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The Tsawwassen First Nation Farm School:

Nurturing aspiring farmers and rooting in Indigenous Knowledge for a healthy food system.

04/04/2022

WORDS BY: ASALAH YOUSSEF & HEATHER LEGAL

PHOTOGRAPHS BY: ASALAH YOUSSEF

"The Tsawwassen First Nation Farm School is a partnership between KPU and the Tsawwassen First Nation and is an immersion into integrated vegetable and livestock farming. The program incorporates a diversity of topics centered around regenerative agriculture including an Indigenous food systems perspective. Our certified organic farm is both an educational and working farm that sells its products through various Vancouver Farmers Markets, restaurants and a 100+ member CSA produce box program - all of which is supplied with veggies grown by our students."

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On a spring-like early March afternoon, I ventured to the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Tsawwassen First Nation to get hands-on knowledge and understanding of the KPU Farm School. When I arrived, I met with Heather Legal, a graduate of the program and followed her around the farm as she worked on some tasks in the sunshine and recalled some of her experiences with me. After our time together that day, we connected once again over email and I asked Heather some specific questions to get a deeper understanding on her background, motivations and experiences in more depth than what we could cover while she cleared the field in preparation for spring.

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What led me to the KPU Farm School? As a curious eater, a mindful citizen, and a learner of all things environment - I have fallen into deep curiosity about the workings of our food system. Agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and food sovereignty are all words that are gaining such meaning in my life, and I have begun a path of discovery. Scholars, farmers and activists have and are paving a way for a more ecologically and socially equitable and sustainable future of farming and food systems. Leaders such as Bernard Lux, Stephen Gliessman and Barrios et al. are some of many who have been influential to the ways in which I approach the concept of agroecology. They opened my eyes to the harms, implications and methods of 20th century agriculture. Methods such as tilling, pesticide use, mass production, increased exports, and monocultures (Lux, 2016) have become modern day agriculture's normal. These practices have subsequently led to soil and land degradation, more intense impacts and decreased mitigation of climate change (Lux, 2016), socio-economic inequities, agrarian distress, poverty, and hunger worldwide (Isaac et al., 2018). Learning this can be disheartening, but I found myself leaning towards hope, and through my readings on agro-ecological concepts, I have come to understand that there is a better way forward that includes farmer justice, food sovereignty and healthy food systems. As an individual, I yearn to learn how I can be a food activist, what Indigenous food sovereignty and a healthy food system can look like, and how young people like me, can get their hands in the soil and be a part of the food movement. 

To continue on my path of learning, I seeked out practical and real-world examples of hope that are taking place in my own backyard. This led to to the KPU First Nation Farm School. 

The KPU First Nation Farm is a leading example of engaging aspiring farmers with knowledge, practical tools and experience in the world of regenerative farming while giving back to the community. 

Through this study, I seek to understand the ways in which agro ecological centered farming is taking root across Turtle Island, also known as North America. I explore how intergenerational and intercultural knowledge sharing impacts diverse engagement in the field. Through research and first-hand learning, it has become clear that engaged communal ways of farming impact the broader community and food system at large.

Heather Legal (pictured below), shares her experiences in the program and how it has shifted her understanding of agriculture. She is just one example of the possibilities of planting a seed in a curious learner and seeing it flourish. 

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"The experience has opened my eyes to the practice of thoughtful small farming and I continue to learn about how many different folks in BC are making a difference this way; hoping that one day I too can contribute to this movement."

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Tell me a little bit about your experience with the program? Did you have previous farming experience or did you enter into the program with little knowledge but an enthusiasm to learn?

I found out about the farm school in 2019, a year after moving from East Van to North Delta. I had been looking for a change from many years of parenting children, now in their teens and needing me less, and a way to work outside and learn about growing food in my new-found backyard. I had some experience gardening, but very little with vegetables, and I was well-known for killing house plants! Though it was canceled that first year due to the pandemic, many things that came along with that experience reinforced my decision to learn about sustainability and the value of local organic food.

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What was the learning experience like?

It was very exciting to finally begin the program in 2021. It didn't take long for me to realize that farming was a whole universe of its own that was beyond my wildest expectations. Within each of the areas of work, like crop planning, integrated pest management, livestock or tools and machinery (just to name a few!) was its own world of knowledge, skill and practice to absorb. The farm leads Sarah and Katherine, and all the staff were amazing teachers and translators of the myriad of transformations that happen on the farm day to day and month to month. The work could be hard and overwhelming, and unforeseen problems or weather events could chip away at our resolve, but at the end of the day, it was so empowering and satisfying to get the job done. To see something from seed to harvest and off to households on market weekends was an eye-opening experience.

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When reflecting on where you were before the program, what might the differences be in terms of how you perceived farming then, and how you perceive farming now?

I feel like my year in farm school has changed the way I look at farming, the environment, and what my family eats. During my missed year for covid, I ordered a CSA box from TFS (Tsawwassen Farm School) to see what they grew and it rocked my world! I admit to being a very boring cook and was previously unadventurous with vegetables-they were not a centerpiece to our meals. Getting that big glorious box of food every week, along with recipe ideas and information (I had never seen kohlrabi before-I love how they look so alien and taste so fresh and crisp!) gave us this amazing opportunity to find out how wonderful fresh, organic vegetables taste and how many ways they can be used. It has changed our table permanently. Learning in the past year how the TFS plans crop rotation and livestock to support soil health and creates a diverse microcosm to benefit the surrounding community and the land they farm on has been important to me.  Seeing the complexities of certifying for organic status and being part of the team effort of working hard and by hand has made me appreciate what goes into their produce and the health benefits that has for the recipient. The experience has opened my eyes to the practice of thoughtful small farming and I continue to learn about how many different folks in BC are making a difference this way; hoping that one day I too can contribute to this movement.

"To see something from seed to harvest and off to households on market weekends was an eye-opening experience."

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Is there anything else you'd like to add?

 I am so grateful to be able to return this year as the flower intern. I didn't expect I would fall in love with flowers but the aesthetics of the field of colours and seeing how lovely the bouquets are and how long they last really appealed to me. I think what really got me was watching the reactions to them when we were selling at the market. People would take a long time deciding which bunch was perfect, tell stories about who they were for, and talk about how lovely they were. That is what I decided I wanted to be at the heart of. I know I have everything to learn embarking on this year...I'm on pins and needles right now watching and hoping for my seeds to germinate! Looking forward to seeing this part of the farm up close through the seasons, and taking the next step in my farming journey.

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You know it's been a good time on a farm when your boots are covered in mud and you leave feeling enriched.

This is exactly how I felt when I left the KPU First Nation Farm School after speaking with Heather and seeing the farm first hand. Intercultural learning, and engaging new farmers are core values in the 10 elements of agro-ecology identified by Barrios et al. (2020). The KPU Farm School applies this model. By merging Indigenous and traditional ways of farming with regenerative practices, they are brining multiple key practices and perspectives into the hands of learners. With the tools and experience provided in the course, the new farmers then sell their produce at local farmers markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). These two streams of offering their produce in the community are valued methods in agro-ecology practices which contributes to the localization of the food system.  

Both the scholarly and hands-on journey have complemented each other through my educational path to provide me with a layered understanding of the past, present and future possibilities surrounding the world of agro-ecology and sustainable farming. Visiting the farm and learning from Heather watered the seed of aspiring farmer within me. In part due to past passion, course learnings and the KPU Farm visit, I have committed to continuing my learning journey and will be working and living on an organic farm on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii on the traditional territory of the Kō Hawai’i and Pae’āina. I see working at Mohala Farms a way to integrate my hands in the soil and put my knowledge to work. After being fuelled with knowledge, it is now time to "catalyze (my) education" (Francis et al., 2003).

References: 

Barrios, E., Gemmill-Herren, B., Bicksler, A., Siliprandi, E., Brathwaite, R., & Moller, S. et al. (2020). The 10 Elements of Agroecology: enabling transitions towards sustainable agriculture and food systems through visual narratives. Ecosystems And People, 16(1), 230-247. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/26395916.2020.1808705 

Bernard, B., & Lux, A. (2016). How to feed the world sustainably: an overview of the discourse on agroecology and sustainable intensification. Regional Environmental Change, 17(5), 1279-1290. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305693875_How_to_feed_the_world_sustainably_an_overview_of_the_discourse_on_agroecology_and_sustainable_intensification  

Francis, C., Lieblein, G., Gliessman, S., Breland, T., Creamer, N., & Harwood, R. et al. (2008). Agroecology: The Ecology of Food Systems. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J064v22n03_10

Isaac, M.E.; Isakson, S.R.; Dale, B.; Levkoe, C.Z.; Hargreaves, S.K.; Méndez, V.E.; Wittman, H.; Hammelman, C.; Langill, J.C.; Martin, A.R.; Nelson, E.; Ekers, M.; Borden, K.A.; Gagliardi, S.; Buchanan, S.; Archibald, S.; Gálvez Ciani, A. (2018) Agroecology in Canada: Towards an Integration of Agroecological Practice, Movement, and Science. Sustainability Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/9/3299

Tsawwassen First Nation Farm School. Kwantlen Polytechnic University. (2021, July 6). Retrieved from https://www.kpu.ca/tfnfarm