From the city comes a new generation of young farmers

From the city comes a new generation of young farmers
by Jess Mackie November 20, 2017

Students grow food on a Fresh Roots farm in Vancouver. Photo: Fresh Roots.

Farming is rooted deep in Dave Semmelink’s heritage. His father and grandfather were both farmers in South Africa and Semmelink always wanted to cultivate his own piece of land.

But he wasn’t convinced farming could be a viable career for him in B.C. He entered forestry at the University of British Columbia, betting his chances of employment would be greater in that field. Then a friend told him about the university’s six-month farm practicum.

“The practicum showed me that I can actually do this, and can make decent money if I work hard, if I network well,” said Semmelink. With the help of his practicum mentors, he signed onto his first farming lease before he even graduated from UBC.

Semmelink, now 29, is part of a new wave of young people choosing farming as a livelihood. The percentage of young farmers under the age of 35 rose to 6.9 per cent in 2016 from 5.4 per cent in 2011, according to the 2016 Census of Agriculture. It was first time since 1991 that the number of young farmers increased in an industry comprised mostly of baby boomers. This modest uptick is a boon for the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, which presides over the oldest population of farmers in Canada.

Supporting young farmers

Expensive land and limited access to capital pose barriers to aspiring young farmers. Despite challenges, an impassioned local food movement is motivating more young people without any farming background to pursue farming.

“The urban agriculture movement in B.C. cultivates an idea that is hard to come across in cities — that farming can be a viable livelihood,” said Evan Bowness, PhD candidate in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC.

In order to sustain the growth of the sector, the provincial government is finding new ways to support beginning farmers, most of whom are young, said Emma Holmes, the new entrant agrologist at the ministry.

“They are realizing that this is a growing force, and are interested in … supporting those new entrants in a bigger way,” said Holmes. This includes funding existing organizations, like BC Young Farmers and Young Agrarians, which help young people connect with mentors and land opportunities.

Honing farm skills in the city

Urban educational programs, like the UBC farm practicum, are capitalizing on the locavore movement, imparting agricultural knowhow that was previously confined to rural communities.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University also offers two farm school programs in Richmond and Tsawwassen that focus on the research, education, and community sides of sustainable agriculture.

“We believe that we need to train the next generation of farmers,” said Caroline Chiu, farm school coordinator at Kwantlen. “Farm school is the kind of program that works, because we really focus on practical learning.”

“Urban farming as an incubator”

Farming within city limits is an avenue for young people to dabble in agriculture.

“A lot of young people are in cities,” said Will Valley, academic director of the land, food, and community series at UBC. “I would like to see urban farming as an incubator for getting young people interested, and testing out the sense of ‘Do I want to get into farming?’”

Urban farms across Vancouver provide volunteer and internship opportunities. One group, Farmers on 57th, supplies students with individual garden plots to test their farming skills for an entire growing season.

The growing season has ended at Farmers on 57th, an urban farm in South Cambie.

Another urban farm, Fresh Roots, offers a youth program called SOYL, which hires secondary students to care for a half-acre garden in the city, encouraging them to grow, sell, and cook healthy and sustainable food for their community.

“It’s really fun to be involved in the miracle of growing things,” said Marc Schutzbank, the director of Fresh Roots, which partners with local schools to grow educational farms. “Helping youth get excited and feel that magic is just a really important part of what we’re doing.”

“Our goal is not to grow all the food that we can here in the city, we can’t do that,” added Schutzbank. “But what we can do is help get people interested about our food systems” and connect them to rural farmers, “who are the real backbone of our food system.”

Semmelink is now a rural farmer who owns and operates a mixed livestock operation on the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. His initial fears about entering farming have been quelled by the community support he receives both from food enthusiasts on the Island and from B.C. farmers throughout the region.

“I hope more people get into it,” said Semmelink about farming. “It’s a great way to live.”

Read online here.

Pre-Schoolers Explore

The preschoolers learned about bugs and creatures that might live in gardens. Together, we made salt-dough critters, placed them on the wood,  toasted the wood with a blow-torch, then lifted  them to reveal their shadows. The results were beautiful shadows of creatures and river rocks. – Sophie Noel


Strawberries – That’s what we are all really after…

Strawberry – Everbearing

At the Suwa’lkh School program we propagate native plants with the students both for sale and to help rehabilitate and reindiginize our forest. In the future we will have native varieties of this delicious berry, but for now we have loads of these everbearing cultivated plants!

Physical properties: Perrenial small bush (20cm diameter) with large, juicy, red strawberries. Will send runners and establish a patch if left alone.

Preferred conditions: Dry heads, wet feet. Prefferably no more than one plant per sq. foot. Mulch will prevent fruit rot. Sunny loaction is best. Will die back in winter, but come up again in spring.

Edibility: YEAH! (but don’t tell the kids…)

For best results, replace every 4th year with new runners as old plants are less productive.


Large Leaf Lupine – Native Wildeflower of beauty and fame!

Large Leaf Lupine – Lupinus Poliphyllus

At the Suwa’lkh School program we propagate native plants with the students both for sale and to help rehabilitate and reindiginize our forest. This one is just too beautiful not to spread around!

Physical properties: Perennial, upright, up to 1.5m high

Preferred conditions: Moist to wet open habitats (sea shores, streamside, meadows, disturbed sites). Low elevations. Likes sun, will die back in fall and come right back in spring!

Edibility: Wild lupin contain toxins – Not edible

First Nation Uses: Unknown

Beautiful purple flower heads, fixes nitrogen, self seeding.


Kinnikinnick – Native ground cover to outlast them all!

Kinnikinnick; Bearberry, Coastal; Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

At the Suwa’lkh School program we propagate native plants with the students both for sale and to help rehabilitate and reindiginize our forest. This amazing ground cover is not just beautiful, but has been used in many ways by First Nations all throughout the area.

Physical properties: Perennial, trailing groundcover, evergreen, 20cm tall, bright red fruit

Preferred conditions: Sandy and well drained exposed sites, dry rocky slopes, dry forest and clearings, from low elevation to alpine tundra. Does not need much of anythig but sun and space, will tolerate our winters no problem!

Edibility: Edible but mealy and rather flavourless, leaves were used for medicine (see below)

First Nation Uses: Dried leaves smoked as a part of a smoking mix. The leaves were  chewed on to suppress thirst. Kinnikinnick fruit berries were also mashed to create a sealant on baskets.

In terms of medicinal use, the leaves were infused (by steeping them in water just above the boiling point to make tea) and drink it as tonic. This infusion could also be used as mouthwash for canker sores or weak gums. It was also made into a decoction (made by boiling the plant material in water) and drunk for colds and Tuberculosis. This decoction could also be used as wash for broken bones. Moreover, decoction of Kinnikinnick was used as eye medicine for sore eyes. Amongst the Haida, the leaves were used as a diuretic in kidney diseases and infections of the urinary passages.



Salal – a Native Plant you all want to know!

Salal – Gaultheria Shallon

At the Suwa’lkh School program we propagate native plants with the students both for sale and to help rehabilitate and reindiginize our forest. One of our favorites, this one has an incredible fruit!

Physical properties: Bushy perennial, 0.2-5 m tall (layering and suckering) – will grow into the space it has available.

Preferred conditions: Sunny edges of coniferous forests, rocky bluffs, to the seashore. Does not require watering once established. Winter hardy, just plant and forget till fruit is ready! Low to medium elevations.

Edibility: Berries are edible and delicious! Great for Jam, ripen in August

First Nation Uses: One of the most plentiful and important fruits for the northwest coast first nations people. Eaten both fresh and dried into cakes. The Kwakwaka’wakw ate the ripe berries dipped in oolichan grease at large feasts. For trading or selling, the salal berries were mixed with currants, elderberries, or unripe salal berries. The berries were also used to sweeten other foods and the Haida used salal berries to thicken salmon eggs. The young leaves were chewed as a hunger suppressant by the Ditidaht. The leafy branches were used in pit-cooking, and cooked as a flavouring in fish soup.




Coquitlam school partnership to create First Nations forest garden

By Diane Strandberg / Tri-City News
JUNE 10, 2017 09:00 AM

Fresh Roots executive director Mark Schutzbank, left, and Malcolm Key, aboriginal youth program co-ordinator for School District 43, explore the land around the Suwa’lkh School in Coquitlam that will be used to teach students how to grow crops while staying in balance with nature. Part of the project will include removing invasive species in a forest next to Como Creek, beside the school.

A partnership between School District 43’s Suwa’lkh School and a non-profit that teaches young people how to grow healthy food could help revitalize a local creek and expand a horticultural program at the school.
Fresh Roots has already worked with three Vancouver high schools to grow produce and is starting another community farm in Delta. But the program at Suwa’lkh will be the first to specialize in growing native plants with First Nations students who will harvest the crops for medicine or for food.

Executive director Marc Schutzbank and Malcolm Key, the aboriginal youth program coordinator at Suwa’lkh, say they want to use organic and permaculture strategies to grow plants in a way that mimics nature. And they see the project as a way to introduce urban aboriginal youth to nature and their cultural practices. “It’s such a great opportunity for using this space. The kids are going to be hands on and immersed,” Key told The Tri-City News, adding, “No matter how deep they are in the city, they [will learn] they still have the Earth beneath their feet.”

The Coquitlam school property is perfect for such a vision because it sits next to Como Creek and a small forested area, and includes a school field. There is also a greenhouse purchased with grants and installed with the help of Suwa’lkh students while raised beds, already filled to the brim with rhubarb and other crops, supply the school lunch program with healthy veggies.

But the plan for the Suwa’lkh horticultural program is much broader than growing vegetables. Thanks to the school’s partnership with Fresh Roots and the Galiano Conservancy, the goal is to improve plant diversity in the forest while also creating an edible forest garden. Salmonberry, thimble berry, salal and Oregon grape will replace invasive blackberry and ivy among the trees while decaying logs will be used to provide nutrients for the plants and store rain water, building resiliency in the face of climate change.

Similar techniques are being used to create an edible forest on Galiano Island and Fresh Roots’ Schutzbank said these type of gardens more closely resemble nature while fitting in with First Nations traditions, including the Coast Salish culture of the area. “This project honours traditional indigenous management practices and the pressing need for healthy, local food,” Schutzbank told The Tri-City News, adding that students, staff, community stakeholders and elders will be involved in the planning process. A passionate urban food farmer himself, Schutzbank is looking forward to introducing a new crop of students to the joys of food production in harmony with nature. He notes that the skills they will pick up are also part of the new provincial curriculum. “It’s going to be a learning forest not just for Suwa’lkh but other schools as well,” he said, noting that students will also benefit from being outside in nature because being close to the Earth is known to reduce anxiety and stress.

Eventually, the goal is to turn the space into an aboriginal community hub for the Tri-Cities centred around food. Key said one of the ways of connecting the school’s 72 high school students is through hands-on programs that bring them close to nature, such as a recent paddling trip through the Broken Islands. And food is a draw for everyone. Last year, children in the aboriginal summer program enjoyed kale chips, with produce picked from the school garden. “Some enjoyed it while, for some [others], it was a new taste on a developing palate,” he said.

This fall, however, students will get a close look at a forest garden and learn about ecological stewardship when they visit the Galiano Conservancy, and Key is excited about the opportunity for a similar project here.
If all goes as planned, students will have salmonberries to go with their kale chips, and a greater understanding of the role they play in nature’s food web.

For the online version of this article, please visit this link.


Food Asset Map

by: Cory Correia

Vancouver Coastal Health has developed an online map that helps people who struggle to pay for healthy food get access to what they need.

The Vancouver Food Asset Map, developed with help from local partners, can help users find low-cost or free meals, free or subsidized grocery items, kitchen or food programs, retail stores or markets, neighbourhood food networks and community organizations.

“For people to find food easily, particularly when they are vulnerable and cannot find food, it’s a one-stop shop, said Kathy Romses, a Vancouver Coastal Health dietitian.

“If it’s for their age group, or it might be for HIV-positive women, it gives them all of the information in an easy-to-use, updated map that they can count on.”

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Teaching farming
In addition to providing food, some of the almost 800 food asset locations listed are also spaces for community members to learn about farming.

One of the those is a garden behind Vancouver Technical Secondary School.

Students there volunteer their time to garden and learn about food sustainability, and some of the older students have worked on the irrigation system.

The garden features red and green leaf lettuce, turnips, cabbage, kale, cilantro, beets and a half dozen other vegetables that are provided for free to those in need.

School principal Annette Vey-Chilton said the garden has become a focal point for students, especially since 25 per cent of them report some food insecurity.

Vey-Chilton said the school runs a breakfast program, feeding more than 100 children every weekday morning, as well as a lunch program feeding 200 children.

“The focus on food and healthy eating, the synergy, … it’s been great for kids to learn from seed to table where their food comes from,” Vey-Chilton said.

‘A living map’
Devon Green is eager to get the information in the map out to those in need. Ten years ago, he was homeless and had few options for food, so after he got back on his feet he started a website featuring similar information.

“Now, I don’t think people have much to worry about in this town, because there are so many resources around there that you just have to ask,” Green said.

Although Romses is happy with the response so far, she said for this map to thrive, the community needs to get behind it.

“It’s now a living, online map where we’re getting community input to help update the map, so we want community to be involved, and feel that this is a map that they can use and support and keep current,” Romses said.