By Vivian Cheung, Operations & Digital Engagement Specialist
As you may know, 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the partnership between Fresh Roots and the Vancouver School Board, the creation and the stewardship of the schoolyard farm at Vancouver Technical Secondary School. For this important year, we look forward to exciting special events to celebrate this milestone with the community. We also wanted to use this year to reflect and return back to our roots by bringing folks throughout these ten growing seasons who have helped shaped Fresh Roots to be where we are today, as staff, teachers, participants, while also taking the chance to celebrate who they are today since Fresh Roots. As a former 2016 intern, my name is Vivian and I’m on a journey to reconnect with these rad members in our Fresh Roots community and bring us all on a blast from the past in this new 10th Anniversary blog interview series called ‘Back to Our Roots’.
If you missed my previous interview with Jenny, check it out here. This time, I’m excited to connect with Jessica Jones, who was our stellar market lead in 2019 now growing agriculture business owner, helping fellow gardeners grow with their business, Gather Gardeners. We had the pleasure to reconnect with Jessica thanks to the pop-up market at the ICC this summer. From figuring out their career to empowering others in gardening – check out their story below!
In classic Fresh Roots tradition, what vegetable/fruit do you feel like today?
A tomato! It’s tomato season in Vancouver right now; therefore, I feel vibrant and abundant. My days are filled with tomato sandwiches, salads and anything I can add a sweet tomato freshly harvested from my garden to. My favourite tomato varieties are Sungolds and Brandywine, although I am excited to be growing a Seeds of Diversity dwarf tomato variety this year!
Tell us a bit about you and how you came to be connected with Fresh Roots?
My life changed in the summer of 2016. I was a University of Waterloo co-op student who had no idea where their life would take them. I had worked as a co-op student at a couple of government offices and knew that although they had great peaks and lovely co-workers, it was not for me. I decided to spend my summer co-op term as a Farm Apprentice to “escape the rat race”. I moved to Vancouver Island and worked on Salt & Harrow Farm for the summer, but then August rolled around and I decided to take a leave of absence to commit to finishing the season to the end. I could not imagine leaving without harvesting the winter squash, melons, onions, and more! The following two years, as I finished university, I also embarked on co-founding and co-operating my own vegetable and oyster mushroom farm. As a young, first-generation farmer who needed to lease farmland, I struggled with the complex relationship between landowner and farmer. I made the difficult decision to close the farm at the end of the 2018 season to pursue an agricultural career in the city!
I was introduced to Fresh Roots by a friend in the spring of 2019 after spending the previous winter pursuing my teacher’s college application. I found myself at a fork in the road. Pursuing teacher’s college or moving to Vancouver to work at Fresh Roots? My heart knew that my work within agriculture was far from over! I moved to Vancouver May of 2019 to start my season at Fresh Roots!
What was your role at Fresh Roots and what was that like?
I was the Market Lead at Fresh Roots in 2019. My core responsibilities were helping the farm team during the week with seeding, weeding, and harvesting then lead the farmer’s market booth once or twice a week. I really enjoyed how the role was spent producing the food with like-minded folks on the farm team. I developed life-long friendships at Fresh Roots! I was also a mentor to many youth on the farmer’s market days to provide an opportunity to learn how to grow their own food and leadership skills that running a market booth entailed. I felt as though I was the connection between the farm team and Fresh Roots’ customers and community members with a key component being that I was of the farmers who grew the food!
Any memorable stories or team/community members that stand out?
The first market in downtown Vancouver! This was my first month living in Vancouver and my first memory at Fresh Roots! This market was used as an annual opportunity for people living in apartments downtown to grow plants native to British Columbia such as salal! This memory sticks out for me, because it was such a surreal experience to be in the middle of one of Canada’s largest cities and be offering education and plants in such a plant-less region. I remember the excitement of sharing my passion of plants with Vancouverites that day! And I will also never forget this incredible carrot harvest at David Thompson Secondary School:
What impact have you seen Fresh Roots in the community? What impact has Fresh Roots had on you?
I have seen the impact of Fresh Roots in the community through the youth. I was honoured to spend every market during the summer of 2019 with many amazing youth. I observed how Fresh Roots created a safe space for them to be themselves when they may not have felt welcome to be themselves at home or school or a space to learn a new skill. Many of them were so enthusiastic to start their SOYL program and felt such devastation when the program ended, because of the rich friendships that were built during the summer. My favourite part of my time at Fresh Roots was the privilege of watching these young people develop confidence within themselves.
The impact Fresh Roots has had on me is the friendships I continue to have. Although we do not live near each other, one of the farmers during my time there continues to be one of my dearest friends. We developed a deep friendship during our short time together at Fresh Roots that I continue to be grateful for. We most recently travelled together this year to Colombia, where we learned about coffee production on a 200 year old family-run coffee farm in the mountains of Medellin.
Another impact Fresh Roots has had on me is the relationships I built with the youth. There are fewer and fewer opportunities I have had in life that connect different generations together. I really valued my time each week with them. I appreciated their energy, creativity, and loyalty to the market booth. They worked very hard to set-up and take-down the market booth and I could not have done it without them! They always brought a new, fresh perspective on the booth as well as discussions that would happen during the slower moments at markets.
What was your journey from Fresh Roots to Gather Gardeners?
After Fresh Roots, I spent the winter working for a charity that provides sustainability education in schools across Metro Vancouver until their program closed when COVID-19 spread in Canada. In June of 2020, I embarked on my next adventure at a Vancouver-based Agri Tech start-up for the next 2.5 years. The company focuses on helping apartment-dwellers grow their own food. They designed and developed a smart hydroponic garden to grow food on your countertop even if you are a complete beginner. The founders of this company created such an empowering atmosphere for women to gain leadership skills and therefore, I was promoted several times during my time there until I was developing a product roadmap and managing a team. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the team was laid off. I had to say goodbye to several projects that I poured my heart and soul into; however, I gained a great friendship during my time here. This leads me to Gather Gardeners. My friend, Kirsten, and I discovered that although growing your own food is essential, many have not had the opportunity or privilege to learn about the science and art of being self-sufficient. With a shared love of food and a perfect pairing of agricultural experience (Jess) with business brains (Kirsten), Gather Gardeners’ story began.
Tell me more about Gather Gardeners! What do you do, what is your mission, how has that been?
We grow gardeners! We grow food through the ups and downs with an emphasis on community and making mistakes – together. We empower communities to deepen their connection with food. We are here to cultivate your confidence as gardeners, whether you have a spacious backyard, a tiny windowsill, or something in between! We currently offer garden workshops to large groups, an engaging method of education on growing edible plants and a more tailored 1:1 consulting through garden coaching. Learn more about these services here: www.gathergardeners.com.
We are on a mission to build a community of badass gardeners! We are here to inspire all the “I kill all of my plants” folks to kill more plants! We believe that each plant killed holds a lesson to remember for next time. Our hope is to empower others with these skills until every backyard, patio, rooftop, and kitchen counter in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Coastal Vancouver Island regions grow their own food! We have several projects in the works to be launched for spring and summer of 2024 that include: in-person garden co-hort and garden sitting services so stay tuned!
How can folks get connected to you and your awesome work at Gather Gardeners?
If you’d like to or know someone who would like to host a garden workshop, the best way to connect with me is through email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in investing in yourself and learning how to develop your gardening skills, then visit our website www.gathergardeners.com to book a free 15 minute call with Jess. This time will be spent to discuss your experience and the type of coaching that is best suited for you and your gardening journey.
If you’d like to stay updated on upcoming markets, workshops, and 2024 launch dates for some big projects, visit our website www.gathergardeners.com or Instagram / Facebook account @gathergardeners / Gather Gardeners.
Any advice that you have for new farmers and gardeners?
Farm and garden in community! Growing food ain’t easy. No one should struggle alone. Some topics the pandemic brought to the surface was the importance of how few people can grow their own food (when it’s not accessible at the grocery store) and how isolating one can feel without community. Growing food is an essential life skill currently not in mandatory education. We need to ensure these skills are passed down to the next generation as well as enjoyed in the community. Furthermore, the isolation during the pandemic that many felt was a feeling that
I was used to as a previous farmer in a rural area. Many farmers work in isolation while they provide for their communities. Our farmers make many sacrifices and endure many hardships, let’s make sure they do not feel alone!
Our mission at Gather Gardeners is to build a community of bad ass gardeners! We are here to inspire all the “I kill all of my plants” folks to kill more plants! We believe that each plant killed, holds a lesson to remember for next time.
Anything else to add?
Want to just nerd out on plants or have an idea for a new project? Jess loves connecting with anyone with a passion for plants, food, and agriculture! Reach out at email@example.com. Let’s deepen our connection with food – together.