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✨ REASON #1 to donate to Fresh Roots this giving season: Growing Food & Community ✨

DONATE HERE: https://freshroots.ca/its-thyme-year-end-fundraiser/

Introduction

As we near the end of the 10th anniversary of Fresh Roots’ schoolyard farms, it’s THYME to reflect, celebrate, and dream big for what’s to come. For the final TEN weeks of 2023, we’ll be highlighting TEN great reasons to donate to Fresh Roots this giving season. In this blog, we’ll be looking into the first reason, which is the importance of growing food and community, and who else better to speak on this than our farmers throughout the years. As Camille, our amazing Director of Farming reflects after three seasons at Fresh Roots:

“Growing food on schoolyards is a multitask, beyond the concept of urban farming. It interweaves our stakeholders by utilizing them in the production of our food – by educating youth where food comes from – and selling and sharing this food, often a few metres from where it is grown. Neighbours walk through the gardens and attend markets, witnessing broccoli from seed to plate on a daily basis. Fresh Roots markets are also a confluence of many languages, backgrounds and intergenerational diversity! This gives youth cross cultural exposure, especially when learning about how different cultures use, eat and celebrate different veggies and food.

This kind of food literacy experience is normally limited to farmers living on farms but by bringing our growing to a public sphere, in educational institutions, we are giving urbanites the opportunity to know food in a tangible way.”

 

Donate Today!

We are com’minting to raise $40,000 to get kids and youth learning and growing on schoolyard farms, and we need your help!

🌱16 people donating $50 will supply fertilizer and compost for one season at one schoolyard farm

🌱20 people donating $100 will supply the irrigation replacements and upgrades that we desperately need

 

Back to Our Roots with Scott Bell, the first Fresh Roots schoolyard farm manager

As you may know, this year is a time 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 through our 10th Anniversary blog interview series called ‘Back to Our Roots’.

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. My next interview was back in spring with Scott Bell. For those who don’t know, Scott was the first farm manager and honestly, kind of a legend at Fresh Roots. This guy, along with Charlotte K, who was the other farm manager during my internship, not only taught me all that I know when it comes to gardening and farming, but also planted a seed in me to steward the land and connect with the community on these exact schoolyard farms years ago. These skills and this passion continue to be the basis of my work at Fresh Roots. Nowadays, Scott has traded in shovels for cameras as a local outdoor adventure filmmaker based on Vancouver Island.

So great to have you, Scott. To start, in classic Fresh Roots fashion… what fruit or vegetable do you feel like today? 

Gosh, I haven’t done this in so long! I have to remember how I think about this. Today, I’m feeling like a crisp apple. I just had a beautiful morning of spring skiing so that was crisp but warm, icy and soft. That’s one of the things that I love about living near Mount Washington. I have access to a ski hill like 20 minutes from my door.

Firstly, how did you get into farming and teaching others to farm? 

When I went to school at UBC and I studied sustainable agriculture there and I was super lucky to land a job at the UBC farm while I was in school because there’s only so many opportunities where the people actually like work there and that’s why I learned how to farm. It really made my degree have a lot more substance to it because it wasn’t just theoretical classroom learning. It was basically getting paid to learn how to grow vegetables from people that had a lot of knowledge to share. 

In a context that was sort of a teaching farm and I was there for four or five years, it started as just being a field hand and learning the ways of the vegetables, and that grew into running the practicum program as the other instructor mentoring young farmers into being farmers. It’s always kind of been a piece of things for me is the educational end, which was instilled through the UBC Farm days. I left UBC Farm and wanted to have my own farm, ended up in Utah. 

How did you get connected with Fresh Roots to become the first farm manager?

At the time, I already had known about Fresh Roots from when they were smaller, in the backyard farming context, which was a very different time. I was planning on moving back to Vancouver from Utah at the time and was looking for work and heard Fresh Roots was hiring. I had heard great things about the folks that were involved, but I didn’t really know any of them super well. After receiving my application, they called me up and proceeded to interview me for three hours, which, I think, was an insane interview. I think Marc, Ilana, and Gray had all adjusted their interview skills over time as I was the first and as they did more.  

It was all three of them huddled around one computer screen, chatting with me on Skype, just asking me all sorts of questions because I was going to become the fourth person of this very tight knit team that once I actually was hired on, as you know as well now, it’s like very much like a family kind of experience. At the time, I felt like it was a little full on but looking back, I kind of see why they took that approach. There was another hour and a half follow up interview, so it was like four and a half hours of interviews, but they offered me the job and I moved back to Vancouver with basically my backpack and a bicycle, and shipped some other things that came about a month later. 

I landed from Utah and found a house, and basically, I started to work the day after I got there. That was the big caveat, they said. If you take this job, you need to be here in one week and be ready to start working, and I was kind of what I think I needed at that moment, something to focus my energy, with a group of people that were really kind and warm people. It was kind of a different crew than when you were hanging out like the East Van urban farmers compared to the UBC farming crew. I met all these new folks and it was just kind of a beautiful group of people to get connected with at that particular moment. 

What was it like in the early days of Fresh Roots? 

At UBC, we had money, existing infrastructure, tractors, and lots of volunteers, all that sort of stuff already in place there and so it was a comfortable way to kind of learn to farm, but Gray brought me into the “strap it all together with duct tape” way of farming right from the start. This was the way of farming that he learned through years of backyard farming stuff, transferring some of that way of farming into Fresh Roots. At the beginning, I was the official farm manager, but Gray was really helping build some of those systems. 

From there, I was able to run with it once we had established and it was this very different thing going from farming an eight acre farm all in one place to multi-site farming. At the time, we had Queen Alexander Elementary, while managing building these two new farms at Van Tech and David Thompson. There were many moving parts at that time. It’s like we were still sort of caretaking this other farm because that was sort of a piece of the old Fresh Roots before it had become this new entity with schools. It was amazing to have all that freedom to kind of set up systems, but it was also quite daunting because we were trying to make the farms as financially viable as we could to try to make it all make sense, to prove the concept to our funders. In that first year, you can only do so much proof of concept because you’ve just established these farms and the soil wasn’t super healthy. We had major issues with wireworms those first few years and all these things that were kind of stacked up against us. And it’s like you can only force Mother Nature to go so fast, right? 

It was trying to do the best we could, given the situation and, understanding that it’s a long-term project that would take commitment to stewardship and eventually, turn into a beautiful thing through lots of love and work. Some of that groundwork had been laid and pretty much I arrived. The two sites had already been identified where we were going to build these farms when I came in for my first day of work. We had one day where we had like a meeting and did a bunch of Fresh Roots games and stuff to integrate me with the team, but then the next day, we were cutting into the ground at Van Tech, moving soil, dump trucks were coming and all that sort of stuff. 

When I was brought in, I was kind of under the impression that my priority was just to make these farms look as good as possible, so there was that visual part of like. There was a lot of association at that time that school gardens are a mess and not well cared for, and a big pile of weeds and just not a good space. That was a big focus for me, was how do we make these look really tidy and do our best to maintain the weed issues. Producing a ton of food, that was the other piece to make them look vibrant and full of life and vegetables, but it was really trying to focus on as much production as possible because I believed at that time that I was kind of given some goals of “this is how much produce we’d like to be able to produce out of this space” and some of that produce would go into the schools cafeterias. Some of that produce would be sold to the neighbourhood through the markets that would be on the school grounds, and so we used to do a market at Van Tech and we did a market at David Thompson. 

We didn’t go to Trout Lake or anything at that point in time, it was just this idea of neighbourhood food access for the community. In the early days, I was really in the mindset of farmer and knew that I was interfacing with the educational component, but I think we didn’t totally know how that would look both on a like a student level and on a teacher level, all those things we didn’t totally understand at the beginning. It was actually quite different than that, and we found that there was only a handful of teachers in those early days that were using the farms as an actual education place, and we’d find students would come out and eat their lunch near or in the farm space. There was not a lot of integration at that time and especially in that first year, unless it was like a really structured volunteer thing that we had put together. So yeah, it kind of started as like these are production farms on school grounds. Let’s make it so that we’re financially able to maintain the organization and the staff that’s required to run the farms. We had ideas for programming, but ideas are much different than actually implementation of all those things. 

There would be a teacher that’s super stoked on it during the school year, but most of the vegetable growing happens in the summer, when nobody’s there, and that was the role that we saw ourselves being like this steward through the summer. I tried to get rid of that impression that farms are messy and help with stewardship through the summer so that when the students came back in the fall, there was like this incredible lush garden that wasn’t full of weeds, that learning could happen. 

Tell me more about the first internship, essential the first educational program on schoolyard farms. How did that change over time? 

We had interns at first summer and it was very much focused on building the farms at that point and that first year, because the soil was so new that I think we ended up just having to keep putting in so much compost because we bought this sort of you know manufactured soil that’s pretty much the sand and compost, so to keep the crops happy, we had to keep amending that soil. There was a lot of wheelbarrow moving in that first year and setting systems like putting in irrigation and hitting the greenhouse at David Thompson and all that stuff ‘cause all these spaces were just not set up yet, just building that groundwork. The interns that year, it was more about how to grow food, less about how to have a school farm. I was essentially transferring a lot of the stuff that I was teaching from the UBC farm practicum into that first year, like we were teaching all the details of soil management, crop rotation. and all that sort of stuff. 

By the time I was finishing with Fresh Roots, but I recall that stuff wasn’t as high of a priority in the later years to doing lessons and stuff like that. It evolved a little bit in terms of what the internship was from being like “we’re trying to grow farmers in a super intentional way” to this whole experience of what a Fresh Roots farm was about, with eventually the SOYL program being integrated. 

At that time, it was trying to pay my way, like a majority of my salary was coming from the sale of vegetables, right, and so that was a pressure in that role was to make these farms produce absolutely as much food as possible, and then figure out how the heck we’re gonna sell all this food, which was actually the harder part interestingly enough – it was growing the food. Growing food is obviously hard, but compared to other farms, like UBC, there was this unsatiable demand for everything that we would produce. We would sell our food and in those early days when we were setting up these community market stands. We didn’t do enough promotion for it, nor did people have it in their mind as like oh, this is a place I could get. Building those habits for people is the hard part, reminding them every Tuesday to go here – that’s hard to build. 

Any memorable community members or stories? 

There was this one woman who had always come to David Thompson. She was an old grandma kind of woman and we didn’t share a language. I’m not sure what language she spoke. I think it might have been Mandarin. We couldn’t communicate to each other at all other than with hand gestures and she would always come and be like walking through the garden and looking under the leaves at the beans. 

She kind of gestures some things and I’m trying to understand, if she’s, like, telling me I’m doing a good job or if I should be doing this differently because I’m sure she has many years of gardening experience over me. It was always fun to have her coming through periodically, not all the time, but just every now and again pop in and kind of survey the garden on her on her daily walk and give me some thumbs up occasionally or tell me this or that, but I didn’t know what she was telling me, but it was always like a nice interaction. 

That was what I liked about that part about particularly David Thompson. Van Tech didn’t have that quite as frequently just because of the location. David Thompson, being situated in that neighborhood, was like a little bit of a park for people to come to. You get the occasional person that was wanting to chat about vegetables, which was always a fun little moment to take a break during the day. And I think that was a big part of what we kind of wanted that place to be also was a place for people to share stories and build community with people that you might not see all the time, but you could kind of meet in the farm. 

How did the community respond after the schoolyard farms were built? Any challenges? 

There wasn’t as much attention as you might think. It’s interesting in that way that there would be these handful of people that maybe would come in or looking as they’d walk by because it is sort of a unique thing. We did have lots of struggles too in those early days of vandalism and people taking food from the garden, which was always a struggle because it’s like I don’t love the idea of selling food for money. I would rather, just give it to you but I was also trying to make this school farm financially viable and it was a hard place to be and when you know food security is an issue for some people. At times, I can clearly tell that this was harvested that was not me, and trying to not feel anger with the person and more just be frustrated with the system that exists that has created these and just except that. That was kind of why we started to build that into the crop planning to a degree, like I always have factored in loss into the crop planning, whether it be from like an insect damaging things or low germination or whatever it was. There’s also this idea that a certain amount of food is going to go to people that need it, and we’re not going to ever see those people, but that’s an important service that these farms can serve within a community as well. We can’t have all the food being taken, but if there’s somebody that’s really that in need of fresh produce, to try to just kind of plan for that so that that stuff doesn’t impact the ability of the organization to exist and somebody doesn’t need to go hungry. 

We had all of our garlic stolen one year. Eight beds of garlic all taken overnight and you could tell it was done very frantically as well because lots were broken and left in the ground like the clove where the head was in the ground. That was really hard. That was, like, really frustrating ‘cause I think it was like, that’s the equivalent of $5000 and that’s a lot of organizational budget to have disappear in a way that you know is not just somebody that’s hungry. And so some things would happen that were quite frustrating, but honestly, the biggest pests were always the crows and the rats. 

We were right on the crow migration; the classic every night flight and that. First year that we were going, the wireworms were so bad that we would put our kale transplants in the ground and we’d come back the next day and every single transplant had been pulled out of the ground and was just laying on the ground next to where we had planted it. We’re like, what is going on? How is somebody doing this What we eventually saw and learned is that the crows were pulling those out because the wire worms were attracted to the roots of the transplants and they were basically like fishing. They pull out the transplant, eat all the wire worms that were around that root mask. Sometimes you’d pull a transplant out and there would be 15 wire worms in a single seat. We would try to remate everything after we would transplant as a way to sort of hide it from the crows. There was perfectly spaced holes in their remote where they had gone through to each perfectly spaced transplant and yanked it. They poked a hole in the remade and yanked it through the remate and so that was a real struggle that first year.

That’s actually part of why we built so many of the hoops because that was the only way we could keep the crows off. If we hooped it and then remate it, there wasn’t that was enough deterrent for them because they couldn’t see the evening in. Once the transplants had a couple true leaves and they had established themselves, then they were fine, but when they were fresh in the ground, the crows could just pop them right up. 

Because there was no longer grass, there are these little individual seedlings all spaced out, so you’ve got wireworms that used to come up and freely range everywhere having to all hone in on these individual plants. It was quite hard that second year. How many plants we would lose, like half of our seedlings. We’d plant them and like 3 days later, they’d all be dead because wireworms. It was brutal and so we started working with Enterra. They were developing a product that would deter wireworms. We started using that and we’re involved with their research trials to see if that was a viable fertilizer. 

Enterra grew saw fly larvae for dish feed and the byproduct of the larvae was these casings. That was a fertilizer because it was full of the manure from the insects but it also had chitin and something like the shed of the insect. They found that it was a wire rub deterrent and so they kind of came on as a sponsor of the farm and they gave us a bunch of this product. We’d have these huge bags of this product in the tiny little shipping containers and we would put that down in our beds before we would plant and it. Would I think you had to have it in the bed? It actually worked and they would do research studies out there. We had control plots where we didn’t apply the treatment and then some areas we would apply it and we plant our seedlings and then they would compare to see if it was effective. I don’t know what kind of came of all of that, but it like from an anecdotal point of view, it seemed like it was a good source of fertilizer and it was accessible to us, which was really helpful. 

Do you still farm? 

I farmed for a couple of years when I moved out here, and then I switched things back. Farming is just working eally hard all the time, always tired, and not having the energy to do anything else with your life – your life is farming. You make enough money to exist, but you don’t really make the living that a lot of other careers afford. Our society is not set up in a way that supports agriculture currently. There’s a place for all that learning, but at some point, if you’re taking this on as a career, you need something that affords you the ability to someday maybe own a home or at very least know that you’ve got something set aside to retire on or for the rainy day fund. That just doesn’t exist with small scale agriculture. We all like the idea of small-scale, farming but I think people just don’t want to spend what it actually costs to pay a farmer. Food would have to be twice as expensive as it is right now to pay a farmer a decent wage, and that’s just not realistic for most people to be able to afford. With the challenges of aging as a farmer, at least you know you have somewhere to rest your head. 

During COVID a a friend had a rental place that had like a 50 by 50 foot garden space, so we had 1250 foot beds and that was amazing. It was just big enough that it was farm scale. There were five families that joined in to support this and wanted to learn how to farm because most of them hadn’t grown food before, so I put on the farm manager hat again. It was just big enough to crop plan but I wasn’t as strict as I would have been for an actual farming operation. We grew a ton of food and none of us had to buy vegetables for that whole season. Everything came out of that small little shared garden space. That kind of thing, I’m still pretty excited about and hope that as time goes on, I will be in more situations that give me that opportunity to grow food for myself and grow for family and friends.  




Tell me about your new career path. How can we support you and find your work in the community? 

I’ve always done photography and then I naturally ventured to video. It was like everything about photography that I loved, shallow depth of field and all that sort of stuff that you could do with the DSLR, but it was like you could add music and create a bit more emotion around it. I started playing around with it for fun and I just really liked it. I started making little videos on the side and then eventually it got to the place where I was like I could maybe do this as a job. 

There was a local not-for-profit that is basically managing this little community for us here. They’re slowly trying to grow this community for us by buying it back from logging companies, and it felt like a really easy thing offer my services to. I had already made a video that would have worked perfect for them and I was like, do you want to just like put your logo on this and you could use it for your fundraising? As like a gesture of goodwill and something that might get my work in front of some people, I did that and then that is what launched my career locally. It connected me with the Comox Valley Land Trust and I did some videos with them to fundraise to purchase these large chunks of land to put into trust that will stay for us forever. Just doing little videos for local businesses and events, even wedding films even, kind of figuring out where did I want my work to be. 

I got to the place where it felt okay to take the leap. I was starting to get pretty burned out with farming at that point. I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I was still in that feeling of that treadmill of not really getting ahead. It was a hard couple first years. Eventually I was connected with a local athlete, a mountain bike athlete, and he had big sponsors like Shimano, Marin Bikes, and Hydro Flask. We just started collaborating for fun on stuff, and eventually he would get these budgets from these sponsors to put out media. It is kind of a bit of a mental struggle at times. Art is important, but at the end of the day, a lot of the videos I’m making are to sell bikes and to sell products and food is essential. Forr me, it is important that my work kind of aligns with my values and so that’s always the thing that I’m trying to find ways to navigate. But it’s been good to do something new and feels like something I could do into the long term from a physical point of view. 

I think my role is really like running the camera and the associated roles with that, whether I’m the actual director of photography or if I’m camera assistant or something like that, all those roles kind of are fun for me. I’ve been doing the YouTube thing for quite a while now and have been having some success with that. Hoping that one day, I can come up with whatever projects I want and have a lot more creative freedom – that would be the dream. When there aren’t a bunch of plant babies that you’re worried about all the time, it is completely incredible, like having a summer that I can just go do things. I definitely appreciate that. 

Check out Scott’s website to support his work: https://www.scottbellvisuals.com/

What impact has Fresh Roots had on you? 

Fresh Roots was a pretty important role to have been in. Of all the careers I’ve had, it’s definitely one of the ones that has stuck out as a really critical one in just developing who I am as a human today, not only on the work front, but also on the interpersonal and all that sort of stuff that comes with the organization. 

Fresh Roots is definitely the thing I’m most proud of that I’ve done in my life for sure, and I think that will potentially carry on till the end of my life. I will always hold fondly the communication and the way of working with coworkers and community is something that I’m extremely thankful to Marc, Ilana and Gray for fostering that culture. I’m really thankful for being able to work and foster that culture because I see how that way of communication just exists in all layers of life outside of work and interpersonal relationships and family relationships. I think that’s for me, like the food growing and learning to grow food is a really important part of Fresh Roots. The way of being in community is what I really carry forward today. It is something that I really learned and appreciate. 

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