Seeding Change from Home
A look at food and seed security from an Organic Master Gardener perspective
By: Brenlee Brothers
Jennifer Burns-Robinson is busy starting seeds for her home vegetable garden west of Stony Plain, Alberta. Her whole garage is lit up with fluorescent lights that cover 300 onion bulbs, 40-some pepper plants and other various herbs and flowers in preparation for Spring planting. “I’m endeavoring to figure out fresh storage,” she said. “I managed to grow about 40 pounds of onions last year and I still have about 15 pounds left in the garage and they’ve stored perfectly, so now I know I can grow things and supply us through the winter.”
As a gardener of 25 years, Burns-Robinson has much food growing experience interwoven with knowledge as a Certified Prairie Horticulturist, Arborist and Landscape Architectural Technologist. “What makes my heart sing, as they say, is working with plants,” she said. “I really need to be outside with my hands in the dirt.”
Jennifer Burns-Robinson is an educator and Organic Master Gardener near Stony Plain, Alberta.
Sarah Beau photo
In 2014 she started teaching the Organic Master Gardeners course for Gaia College. It was a happenstance opportunity that came to be through a community garden in Stony Plain. Being the arborist she is, Burns-Robinson noticed an orchard of fruit trees needed tending. When she asked the groundskeeper if she could volunteer to maintain them, she ended up getting hired to teach fruit-growing for Stony Plain OMG.
This was before she had taken the Organic Master Gardeners course herself, but when she did, it was a major shift in understanding that healthy plant and food production takes root in healthy soil. “I had not focused so much on soil before taking the course, so it was a bit of a shift in perspective to not think about the plants and their needs, but to think more about the soil and its needs - and therefore - the plants' needs get met because the soil is happy,” she said
Burns- Robinson weeding a raised bed of spinach and garlic last Spring.
Jennifer Burns- Robinson photo
In the OMG course, the foundational lessons come first. Beginning with botany, soils and organic growing from the industry perspective, which are heavy classes with a lot of information packed into a short window of time. “What I always tell people is don’t get overwhelmed, take deep breaths...you can always review the information afterward.” Learning those foundations first allows for everything to make more sense going forward when you begin to apply the knowledge, she said.
“I'm really grateful for the Organic Master Gardener program, for the work it’s doing to spread the message essentially, that we need to be stewards of the land; we’re not users of the land, we’re stewards of the land.” Gaia College helps teach so many people who are eager to learn, she said. “Gaia gives them the information they need to go forward and spread that passion.”
No one is good at gardening their first time. Everyone is learning, and it’s something you can learn for a lifetime, Burns-Robinson said. “I would like to teach people how to grow food.”
If she had her dream situation, she would use her home garden as a demo site to show people how to grow organic food without the “gimmicks,” while also passing on knowledge of what to do with the food after harvest. Things like fermenting, canning and dehydrating to store food through a Canadian winter.
While helping a friend find vendors for a farmer’s market a while back, Burns-Robinson was looking around to see what kind of fruit and vegetable farmers were in the Stony Plain area. “I could not find vegetable farmers. There are lots of grain and cattle farmers, which is great, but there were only two vegetable farmers I found within an hour of our market. That’s a problem,” she said.
“On a city wide level, is there enough food in the surrounding farms to support the city if it had to? In most cases no, there isn’t.”
Food security is a huge concern, she said. “I just don’t think the Canadian food system is set up to sustain us without all of the inputs we have.” Canada is highly dependent on the United States for sustenance during the off-season, such as certain food items like greens from Arizona or strawberries from California. We haven’t supported the infrastructure to have year-round food supply here in Canada, she said. Being able to grow what you can in the short seasons we do have and then knowing how to preserve that food through the winter is an important skill we need to relearn. “Our great grandparents knew how, but that information has been lost over the past few generations.”
The government should be helping to create infrastructure that will support food security locally and in the greater scope of things as a nation. When farmers retire in Alberta, if their kids don’t want to take on the farm, the land gets sold to developers, which often leads to subdivisions or high end houses and no food being produced on that land whatsoever, she explained. “The young people who want to farm - who want to learn to farm - cannot afford to buy that land. I personally think if there was some kind of program to bridge the gap between the farmers who have the land and the young people who can't afford the land, we would all benefit.” It’s a real problem, she said. “Because once that land is lost to development, it’s lost.”
With 3.5 acres of growing-land, Burns-Robinson is contemplating the idea of starting a CSA for people in her community. “It would be so nice because then I would feel like I'm contributing to food security in my own small way.” For now it will remain a vision as it would be a big project to take on alone, with her husband on the road so much for work.
A progress shot of the home orchard where Burns-Robinson grows apricots, plums, apples and cherries.
Jennifer Burns-Robinson photo
Still, Burns-Robinson is making an impact in other ways, with an aspiration to start a seed library in Stony Plain and an interest in breeding potatoes.
She uses heritage variety potatoes to produce seeds that adapt to her specific region. “I always grow at least seven varieties of potatoes, so there’s a lot of chance for genetic diversity in those seeds,” she said.
The idea is to grow out a seed potato, make sure it's stable and healthy and then five or six years down the road, there might be a new variety worth naming and propagating, she said. “The cool thing is, it’s become then a landrace - a variety that’s adapted to my particular climate. So that means that if it’s successful here in my yard, it’s most likely going to be successful in this whole greater Edmonton region.”
Landraces are something Burns-Robinson discovered a couple years ago. Essentially a landrace is a variety that has adapted to a particular climate, place or soil. These adaptations can happen quickly, even within a generation or two of seed-saving “I think with climate change, we’re going to be experiencing more extreme weather, we’re going to be seeing changes to overall temperature, amount of precipitation and things like that. So plants that can adapt that quickly are going to be essential,” she said.
This tomato plant was grown hydroponically as a Winter experiment. It now has six fruiting tomatoes.
Jennifer Burns-Robinson photo
Recent Gaia College News Articles
An Inside Look at Ecological Farming in Ontario
Exploring racial justice, food-sovereignty and land stewardship
By: Brenlee Brothers.
Angel Beyde has worked in urban agriculture and small space balcony gardening for 25 years, growing from a passionate hobby into a full-time career. As an ecological landscaper, educator and facilitator devoted to regenerative landcare practices, Beyde has trained and mentored many people over the years. She currently works as a consultant for the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, providing feedback while facilitating community meetups so BIPOC folk can voice specific barriers and needs they have in regards to growing food.
Beyde also runs an eco-landscaping social enterprise in Toronto that focuses on providing employment opportunities for people who face barriers such as mental illness, addiction, newcomer challenges, etc.
Being city dwellers, Beyde and her partner Raph Beaulieu grow an abundance of fruiting plants, leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers from their balcony in the GTA. “It really creates a strong sense of community I find, when you grow food in the city or even raising houseplants, it’s such a nice way to connect with people,” she said.
The transition from urban growing to rural farming is not an easy one. “Land and equity is a massive barrier for new farmers, aspiring farmers, third-fourth-career farmers like myself. The fact that our prime agricultural land is considered a commodity on the open market, is devastating and really harmful for our food security,” Beyde said.
For new farmers looking to buy a piece of property, it means they compete with developers, wealthy people who want to build estates and large scale “conventional farmers,” looking to mono-crop huge acreages of soy, wheat and corn. For retiring farmers looking to sell their land to aspiring growers, a big obstacle can be that their only option to make money after a lifetime of farming, is to sell their land for upwards of a million dollars, she said. “It’s definitely the biggest challenge. Just to see how we can make it not only viable or sustainable, but regenerative, so we’re not impoverished in order to be able to grow fruits and vegetables organically.”
The vast majority of land in Canada is owned by non-racialized landowners and the majority of farmland is treated with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and monocrops for cash-cropping, by an industry that has no standards or laws to enforce or maintain ecological balance. If you look at populations who are hungry in Canada, Black Canadians experience food insecurity at nearly twice the rate of white Canadians, even if you adjust for variables like education, income, home ownership and immigration status, Beyde said. “If we don’t have racial justice, where people have equal access and equity in our food-growing system, we can’t actually heal climate change and we can’t transfer land ownership equitably to a broader sector of our society.”
The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario is an incredible resource that’s developing a lot of interest and dedication to supporting BIPOC farmers and eaters, she said. Once Good Fortune Farmstead is up and running, Beyde is interested in partnering with different community groups that receive funding, in order to help improve food security in various communities. “It would be great if it was just a direct subsidy to the farmer from the government, but if you have to go a roundabout way, through partnering with a community organization, I think that can be one way to get awesome, local, organic seasonal food to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.”
Farmers are the foundational backbone to our society; people who are passionate about ecological stewardship, but are not remunerated for the services they provide. Farmers are integral to improving soil health and increasing soil microbiology, they help clean the water to protect and increase biodiversity, yet they can’t charge consumers for these services, she said. “As it is, people are barely breaking even. Any profits are razor slim and most of the farmers I know put almost everything back into the business because they are so passionate about doing things in an ecological stewardship way.”
These issues should not be on the shoulders of farmers, Beyde said. “They are supposed to be farming. It’s a hard job.”
All levels of government should be collaborating to come up with tangible, concrete ways to compensate farmers for the ecological stewardship they are offering to society. “Our broken food system just shows how things are really, really messed up, (for something as simple as we’ve got to eat every day), and therefore I think we need lots of different players collaborating in order to make change,” Beyde said.
Farmers are incredibly optimistic people who are determined to trouble-shoot and find solutions, Beyde said. “I really want to understand what I can contribute to make this more sustainable and hopefully actually regenerative for farmers themselves.”
There’s no lack of resources, they’re just rather damned up right now, she said. “There seems to be more of a hunger and a will to liberate those resources to get them flowing to a more balanced and equitable food-system for everybody; because we all need to eat.”
“I hope in my own humble way, I can find something that will make ecological farming and eating organic food an easier choice for more people.”
Birth of a New Reality
Gaia College co-founder continues legacy
by Brenlee Brothers
After getting married in 1998, Michael and Heide Hermary moved to Vancouver Island where they lived in a funky little cabin on the beach. Michael taught at Malaspina College and Heide worked in landscape design. One day when Heide was recovering from a broken knee, she asked Michael to put weed and feed on their lawn, which he refused to do. “There’s somebody I want you to meet,” he said. With Heide on crutches, they walked together to the beach. Michael rolled over a rock and pointed to crabs and other creatures living underneath. “If I put that stuff up there, when it rains, it will come down here and it will kill these guys and I don’t want to do that,” he said.
Heide, being the intelligent woman that she was, understood immediately. “I think that was her ecological awakening,” Michael said. She had a lot of knowledge in horticulture, but it was then where she began to understand the impact our actions have beyond where we do them.
Michael’s interest in ecologically-sound environmental practices began as a young teenager. Growing up, his father worked in oil and gas and mining exploration, which allowed him to see some beautiful aspects of nature, but also gave him an awareness of the more harmful environmental impacts such as clear-cuts, tailings dams and polluted rivers. “I also worked in a nursery where they used a lot of herbicides and pesticides. I didn’t think that was a good thing and as I got older, I became more and more aware of the things we were doing to the world,” he said.”
“When I met Heide and started working with her, she was in her third career as a horticulturist and it was sort of a melding of interests. I think I sort of helped her become aware of the effect of some of the things we do in our environment and she became very interested in urban landcare practices.”
After 9/11, Michael and Heide spent three days talking together. At the time, Michael was on track to get his PhD in Statistics and Heide was still working as a landscaper. They both wanted to do something more meaningful with their work; a shared vision to help preserve the environment.
Heide had developed a curriculum to teach conventional horticulture and then realized she wanted to go the alternative route of organic landcare. So she took some time to get her Master’s in Sustainable Agriculture, which at that time, was the closest thing to organic landcare. She developed a body of knowledge and ended up creating video content, writing courses and a book.
Most conventional horticulture schools were unwilling to rent classroom space to her, because it was counter to what they were doing. When faced with this roadblock, Michael suggested Heide start her own school. To which she replied, “Can we?”
As it turned out, they could.
With credibility and integrity as the two key-stones for how they wanted to conduct themselves and the intention to help people see the interconnectedness of life and the interdependence humans have with the environment, Gaia College was created.
Heide carried the spark and knowledge to teach courses and Michael had the technical expertise for developing the website and online platform. With the help of Astrid Muschalla they translated the classroom courses into an online format. It’s been 17 years since the doors opened, so to speak.
When the college first began, there were a lot of amateur gardeners taking the courses. Now people are taking the courses because they want to work in the horticulture sector and they’re using organic landcare as a methodology or scope of practice, Michael said. “There’s been a big shift in awareness in terms of the environmental impact humans are having in so many different ways and people are coming to understand much better about the environmental cost of many of our practices.”
When people apply principles of organic landcare, there’s a real sense of taking part in creating a new reality, Michael said. “We know there are lots of people who want to do things differently and our aim has been to reach these people.”
When Heide passed in 2016, Michael chose to carry on with Gaia College as a way to honour her legacy, hard work and what they had built together. “What Heide was doing, as far as helping people to achieve a new awareness, was working,” he said. “She was able to articulate a message that people got.”
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