I am a city girl born and raised, and growing up I never gave much thought to where my food came from.
It came from grocery stores and restaurants. I didn’t know anyone who was a farmer, and if there was ever a farmer in my family, it was at least four generations back. As a kid, I changed my mind almost every month about what my future career would be, but farming was never one of them. The option never even occurred to me.
I dabbled around in my first two years of university. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a meaningful career where I could bring about positive change. My sister, who was studying nutritional sciences in the Faculty of Land and Foods at UBC, told my about the Global Resource Systems program which is part of the same faculty. I researched the program a bit, and that is when I first became exposed to issues of food security and the problems with our national and global food system. I was intrigued and switched into the Global Resource Systems program the following year, with a focus on sustainable food production.
My first year studying agroecology and food policy made me sure that I wanted a career in the field of agriculture. However, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into production or study the policy aspects. I decided it was important to me to feel confident in the practical side of farming as well as the theoretical and political aspects of agriculture before I graduated. So last year, I looked into opportunities where I could get my hands dirty combining in-class knowledge with actual hands on learning. I spoke to a professor who told me about internship opportunities for students just beginning their careers in food production.
One of the options was the Canadian Farm Business Management Council’s Step Up program, an on-farm work placement that matches students enrolled in agricultural programs with experienced farm managers. The program, which started last year, covers travel costs and gives farmers $2,000 and students $600 in exchange for working together for a minimum of eight weeks.
The program director, Melissa Dumont, and I worked together to find a placement that would be a good fit for me. I was placed with John Wilcox, a seventh generation farmer and owner of the amazing 13-acre Duck Creek organic farm located on the beautiful Salt Spring Island, B. C. In exchange for the use of a trailer on his property and a weekly stipend to cover my food costs, I helped him in all aspects of his operation including building and maintenance of infrastructure such as hothouses and work sheds, seeding starts, planting, weeding, harvesting, and selling produce at the local markets. He focused on basil and garlic production, but also grew lots of potatoes, asparagus, carrots, beans, beets, cucumbers, and squash.
I found the quiet farming lifestyle to be a big change from city living. Many days John would spend the morning instructing me, and then I’d work alone for the rest of the day. However, it wasn’t unusual to be joined by the neighbours’ peacocks while catching up on weeding, and the three lovely llamas that lived on a nearby farm would usually make a midday appearance at the fence connecting our two farms.
Throughout the season, a few WWOOFers (Willing Workers On
Organic Farms) worked on the farm in exchange for room and board. They stayed for anywhere from two days to two weeks. John also hosted a TLC conservation party, where individuals interested in connecting to their food system camped out on the farm for a weekend and joined us in the garlic harvest. Most of the WWOOFers and conservation partiers were pretty inspirational and I learned so much just from talking with them.
Being part of an agricultural community was one reason I chose Salt Spring. I tried to visit other farms and attend the Island Natural Growers meetings as much as possible. I was able to learn first hand about a variety of growing methods this way, which rounded out my day-today learning on Duck Creek Farm. The Island Natural Growers meetings, where all the producers get together once a month to share experiences and discuss issues, gave me a first hand glimpse into small town farming politics. I also gained a broader view of the struggles facing small farmers, as well as the exciting new developments that are starting to occur, such as the “growing up organic” program, which is working towards supplying Salt Spring schools with only locally grown produce.
Throughout the internship, I learned how to do all the different tasks associated with a successful growing season. The most exciting part for me was being part of the entire lifecycle of a plant. I was surprised by the maternal pride I felt over the 200 cucumber plants I started from seed and then transplanted into hothouse beds. Every time a Vancouver friend came to visit, I would proudly show them my “babies,” although most of my city friends were hardly impressed by cucumbers.
I also learned how much hard work goes into farming. I worked Monday to Saturday, usually waking up around 6:00 or 6:30. It felt like there was always more work to do, and the weeding never ended. I developed a repetitive stress injury in my hand and knee (that left
Step Up Is For Farm Kids, Too
Emma Holmes is not from a farm, but she learned a lot about food production by participating in the Canadian Farm Business Management Council (CFBMC) Step Up program. Farm kids who already know about farming would also benefit greatly from the program. In fact, Step Up is ideally suited to ag students who are from a farm and want hands on farm management experience on another farm, perhaps in another sector of agriculture, and perhaps in another part of the country.
“We’re aiming for kids who want to take over the farm and who want to experience another management style other than mom and dad’s,” says Step Up project manager Melissa Dumont.
as soon as I returned home and were replaced by lower back and neck pain from spending so many hours crunched over a computer — pick your poison I guess). I’ve never worked so hard, labourwise, but on the plus side it got me into good shape and I was able to spend my days outdoors.
I am still unsure about whether food production will be my future career. I know it is so important for young people to learn how to farm. The average age of farmers in Canada is steadily increasing, which does not bode well for our nation’s food security. However, I’m frustrated by the difficulties facing producers. It’s difficult to find well-paid jobs on farms, and those wanting to start their own operations face huge start up costs and small returns.
That being said, it is vital that the production knowledge acquired over generations is not lost. My generation is exceedingly disconnected from where our food comes from, and that needs to change. I would recommend to everyone, regardless of their future career ambitions, to spend some time on a farm. We all make choices that shape the food system, and we are all affected by food insecurities whether we are aware of it or not.
I picked my placement based on location and type of farm, with financial compensation not being a major focus for me. For the many students not able or willing to work for room, board and a lump sum at the end of the growing season, placements offer different financial compensation. If eight weeks on a farm does not work for you, trying your hand at WOOFing for a couple days. Growing food is hard work, but it can also be fun and rewarding.
Emma Holmes is from North Vancouver, B. C. She is back at UBC finishing her degree. She is also involved with agricultural education through the YWCA Rooftop Garden and the UBC Farm Landed Learning Project.