The Kwantlen Polytechnic University Tsawwassen First Nation Farm School students had their first harvest of the season last week since classes moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The school combines sustainable agriculture and traditional Indigenous food systems education with the production of food at the farm. The farm features a traditional medicine garden, mixed fruit orchard, and livestock including pigs, chickens, and ducks. All the produce from the farm is certified organic vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat, which they sell and donate to local communities.
In a collaboration between the Tsawwassen First Nation and the KPU Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, the school offers a seven-month program where students spend a couple of days a week on the 20-acre farm located on traditional TFN lands to learn about vegetable, livestock, and perennial crop production.
Vegetable crop production manager Katherine Hastie and farm manager Sarah Clements are both instructors in the Tsawwassen Farm School. They help develop the curriculum for students and hire other instructors to ensure they meet their learning and teaching objectives.
“You’re basically involved at the very beginning of seeding, transplanting, weeding, maintaining the fields, and harvesting,” says Hastie.
“We also got animals — chickens, pigs. So you’re involved in the day-to-day maintenance of caring for animals, moving them through the field.”
Hastie spent the first 10 to 15 years of her career as a cook, but she noticed her joy for the job and work environment slowly disappeared when she began working in restaurants. Through happenstance, she realized that she had a passion for farming after planting her first seed in the ground.
“It was a broccoli seed. And I remember being like, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ And I did it, and then it was just amazing seeing how much food came out. The farm really kind of impacted my life,” she says.
Students in the program are taught Indigenous foodways, including the histories of food, the relationships with Indigenous peoples and food and our food systems, the medicinal plants in the area, and what can be done with those medicines. Students also learn how to care for orchards and soil health.
“Students experience everything from crop planning, prepping the fields for planting, to sowing our first seeds, to planting them,” says Clements.
“We also teach integrated pest management, which we call IPM. And so that is like learning how to see the pests that are coming, and how to work with them so that we’re not spraying chemicals and pesticides,” Hastie says.
Students are also taught about the processes and practices needed to work on or manage a certified organic farm.
“We really delve deep into the financials of farming because farming is a business, especially if you’re doing it in the private sector,” says Clements.
At the end of the program, students create a farming business model that they would like to pursue, says Hastie.
“These programs are few and far between, and especially with a hands-on training focused apprenticeship program. Taking advantage of this is really important to see if this is the profession that’s right for you,” Clements says.
Even if students don’t want to farm professionally, they can learn how to better understand the food system and where food comes from, Clements adds.
“I love this farm,” says Jaz Papadopoulos, a KPU student enrolled in the Tsawwassen Farm School program.
Last summer, Papadopoulos worked in the Riley Park Community Garden and realized they had been teaching themselves gardening for years, but were wanting to learn more.
“Having mentorship … made such an immense difference. And it was also my biggest joy in the era of COVID, to be able to have a place to go that’s outside,” says Papadopoulos. “I met someone there who was in the farm school, and I just applied on an impulse. And it was great. It was a very good decision.”
Papadopoulos says they’ve learned how to identify many different plants through the Indigenous food systems classes.
“I’ve learned how to look at a plant and understand what I’m seeing, recognize different leaf shapes, and what that means about what kind of family that plant is in. Even with such a novice amount of that, I still feel like I can speak a language of plants that I never had before, which is really what I wanted.”
They were surprised to find they love learning about soil science and how to understand the structural components of soil, like how silt and clay can affect nutrients and water retention.
“Depending on what you’re looking for, I can say I was caught off guard by how much the farm school is actually business-oriented. [But] of course it is — agriculture is an industry. [There’s] lots of math, but I love this program,” Papadopoulos says.
All of the crop planning and production is tied to the Farm School program, and their produce is sold at Vancouver Farmers Markets, restaurants, and through a Community Supported Agriculture produce box program.
Through their CSA subscription, Clements says they feed 150 families a week for 20 weeks throughout the season.
“We are a mixed integrated, sustainable small-scale certified organic farm. We grow with a focus on mixed vegetable production, fruits, other perennial crops, and herbs. We raise livestock — we raise hogs on pasture… all of that is sold through direct marketing directly to our consumers,” says Clements.
Leah Sandler, a farm staff member and researcher with the KPU Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, is currently looking at integrating grazing hogs into vegetable production.
“We’re looking at how the [use] of grazing hogs in place of mechanical tillage impacts the soil health and then the subsequent vegetable crops,” she says.
“The idea is that the agriculture taking place is trying to improve and build the soil throughout, while sowing and then, obviously, harvesting crops.”
She adds that agriculture research can go a long way to help farmers improve their methods and skills and help them with their business.
“Research can really help with that, and can take the burden, both economic and time, from the farmer and go to the researcher, and the research can get the results to the farmer.”
This is the final year for Sandler’s current research project on grazing hogs. The next project, which will go on for a couple of years, is with the Alaksen National Wildlife Area on Westham Island.
“That land is agricultural land, so it’s a combination of agriculture and conservation. The farmers there are not using fully organic practices, and so we’re trying to look at many different parts of the system to hopefully provide data that shows that organic agriculture will work because it’s very wet at sea level,” says Sandler.
Sandler and another instructor, Michael Robinson, teach students how to set up agriculture research, and they occasionally hire undergraduate students or students within the KPU community for summer positions, even if they don’t necessarily have agriculture experience.
Hastie says farming is important because people need to connect to their food and understand the social and environmental ramifications of what we eat.
“The fact that food comes from so far away that we have a global food system, the fact that you can go to a grocery store every day of the year and be buying the exact same food without really any pause or a hiccup is kind of startling because that’s not what’s able to happen here,” she says.
She adds that this kind of education is important for people to understand the amount of work that goes into growing produce through small-scale organic farming.
“The farmers around us are more larger scale [and] they primarily do their work on a tractor…. They must think we are crazy because we are bent overfilling our fields full of food week-in and week-out. I think farming on this scale in this way gives you an appreciation for the amount of labour that is involved in the food we eat, and it connects us to seasons,” Hastie says.
“One thing I really enjoy about farming is having the visual change in a day’s work. You start and then you end, and [think] ‘I’ve done something.’ It’s very satisfying. There are various types of agriculture, but I do vegetables because I really like putting a seed in the ground, and caring for it, and getting food from that,” says Sandler.
“One of the most beautiful things about farming is it can be anything you want it to be … there’s no set-in-stone way of what a farm has to look like or be,” says Hastie.
Papadopoulos says the learning environment at the Farm School is much more welcoming for students like them because the majority of staff are women, which isn’t often seen in the agricultural industry.
“More than half of the teachers are women. That’s really uncommon, and when we visit other farms, I don’t see that. It’s much more welcoming, to me, in an environment that isn’t male-dominated. Just emotionally, and also in terms of having tractors that are the right size for my body. It means a lot to me to see that.”
Hastie says farming can allow people to get in tune with what they might be looking for, even if they didn’t know it was what they were interested in.
“Coming every day and touching the soil and working with plants and being affected by the environment is a kind of special and amazing experience to have,” she says. “Farmers love food… and I’ve always just loved food. Once I realized that I was like, ‘This is my home. This is my place.’”