Birth of a New Reality

Gaia College co-founder continues legacy

by Brenlee Brothers

michael hermaryAfter getting married in 1998, Michael and Heide Hermary moved to Vancouver Island where they lived in a funky little cabin on the beach. Michael taught at Malaspina College and Heide worked in landscape design. One day when Heide was recovering from a broken knee, she asked Michael to put weed and feed on their lawn, which he refused to do. “There’s somebody I want you to meet,” he said. With Heide on crutches, they walked together to the beach. Michael rolled over a rock and pointed to crabs and other creatures living underneath. “If I put that stuff up there, when it rains, it will come down here and it will kill these guys and I don’t want to do that,” he said. 

Heide, being the intelligent woman that she was, understood immediately. “I think that was her ecological awakening,” Michael said. She had a lot of knowledge in horticulture, but it was then where she began to understand the impact our actions have beyond where we do them.

Michael’s interest in ecologically-sound environmental practices began as a young teenager. Growing up, his father worked in oil and gas and mining exploration, which allowed him to see some beautiful aspects of nature, but also gave him an awareness of the more harmful environmental impacts such as clear-cuts, tailings dams and polluted rivers. “I also worked in a nursery where they used a lot of herbicides and pesticides. I didn’t think that was a good thing and as I got older, I became more and more aware of the things we were doing to the world,” he said.”

“When I met Heide and started working with her, she was in her third career as a horticulturist and it was sort of a melding of interests. I think I sort of helped her become aware of the effect of some of the things we do in our environment and she became very interested in urban landcare practices.”

After 9/11, Michael and Heide spent three days talking together. At the time, Michael was on track to get his PhD in Statistics and Heide was still working as a landscaper. They both wanted to do something more meaningful with their work; a shared vision to help preserve the environment.

Heide had developed a curriculum to teach conventional horticulture and then realized she wanted to go the alternative route of organic landcare. So she took some time to get her Master’s in Sustainable Agriculture, which at that time, was the closest thing to organic landcare. She developed a body of knowledge and ended up creating video content, writing courses and a book. 

Most conventional horticulture schools were unwilling to rent classroom space to her, because it was counter to what they were doing. When faced with this roadblock, Michael suggested Heide start her own school. To which she replied, “Can we?”

As it turned out, they could. 

With credibility and integrity as the two key-stones for how they wanted to conduct themselves and the intention to help people see the interconnectedness of life and the interdependence humans have with the environment, Gaia College was created.

Heide carried the spark and knowledge to teach courses and Michael had the technical expertise for developing the website and online platform. With the help of Astrid Muschalla they translated the classroom courses into an online format. It’s been 17 years since the doors opened, so to speak.

When the college first began, there were a lot of amateur gardeners taking the courses. Now people are taking the courses because they want to work in the horticulture sector and they’re using organic landcare as a methodology or scope of practice, Michael said. “There’s been a big shift in awareness in terms of the environmental impact humans are having in so many different ways and people are coming to understand much better about the environmental cost of many of our practices.” 

When people apply principles of organic landcare, there’s a real sense of taking part in creating a new reality, Michael said. “We know there are lots of people who want to do things differently and our aim has been to reach these people.”

When Heide passed in 2016, Michael chose to carry on with Gaia College as a way to honour her legacy, hard work and what they had built together. “What Heide was doing, as far as helping people to achieve a new awareness, was working,” he said. “She was able to articulate a message that people got.”

From the Ground Up

Gaia College student says course was invaluable to her business

Written by: Brenlee Brothers Photo Credit: Matt Madd

After 30 years working in the film industry, Arlene Hazzan Green switched paths completely. She decided to turn her love for gardening and working with the earth into a vocation.

With the intention to ignite passion in people by helping them grow their own food and reconnecting them with nature, the Backyard Urban Farm Company (BUFCO) was born. The Toronto based organic vegetable landscaping company builds, installs, plants and helps maintain edible gardens for both residential and commercial clients in the greater Toronto area.

BUFCO actually sows seeds for urban folk who either don’t know how, or don’t have the time to do it themselves. Their garden team will lovingly care for each plot throughout the season; returning as often as needed to water, weed and harvest.

When Arlene and her husband Marc Green started the company in 2009, Arlene had already been a vegetable gardener for many years. “I was doing it as a hobby; just as fun and enjoyment and also as a way to get my young son connected with nature more than anything,” she said.

At the time, she was working in the film industry as a writer and director, something she had been doing for many years. “I was feeling less and less enthusiastic about the kind of work I was working on. The really good projects seemed very few and far between and television was going through a really big transition.”

Photo Credit: Matt MaddHer writing became almost entirely focused on gardening, farming and sustainable practices, but the industry wouldn’t take the bite. “I just got less and less interested in that and more and more interested in my garden,” she said.

The seed was planted when Arlene and Marc decided to transform their urban backyard by installing raised garden beds. After seeing their neighbours express interest, they started to think, “Maybe we can do this as a business.” 

What began as one client, turned into 10 the following year. Now BUFCO is spreading knowledge and creating beauty, as they graciously seed, plant and care to the organic edible gardens of 40 to 50 clients each year.

The Organic Master Gardener Course at Gaia College was a key component in helping Arlene’s knowledge evolve. “When I took the Organic Master Gardener course, it was the first time I felt like I had actually found my mentors and I was getting it from the ground up quite literally.” From learning about the health and texture of soil, to how water runs through it, to how grass grows and how to maintain it; every bit of content in the course is so important, she said.

It came at the right time as it helped take her practical and self-taught knowledge to the next level. “I already knew basic plant schedules and plant care, but to be able to really, knowledgeably diagnose problems when they come up... having that foundational knowledge enabled me to develop systems that we could count on.”

BufCo Lab sideTaking the course was a really valuable asset for her business, she said. “It Increased my confidence and helped me make decisions about how to build a maintenance plan for the soil.”

The course structure allowed Arlene to take her own time and go as deep into the curriculum as she wanted. “I’m such a person-person that I didn't think I would enjoy an online course, but I actually found that when I did need to connect, I was able to do it through emails with a lot of different people from all over the country, so I got a really great cross-section of different types of growing environments and knowledge about those.”

After finishing the course in December 2018, she was able to take an exam through SOUL (Society of Organic Urban Landcare) to become an accredited landcare practitioner. SOUL provides a process of accrediting, legitimizing and identifying the specific skills of a knowledgeable organic landcare professional. “There’s a bunch of different things you can do to gain credentials, which weren’t around when we first started the company. We were kind of by ourselves in the wilderness it seemed like. But now there is so much more available to all of us, which is so great.”

BUFCO Lab2014Since BUFCO has continued to grow, Arlene and Marc were able to leave the film business completely. Now they have a total staff of 13 people; two of whom also have their Organic Master Gardener Certificates through Gaia College. It’s really beneficial to have their lead gardener and office manager, (who is also a gardener) all have the same vocabulary and educational experience. “We’re all working together to build greater knowledge and to spread the organic gardening and landcare word,” she said. “So now we are armed with a lot of information.”

Arlene’s passion for doing what she loves is truly inspiring. While running a successful business and having a family, she is slowly but surely working her way toward a Diploma in Organic Landcare. She will finish her second of five required courses in December 2019.


Article from Gaia College's March 2019 Newsletter

Astrid’s Nutrition Month Rant: Your Health is Your Wealth – Eating for the Future

Finally, a food guide I can stand up for!  It goes a long way to addressing not just what to eat (mostly plant based whole foods) but HOW we eat. Stopping to eat meals together with friends and family is as important for our wellbeing (including digestion) than WHAT we eat and Canada’s food guide goes even further, advising us to cook more.  This I like very much – it’s the only way to control what goes into our food which is way too much sugar, salt, and preservatives. What ever happened to just tasting the food the way Mother Nature made it?  Plus, with a little menu planning and the right tools (I can’t live without my Instant Pot pressure cooker) cooking becomes a form of creative expression and relaxation.  To do that so I don’t get overwhelmed with a lot of time spent, I always plan for leftovers and do pre-prep on light cooking days for the next day.

What the food guide doesn’t address, and it should, is HOW the food is grown. We mustn’t be complacent, but continue to educate ourselves on the issues of food growing as this impacts our nutrition, health and health of the environment….in other words – our future.   We need to fight for a food system that protects farmers from seed patents controlling all seed. Farmers should have the right to save their own seed and develop new varieties, which they’ve always done in the past but not so much in the last 60 years – in this way they breed resiliency and local adaptation, important traits for erratic climate change.

We deserve a food system that labels GMO foods and GMO ingredients for all Canadians.  How about a food system where we reward farmers for doing the right thing by using practices that regenerate and promote the health of soil. Regenerative practices, like in ecological and organic farm systems, can lead to healthier soil which is an important carbon sink drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere.  How that works is that when soil is over-farmed and doused in synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, the life in the soil is killed off.  On the other hand, rich, healthy soil has microorganisms in it that consume carbon and sequester it.  So, if we can turn the majority of the world’s agricultural land to regenerative practices, we could heal the soil enough that it could start sequestering a whole lot more carbon – enough to actually reverse climate change (source Regeneration Canada).  That’s what a very important conference is planning to address - The Living Soils Symposium - which is taking place in Montreal March 28 – 31

A main critique of the new food guide is that it isn’t realistically affordable for too many Canadians.  Cooking whole foods from scratch is actually much more affordable but it means we have to learn how to cook again. To that point, I can recommend 2 books: Scraps, Wilt and Weeds – Turning Wasted Food into Plenty by M. Refslund. Another is Cooking With Scraps by L. Hard. But, finally, we deserve an equitable food system that gives the same support to new farmers and organic growers as it does to conventional farmers, which would result in better food choices and prices for consumers.  That’s eating for the future.

Gaia College Instructor

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