Return to Roots

Farm School comes out of new partnership between Tsawwassen First Nation and KPU.

Ashala Daniels/The Runner

The agricultural landscape is one of the most recognizable features about the Lower Mainland and to many who resides here it is also a place juxtaposed with rapid development. British Columbia’s agricultural canvas is one where the developed bleeds into the rural, while at the same time offering a stark contrast in the form of abandoned plots and rusting machinery.

However, this isn’t the future vision for agricultural lands south of the Fraser, due to a recent partnership between Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems and the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN). The first of its kind, the pilot project farm school is a 10-month practicum training program that takes place on a 20-acre working farm leased from TFN to KPU. They currently have 16 students set to start in the spring, and 10 of those are from the TFN.

“The discussion started in 2009 when TFN signed the treaty with the government which meant that they gained control over their land and became their own municipality,” says Corine Singfield, farm manager and coordinator for the TFN farm school. Her introduction to establishing the school began very early, just as TFN recovered large areas of traditional territory and expressed a desire to use it as farm business after researching agricultural land use plans.

Pavel Ganapolsky/The Runner“But there was a lack of training or knowledge of agriculture in the community,” she says. “And so they researched a little bit about how they could seal that gap and they learned about the Richmond farm school.”

The Richmond farm school, which was established in 2010, is really what’s giving inspiration for the TFN farm school in 2015. In many ways the two schools are quite similar as they both offer students a combination of hands-on field training, and classroom theory by half a dozen different professionals from all subfields within agriculture. Professors and farmers alike teach different program components.

“The program is 85 per cent hands-on so a lot of the teaching happens in the field but we’ll also have a classroom . . . where the background of knowledge will happen,” says Singfield. “But most of it will happen in the field, and there’s also a 400-hour practicum component to the program where the students are going to go from planting the seeds all the way to market.”

The components themselves range from fruit production, taught by ISFS director Dr. Kent Mullinix, to animal husbandry, to farm business planning. According to Singfield these programs give students the opportunity to “Hone their farming skills . . . so by having access to all the resources in terms of networking, market selections that the farm has established and using the tools that are available, by the end they have a better idea of what kind of farm business they want to start.”

The infrastructure for the TFN farm was established throughout last summer, including all the planning that goes into making it operational such as water irrigation and drainage systems that allow for the property to be used as an incubator farm, which Springfield describes as “a place where graduates from the program get their piece of land for a nominal rental fee for up to four years.”

However, there are two major distinctions between the schools notes Mullinix, who was also a part of the initial conversation around the partnership.

“In Richmond, the market farm is not a Kwantlen farm, it’s a NGO farm [sharing farm] that grows food for the food bank. With the TFN farm school, we are establishing the market farm . . . as an instructional venue that we take responsibility for.” The second unique feature about the TFN farm is that the curriculum focuses on combining indigenous food system perspectives with sustainable agriculture. For Singfield this means really “valuing and bringing back some of the traditions around food, like the blessing of food or the preserving of food, looking at our food system not just in terms of agriculture but also in terms making medicines with plants.”

As Mullinix explains, “The indigenous perspective has a great deal to contribute to and inform the thinking around sustainable food systems . . . there is also lot of community and economic development opportunities in this kind of farming.”

Terry Baird, the employment coordinator for TFN who got involved later on in the partnership, helped sign people up for the project from both TFN and KPU’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems. There was a need to address issues between them, most notably in regard to funding and “who’s paying for what sort of stuff,” according to Baird.

“TFN and Kwantlen have contributed the funding equally for the project and TFN is bringing in a whole bunch of resources. [They’re] using it for the community and basically [are] involved in the project via a steering committee,” says Singfield. The steering committee meets every two weeks to discuss the direction of the farm school.

Because the land has not been farmed in quite some time, Baird notes that, “There were no skills left here at TFN to farm with . . . [it’s been] over 30 years since anybody from TFN has farmed, probably longer.”

“We thought it would be valuable to our members who want to farm some of the TFN lands,” says Baird. TFN’s goal is to allow its members to not only learn how to farm, but to also become self-sustaining in the process. For Baird, this is a good opportunity for “Students to learn how to farm and is recommended to anyone. It’s going to be a real fun learning program.”

“We hope in time the farm school will become a community hub where a lot of activities around farming, food and community will occur . . . an integral element of the Tsawwassen First Nations community,” says Mullinix. This involves incorporating both the elderly and younger generations within the school’s activities.

“Sustainable food and farming systems are everybody’s business, and all communities need to be knowledgeable about it, participate in it and support it.”

The TFN farm also impressively boasts an 80-hectare property, while comparatively the Richmond farm is only four-and-a-half-acre incubator plots.

“Now we have a little bit more potential to grow and a little bit more capacity in Tsawwassen,” adds Singfield. “But that’s going to change because Kwantlen is working on a agreement with the City of Richmond to acquire 40-acres in the garden city lands by Richmond campus, and that’s where the incubator plots are going to be later on. But that’s a future project.”

Singfield points out that this multi-year agreement is important because of our need for farmland. The larger goal in the ISFS is to advance sustainable farming and food production in southwest B.C. It’s a proposition dependent on human intensive and community-focused engagement, which challenges the contemporary system of agriculture that seeks to eliminate people from the process. This is the  “premier challenge for humanity” as Mullinix puts it: sustainable farming initiatives such as this farm school will hopefully be reflective of the stewardship and support of both communities, and the future of agriculture.

Ashala Daniels/The Runner

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