming. In the landfill, she explains, food decomposes anaerobically, releasing methane gas—worse than a car’s exhaust.
After she lets them use hand trowels to explore a compost bin, Siefried asks if anyone wants to try a ripe strawberry grown with compost—after washing their hands of course. Everyone plucks a berry or two and takes a bite. An adventurous few try one of the reddening tomatoes and smile at the surprisingly sweet taste.
Lunchtime nears and Sage leads his group to a nearby park to eat and rest before they ride to visit City Harvest Co-operative’s urban farm on Haultain Street.
Set against the wooded Bowker Creek, the small farm has greenhouses and small plots of crops. City Harvest’s executive director Heather Parker waves the group into the drive, where the kids dump their bikes. She leads them through the property and explains how a multi-site farm works—City Harvest works at several locations across Victoria and Saanich—then splits them into groups. Some sort firm from soft tomatoes for the Oaklands Sunset Market. Others sit in the cool shade of the porch and pick pungent basil leaves. A bed of kale needs to be pulled up, along with patches of weeds.
After 45 minutes of work, Parker and Sage round up the flock to leave. Many want to stay and ignore the adults’ calls, but eventually Sage wrangles them and leads a slow ride back to Crystal Pool.
Dirty hands and sweat—everyone wants to wash, rest, and eat. Tonight, however, when the preteens sit down for dinner they might question where their food came from and who grew it. Perhaps they will ask their parents about composting. When breakfast arrives in the form of scrambled eggs, they might wonder about the chicken that laid them. As they later learn about food systems like industrial poultry farming, they’ll remember the alternatives.
“If you connect people through their food, they are more likely to support movements involved with sustainability and the environment—even just riding their bike.”
Bike2Farm works because different organizations, including municipal governments, coordinated to make it happen. This sort of collaborative approach is what Farm to School BC does best. With partners across the province such as the Capital Regional Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable, Farm to School BC promotes and supports farm to school activities, policies, and programs.
“First, we want to increase access to healthy local food for kids,” says Farm to School BC provincial manager Vanessa Perrodou. “Second, provide experiential learning opportunities. And third, create connections between the school and the community that will support the school’s efforts in building programs.”
To achieve these goals, Farm to School BC established three regional hubs, including the CRD. The hubs are managed by an “animator”—Aaren Topley for the CRD—who matches schools with local organizations to develop programs that suit the region. Parker says the position was “created in response to what farmers have been saying for a few years: ‘We don’t have the time to create agreements, to generate interest, and manage logistics. We’re farmers.’ So the animator took on that challenge.”
The results have amazed Perrodou, who has a long list of barriers that most teachers and students face when trying to create a school garden. These include a lack of teacher ability or expertise and resistance from districts and facilities workers that don’t want to pay for the care or removal of abandoned gardens.
To get the districts and facilities management onside, Farm to School BC created a policy document that outlines how to create and support successful school gardens. Co-written with farmers, teachers, and school administrators, the policy document is bearing fruit, with results like the new collaboration between City Harvest and Reynolds Secondary School.
A NEW ERA FOR SCHOOL GARDENS
On another sunny day in August, Parker arrives at Reynolds. A couple of co-op members, shovels slung over their shoulders, wait by the huge piles of mulch and soil as Parker unlocks the school doors. Down the hallway and around a couple corners, another set of doors leads to the courtyard garden.
The scent of lavender and rosemary bushes simmers in the heat. Parker stands in the shade of an apple tree while the co-op members use wheelbarrows to carry in the yards of soil for the 16 raised beds.
“When we got here,” says Parker, “I don’t think that they had really done anything in the garden properly for a couple years, so it was weedy and overgrown. But the foundation was there, things like a great irrigation system.”
This year will be the first that City Harvest takes care of the Reynolds garden. To prepare, Parker and her team weeded, built extra garden boxes, and pruned some of the larger shrubs. They will plant a rotation of direct seeded salad greens (a low-impact planting method) and some slower growing winter crops like kale and chard.
“It’s a dream come true,” says Heather Coey, the Reynolds teacher who started the garden. “Because I couldn’t do this forever.”
The garden began in 2008 when a group of students in Coey’s leadership program decided they wanted to transform the concrete courtyard. After the group—then called the Green Spaces Project—raised the necessary funds, Coey hired LADR Landscape Architects to design a sustainable garden.
Coey’s detailed plans secured enough funding to convince the school board to jackhammer the courtyard and remove some of the trees. She then worked with Geoff Johnson, a local permaculture expert, to dig out the gravel, create raised beds, and bring in new soil. As the years passed, students contributed their different talents.
“One year I re-did all the windows in my house, and a student took them and made them into cold frames,” Coey says. You can still find the cold frames there, eight years later, lined up against the northern wall—though the paint has begun to peel and nothing grows inside.
“During the summer months I would have to come in and drag some students with me about every two weeks,” says Coey. “Without consistent maintenance, the garden would get overgrown and then we’d have a big work party and it would slide out again and this cycle didn’t work.”
Emma Andrist, a current Reynolds student and past participant in Coey’s leadership program, agrees. “It’s hard to do in just your free time,” she says, as she and two other students spread the soil. “Kids have a ton of responsibilities—jobs, homework, and sports.”
“What we need is credits,” Andrist says. “If there were courses, more kids could get involved. I’m going into Grade 12 and I work on the salad bar and I’m worried about who is going to take it over when we graduate.”
Andrist recalls sitting on a youth roundtable and listening while students from other schools described their gardens, knowing that Reynolds could do so much more. The partnership with City Harvest excites her, and she thinks it may help get more students involved.
Lasting for five years with annual reviews, City Harvest will decide what to grow and where, and the school receives a portion for their salad bar program. Students will work alongside and learn from City Harvest growers.
This partnership and sustainability plan was critical for the school district and facilities management, who had concerns about any garden expansion. “Now, we’ll have a community partner to care for the garden year-round,” says Coey, “especially during the summer, and the space won’t depend on a particular parent, teacher, or student.”
For the future, Coey wants more opportunities for students to receive credits for their work. Similar to home economics classes, students could maintain a garden plot and use the produce for cooking lessons. She has also considered cross-curricular activities with sciences, English, and even math for measuring plant growth rates and predictive models.
Today, though, after a hard day’s work, Parker, Andrist, and the other volunteers lounge in some of the Adirondacks beneath the mature maple. They look forward to when returning students discover the revitalized garden and perhaps take a moment to enjoy it.
BACK TO SCHOOL, BACK TO THE LAND
Nestled in the Fraser Valley beneath the snowy Cascades, Sardis Secondary School serves the agricultural community of Chilliwack. Sardis has run an agricultural program for its teenagers for 30 years, but the course had stagnated and wasn’t popular with students by the time teacher Joe Massie took over in 2007.
Massie, who co-runs the program with Tania Toth, never thought he would teach farming. Although he grew up on his family’s farms in Greendale and Ryder Lake and spent eight years working at a local greenhouse, Massie was trained to instruct physics. Faced with the challenge, he saw a chance to reinvigorate the course and forge new community partnerships.
First, Massie and Toth revitalized the overgrown greenhouse and introduced a host of new technologies, including hydroponics—a method of growing plants in nutrient-rich water instead of soil. But the most exciting change came in 2014 when the school opened the Sardis Secondary School Farm, a five-acre plot near the school.
At the western edge of the city, split-level homes look over the wide variety of vegetables growing in the field. Further west, the larger industrial farms loom before the land gives way to wooded hills and the mountains.
With help from Massie and Toth, the students manage a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. It fed 20 families over a 14-week period in the summer of 2015. This year the program will feed 35. “If it’s grown in the valley, we’re probably trying to grow it,” says Massie. “Your basics like corn and potatoes, to more interesting vegetables like kohlrabi.”
The planning for the farm begins in the fall when the students decide what to grow, how many seeds they need, and other logistics. Planting begins in May and the summer school students take over when the school year ends. For summer 2016, 40 students enrolled to weed, harvest, and tell CSA customers what they’d find in their boxes.
Unlike Coey’s students, those at Sardis have many opportunities to receive school credits for their agricultural work from Grade 10 onwards. In Grade 12, students can take the University of the Fraser Valley’s (UFV) first-year agriculture course. Massie and Toth teach it, and for lessons they cannot cover, such as grafting and tissue cultures, the class takes a field trip to the UFV campus.
“We’ve worked with UFV professor Tom Bauman for a long while,” Massie says. “We now have some of their crops in the field, and our goal is for students to ladder into the UFV agriculture program.” He also hopes to have UFV students in the Sardis field to help and mentor for the 2016/17 school year.
The program has been popular with students as well. “My favourite part about working on the farm,” says Grade 10 student Brittany Jackson, “is how, after a hard job, we all take a break and learn from each other about what went wrong and how we could do better.”
The programs continue to grow; this fall Sardis offered four courses for upwards of 120 students. “I love learning and doing things hands-on,” says Jackson. “It’s just so much easier and fun. When I get a chance to use skills I’ve learned in the class outside, it really helps the learning process.”
Massie’s firm tone softens as he discusses the many community partners that have supported the farm. “One of the most powerful parts of the program is the opportunity students have to work alongside industry professionals,” he says. “When we need tractor work done or expertise on a certain crop, we have many farmers we can call on for help. Students get to see that people want to give back to their community, and that inspires them.”
What Massie doesn’t mention is how he inspires the students too. “Mr. Massie is an amazing teacher. He knows what he’s doing and he really connects with us. You can tell he really loves what he does,” says Jackson.
CULTIVATING THE FUTURE
The now-abounding programs and courses that engage kids and teens with farming represent an intertwining shift in both our food and education systems. People like Joe Massie and Tania Toth, or Heather Parker and Heather Coey are giving a new generation real opportunities to experience agriculture.
“This year in particular I was really happy with our grad class,” said Massie. “Students who took our Grade 12 course, many of them, when they walked across the stage at commencement, said they wanted to pursue agricultural careers or education at UFV or other institutions. That was really encouraging to see.”
With the Sardis Farm success, Delta School District opened a mini-school called Farm Roots for 30 students this September. This program will intensify what Sardis offers by having their students spend every other day doing agricultural work—either out on the eight-acre farm or in the classroom. Some of the credits they receive will count towards Kwantlen Polytechnic University’ agricultural program.
While these programs may mark a new relationship between B.C.’s education and agricultural systems, these future farmers graduate will still face many barriers when they graduate, not the least of which is the extraordinary cost of farmland in southern B.C.
Back in Victoria, City Harvest is negotiating with Victoria High School to create a full-sized market garden modelled on Vancouver’s Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society. These market gardens occupy entire school fields and provide opportunities for the kids and the organization managing them.
Of course, this couldn’t have happened without the organizational help of people like Putnik at CRFAIR and Perrodou at Farm to School BC, which plans to expand the regional hub model to other communities. “There’s just an amazing amount of energy at the grassroots level,” says Perrodou. “Schools have so many things they want to do and they just need help to do them.”
The future looks bright—and so does the present. All of these projects embody community and government collaboration and have created better spaces for children and teenagers.
“I believe just having the courtyard garden as a space that the kids walk through creates a different culture,” says Coey. “If you connect people through their food, they are more likely to get involved or support movements involved with sustainability and the environment—even just riding their bike.”