The Origin Story of Gaia College

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The Origin Story of Gaia College

By Brenlee Brothers
April 2023

This year, Canada’s Gaia College celebrates 20 years of teaching Organic Land Care to students from around the world, while pioneering Organic Land Care concepts and online education along the way.  Gaia College has been providing affordable and accessible education for thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, helping them make positive impacts in their communities. We welcome you to join us.  

In honour of this milestone we want to share the story, which ultimately came through the crossing of two different paths and a shared vision for meaningful change, despite not knowing how it would take form in the beginning. 

The college’s co-founders, Heide Kim and Michael Hermary had been working a couple blocks apart for several years in downtown Vancouver, and often frequented the same sushi place before they finally met at an Instructor Diploma Program at Vancouver Community College in 1998.

Michael recalls a project they were assigned in the course about how to motivate learning in students. Michael and Heide swapped papers to read each other’s work - an intimate exchange into the minds of each other - and realized they both shared the value of love in teaching. Three months later, they moved to Vancouver Island so Michael could teach mathematics and statistics at Malaspina College. They rented a funky-two-bedroom cottage on the beach in Ladysmith, and got married on the beach there shortly after. “When we got married we thought it would be interesting to find something we could work on together, but our backgrounds were so different that we couldn’t see what that might be,” Michael said.

Heide was born and raised in Germany, but when she came to Canada after high school to visit her aunt for the summer, she never left. As a young woman, she turned her hand to a number of different things including salmon fishing, fruit picking, being a seamstress, and working for a stock broker.

 Heide_in_1970s_bby_garden.pngHeide in the 1970s

 

After marrying and starting a family with Ty Kim, the two started a Canada-wide courier company from the ground up in 1976. Heide later took over the company and led as president for 15 years, during which she became widely known and respected as “the Dragon Lady.” 

In the words of Heide’s daughter, Sonja, “Mom was an impulsive, headstrong and brilliantly clever rebel. She pushed boundaries and smashed her way through glass ceilings her whole life.”

Michael was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, but his family moved to Crescent Beach B.C. in 1964, where he learned to love the sea and its abundant inhabitants. Growing up, he worked in his family garden, helped his dad renovate an old farmhouse and became a curious nerd, reading just about anything he could get his hands on. During his teens, he worked at a nursery, lumber yard and learned to drive lumber trucks and cement mixers. He spent a lot of his free time camping, hiking and fishing in the mountains of Southwestern B.C., where he experienced beautiful landscapes, while also witnessing some of the horrific destruction caused by resource extraction. 

PXL_20230409_185440032.jpgMichael Hermary. Sonja Callaghan photo

At one particular time he remembers seeing bright green effluent flowing into a creek, and thought to himself, “We can’t keep doing this.” Even though the expanse of land was so big, the impact of industrial resource extraction was everywhere, he said.  

Michael’s environmentalism is a personal passion, but it was also something he pursued while working on his PhD dissertation related to Climate Change.

After twenty years together, Heide and Ty separated and sold their business. At which point, Heide chose to follow her passion and returned to school to study horticulture and landscape design - her father’s family had been multigenerational farmers and she knew she wanted to connect with her farming roots and focus deeply in organic gardening, organic horticulture and food security. 

In 1999, Heide and Michael moved to Victoria, Michael to pursue a PhD program in Statistics, and Heide to continue her high end landscape design practice. Once there, Heide started meeting with a group of horticulturists and landscapers to talk about sustainable gardening. They were searching for a way to articulate the practice of organic landscaping and urban gardening. At the time, organic agriculture was already established, however what this meant in an urban environment was not yet clear. While many people understood the value in organic food growing practices, translating these values to the urban environment was definitely not mainstream thought.

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Michael and Heide celebrating their wedding. Sonja Callaghan photo

In an effort to bring forth these new ideas, they created an informal group with the intention to develop a common language - a universal terminology for these urban organic practices. This group incorporated itself as the non-profit Society for Organic Urban Landcare (SOUL).

Heide was still working in high end landscape design in Victoria, as well, she was teaching horticulture, and developing curriculum for the Victoria Master Gardeners Association. One of the things she taught was Integrated Pest Management (IPM) workshops, which is a systemic approach for identifying and remedying problems in the landscape. However, it includes the use of pesticides as a possible remedy. “Heide took IPM seriously, she wanted to know what the underlying conditions were that were giving rise to problems, and how to fix them, rather than simply applying pesticides or herbicides,” Michael said.  

Heide had had her knee badly broken in 1998, and was not able to do the manual work required for the landscape installations and maintenance, so she started focusing more on teaching and curriculum development.

But when she started developing workshops, some of the ideas she was teaching didn’t sit well with established landscape practitioners, as well, she faced stiff resistance from the conventional industry education, as her approach was deemed at best, unnecessary. The conventional horticulture schools in Victoria were not interested in providing space for her to teach Organic Land Care education, so Michael suggested in an off the cuff remark that they needed their own school. And Heide, being the headstrong woman that she was, said, “Can we?” Michael did some research into the logistics of opening a school in B.C., and found out it was pretty straightforward for the continuing education sector. 

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Heide with daughter Sonja. Sonja Callaghan photo

After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Michael and Heide talked for three days straight to process what happened, and reassess how they were living, and spending their time. They realized they wanted to live differently and help create a new reality, focusing on how people were living in urban environments.

Although they weren’t sure how this new reality would take form, they knew they wanted to do something meaningful - something that would contribute to the greater good. Heide’s workshops and teaching in Organic Land Care became sought after.  She was teaching across western Canada and the U.S. with a couple of courses in Ontario as well. “People were hearing about what she was doing, and she was getting known, and people were inviting her to speak and give workshops,” Michael said. But it quickly became clear that traveling so much was not economically viable. There were people all over North America who were interested in learning what she was teaching, but it just wasn’t possible to reach everyone in person. 

So in 2002, Michael developed a basic website for students to log in and access the lesson and resource materials that Heide had been carring to her classes, as a way to make the materials more accessible and reduce the amount of printed material being recycled. This first website ended up being the basis for the Gaia College curriculum and its online presence. The idea of teaching gardening on the internet was a foreign concept, but there was a demand for this type of education because it wasn’t available in most locations.

In 2003, Michael was hurt in a car accident that left him seriously injured. He found he was no longer able to continue his work as an instructor, and took an indefinite withdrawal from his PhD program. This however opened the possibility for Michael to guide Gaia College’s technical and business development.

Michael and Heide had considered establishing a physical school. After investigation they decided this would take too much time, money and energy. Instead they sought to work with education partners who already had physical schools, which would allow them to run courses in many different locations. Burnaby Community and Continuing Education was their first partner. Heide developed a landscape design program for them to use. This ended up being the first official Gaia College course.

The next year she created the Organic Master Gardener course at the request of Burnaby Community and Continuing Education. But this was also a Gaia College course, which became very successful, and was offered in a number of different locations. These courses were followed by the Plant Knowledge Course for Organic Gardeners, and the Growing Food Course. An excerpt from their website in 2003: “Organic land care practices go beyond integrated pest management, beyond the use of so-called organic fertilizers and pesticides. They acknowledge the concept of intrinsic health, and seek to create environments that cater to the well-being of all their inhabitants.” Gaia College was on its way, delivering Organic Land Care education.

The creation of Gaia College allowed Michael and Heide to make meaningful contributions in a constructive way, instead of being in opposition to the reality they wanted to change. They did not condemn pesticides, but rather shared their vision of how things could be done differently without them; pesticides are not necessary for healthy sustainable gardens. “This path unfolded in front of us,” Michael said.  “And amazing things happened as a result of that…that willingness to move forward into this unknown.”

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Heide and Michael accepting the BC Real Estate Foundation 2014 Private Sector Land Award on behalf of Gaia College

Fast forward 20 years, and Gaia College has taught over 5,000 students from around the world. There is far more to the Gaia College story, this is just the start. Many other interesting things have happened along the way. Sadly, the most profound event was in 2016 when Heide passed from cancer. All of us at Gaia College are working together to share her passion, and commitment to making a positive difference in the world.

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Heide with her granddaughter Maya harvesting Sunchokes. Sonja Callaghan photo

Registration for AIBC Conference 2022 is Now Open!

Registration for AIBC Conference 2022 is Now Open!

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From May 2 to 4, the Architectural Institute of British Columbia will be virtually hosting AIBC Conference 2022, an online professional development event that explores the theme “View to the Future”. Architectural professionals from across the province, country and world will be able to participate and connect at the event.

AIBC Conference 2022 features an inspiring lineup of four keynote speakers. Participants will also be able to virtually attend more than 25 sessions, which explore topics highly relevant to today’s architectural practice – such as Truth and Reconciliation; sustainability; equity, diversity and inclusion; and innovative technologies. 

Early bird pricing for full packages is available for the event until March 21, 2022. All package prices, including the conference schedule and speaker bios, can be found on the AIBC Conference 2022 website.

Those who are interested in attending AIBC Confab 2021 can register online at bit.ly/3pCcbpj. If you have any questions about the event, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 


 

SOUL’s 2022 Year of the Ecological Garden - Speaker Series

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SOUL is excited to have launched ‘2022 Year of the Ecological Garden’, a year-long series promoting ecological land care and the expertise of SOUL members. The first session was held on January 11, 2022 and they are hosting weekly sessions that are free or by donation.

Sessions take place on Tuesdays at 3:00pm Eastern, noon Pacific and run for 45 minutes, including an introduction or short presentation followed by a 30-minute Q&A. 

Here is a list of the upcoming monthly discussion topics for the rest of the year:

April: Urban Agriculture and Food Sovereignty
May: Soil Care and Composting
June: Ecological Turf Care – and turf alternatives
July: Greener Greenspaces – Virtual tours of some of the 2021 recognition recipients
August: Greener Greenspaces – Virtual tours of some of the 2021 recognition recipients
September: Urban Biodiversity – Pollinators and Habitat
October: Urban Biodiversity – Native Plants, Seed Saving, Stratification and Winter Sowing
November: The Right to Garden – Land Access, Bylaws and other Barriers to Practicing Land Care
December: Livelihoods in Ecological Land Care

For more information about the series, to register and to view videos of prior sessions, please visit: 2022 Year of the Ecological Garden

 


 

The Ripple Effect of Regeneration - Permaculture principles in business, lifestyle and community

The Ripple Effect of Regeneration

Permaculture principles in business, lifestyle and community

By: Brenlee Brothers
 

f1477a5c-1f8f-6e10-9583-ef697f9f0f64.jpegHatchet & Seed owners Solara Goldwynn and Tayler Krawczyk. Hatchet & Seed photo

As Spring approaches, it’s a time for preparing garden beds with compost, starting seeds and patiently waiting for the soil to warm. The folks at Hatchet and Seed are busy translating their winter design consultations into reality for their clients. Raised beds, custom greenhouses, drip irrigation, multi-species orchard establishment and rain garden installations are some of the projects lined up this spring.

Co-owner Tayler Krawczyk’s passion for edible landscaping began as a curiosity about the principles, ethics and lifestyle habits of the ‘permaculture movement’. During his twenties, he spent half a decade working in forestry and acquired a BA in International Development Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “I was left with many critical questions about how we might practically address some of the structural problems facing our societies and ecosystems. Wealth inequality, food systems vulnerability, ecosystem stress and climate change - how are they related?” he wondered.

Those questions led him to the field of permaculture design, which asks: what does regenerative human habitat on earth look like? “How can we fulfill our human needs for shelter, food, water, energy and community while not degrading the planet we depend on for future generations? Better yet, how do we regenerate the planet so there are more forests, cleaner water, and healthier soils for our descendants?” he asks. “We feel strongly that it is our job to heal the earth, not for its own sake, but for our descendants. The earth can repair itself or at least find a new equilibrium over millennia, but if we care about the future of our descendants and other animals on this planet, we need to change our consumption patterns.”

From this curiosity, Krawczyk completed a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC), followed by Gaia College’s ‘Organic Master Gardener’ and ‘Ecological Landscape Design’ Certificates. These programs helped solidify an understanding of the best practices for organic landcare, Tayler said. “It also helped to systematize our design process in a way that puts earth care front and center. I would highly recommend the program to any budding landscape designers.”

For the past decade, Krawczyk and his wife (and business partner) Solara Goldwynn, have worked with hundreds of clients through their ‘foodscaping’ business Hatchet & Seed on Southern Vancouver Island, ultimately transforming underused landscapes into abundant, beautiful, food-producing landscapes. “My wife is amazing,” Krawczyk said. “She’s recently begun a one-year contract with Royal Roads University as a project manager to kickstart the revival of the walled kitchen garden… and she’s also completing a Master’s Degree in Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads.”

Through watching some of their youtube videos, one can get a taste of Solara’s sweetness and her extensive knowledge in permaculture design and food growing that comes with a decade of experience under her belt. Their youtube channel is an incredible aspect of their online presence, with resources available to clients and the general public about fermenting, ergonomics and raised beds, composting, fruit tree pruning and the list goes on.

With projects that range from backyard food gardens and orchards, to City Parks, to schools, businesses, farms, and everything in between, the unique and complementary skill sets of their staff get the field work done, while Krawczyk and Goldwynn focus on design consulting and project management.

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Close up of a raised garden bed. Hatchet & Seed photo

 
A garden area featuring a ferro-cement raised bed. Hatchet & Seed photo


An aerial view of Tayler and Solara's backyard garden featuring no-dig raised beds. Hatchet & Seed photo

5e399831-2562-b54b-6be3-36497af06a24.pngA beautiful wildlife pond. Hatchet & Seed photo

Since the pandemic began, many people have been spending more time looking out their windows at spaces that could become food growing areas, Krawczyk said. “Other more experienced hobby gardeners are looking to elevate their game and become more efficient. We can help with both, but we do make it clear to prospective clients that you need to be serious about making a lifestyle change if you are serious about growing food.”  Through maintenance visits, the staff help clients become accustomed to these necessary changes that come along with being a food grower.

The weather conditions on Southern Vancouver Island are unlike any other place in Canada. Classified as a modern mediterranean climate, it’s considered the mildest-growing climate in Canada, where citrus and avocados can be grown with protection while olives and figs do well out in the open. 

From May to September the summers are increasingly dry, while October through April tends to bring a lot of rain, making water tables rise to the surface. This makes the balancing act between drainage and water retention as challenging as it is important, Krawczyk said. “Our water retention strategies start with softer approaches like improving soil organic matter, mulching and cover cropping. We also employ well-designed earthworks to manage stormwater in rain gardens and farm-scale irrigation ponds.”

From 2017 to 2019, Hatchet and Seed led a “Keyline Water Management Project” through the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program (FAIP) that piloted keyline subsoiling in their region. By leveraging detailed contour maps and the use of specialized subsoilers (a plow feature that penetrates the soil without disturbing soil biology), water can be spread across the landscape more evenly from wetter areas to drier areas on farms that have varied topography, Tayler explained. “All of this experience puts water front-and-center in our minds when designing or implementing a new land-based project.”

“Our goal moving forward is to work increasingly on public edible landscape / foodscape  projects – community gardens, orchards and farms – where the positive impacts of the work can ripple even farther.” To that end, we have some very exciting public projects coming up in 2022, he said. “Having said that, we still love helping families and households transform their backyards into efficient and productive foodscapes.”

“Increasingly the most fulfilling part of our work has become the client and staff relationships that Solara and I have created over the last 10 years in Victoria, BC. While both of us started this work to be closer to dynamic, functional ecosystems, we've found ourselves as part of an amazing community of growers who are investing time and energy into small-scale agroecology,” he said. 

While working in alignment with permaculture principles, Hatchet and Seed translates these practices into a regenerative approach to their business. They strive to be exceptional employers with health and dental benefits for full-time staff and competitive wages while working on projects the staff can feel good about and learn from, Krawczyk said. “These positive relationships with both clients and our staff, centered around edible landscaping, are an important part of the business for us.” 

“Oh, and eating a ripe fig, or a handful of mulberries.”

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The crew. Hatchet & Seed photo

For more information about Hatchet & Seed, please visit: Hatchet & Seed


 

Greener Greenspaces Recognition Program - a SOUL Initiative

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SOUL (Society for Organic Urban Land Care) is excited to announce ‘Greener Greenspaces’, a recognition program for urban land care. This new program awards sites from across Canada that exemplify greener greenspace stewardship. The aim of the program is to showcase examples of ecologically-focused land care as a means to inspire others and to further the movement across Canada.

Online applications are accepted until October 15.

For more information, please visit the SOUL website: Greener Greenspaces.

 

Growing Integrally - Environmentally conscious landscaping in Vancouver

Growing Integrally

Environmentally conscious landscaping in Vancouver

 

By: Brenlee Brothers

Che Nolan started his landscaping business as a bicycle company while taking the Organic Master Gardeners course at Gaia College. He had a bicycle with a trailer on the back that kept a rake, broom and other tools inside. He’d ride around Vancouver, knock on doors and hand out flyers to initiate business for himself. “I just had a few customers and a bike,” he said.

During this time he was working toward his Diploma in Organic Landcare. Before starting the program, Nolan’s knowledge stemmed from his curiosity in past work experiences with a horticulturist, landscaping and gardening at home. “My own interest was in growing food and then everything just kind of happened over time,” he said.

His partner was the one who suggested Nolan try landscaping. “I’m a very physical person, so I really loved being outside doing something physical with my days and learning as much as I possibly could,“ he said. He was so keen to learn; he took books out of the library and constantly asked questions to his landscape bosses. “Learning was the biggest drive for me,” he said.

Irrigated raised beds by Peace Garden. Che Nolan photo
Irrigated raised beds by Peace Garden. Che Nolan photo

 

“By the time I got to Gaia, I had a reasonable handle on things,” he said. With several years work experience in the field prior to that, he kept absorbing as much information as he could.

“I started with that [Gaia College] and I loved it,” he said. “So I just kept going with it.” 

Gaia College opened up a lot of vistas that Nolan wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise. His skill, knowledge and confidence as a landcare practitioner grew. “I used to go knocking on doors looking for work,” he said. “But then after I took that course, I felt good because I was now offering something, I had knowledge and I was able to help people.” The diploma is a valued asset when working in this industry, he said. “Customers expect you to know what you’re talking about and you deliver.”

Nolan also obtained his Residential Landscape Technician Diploma from Douglas College.

About a decade later, Nolan runs a successful Vancouver-based landscaping company called Peace Garden. It focuses on organic, quiet practices which ensure health and peace of mind for customers and their communities. His crew includes himself, two full-time workers and one part-time hand. 

“It’s a real honour to have the knowledge and I just love sharing it with people,” Nolan said. 

Peace Garden offers some unique business methods that set it apart from other landscaping companies, such as re-using plants from work-sites.

 

A vibrant front yard design by Peace Garden. Che Nolan photo
A vibrant front yard design by Peace Garden. Che Nolan photo


Whenever people ask to have certain plants removed from their yard, most companies will take the plant out and dispose of it. But if Nolan can save a plant, he will. Instead of throwing the plants away, he brings them home and puts them on Craigslist for free. Sometimes he will transplant them in his garden for a while until he finds another home for them. Some people are so deeply appreciative, he said. “My favourite thing is when I take a plant from someone’s house and they’re happy that I took it, and then a few hours later I make someone else happy by giving them that plant.” 

 

This yard used to be a sloping green lawn. Peace Garden installed stonework to create two levels and moved in lots of plants. Che Nolan photo
This yard used to be a sloping green lawn.
Peace Garden installed stonework to create two levels and moved in lots of plants.
Che Nolan photo


Peace Garden uses silent, gas-free gardening practices, which is an uncommon, yet interesting approach to landcare, especially in a densely populated place like Vancouver.

Nolan recalls working as a landscaper before starting his own business. It would be 8 a.m. on a job site, and he’d start up a blower in someone’s lawn. Knowing the noise disturbed people in their own homes made Nolan feel uneasy. “I actually quit my job over it,” he said. 

When he realized he didn’t want to be upsetting people in the morning as part of his job, he came up with the idea of silent gardening. The battery-powered tools not only allow Nolan to be conscious of noise-pollution but simultaneously they are far better for the environment. Gas powered tools get the job done faster, but they create more air pollution in one hour than a car does driving for about half a day, Nolan said. “All of this means that if you want to walk lighter on the planet, it’s more important to choose a gas-free gardening company than to drive less. It’s something we often don’t think about.”

“I actually really appreciate that I've been on the other side of it, because I have that experience and I feel that it really enriches why I do what I do,” he said.

Next year Nolan envisions Peace Garden with a second crew and another truck. People can get really focused on growth just for the sake of growth, he said. “I do think it’s important that money serves us; rather than we serve money.”

It’s very easy to lose the integrity of a company by focusing too much on growing the company, he said. He wants to maintain a good work atmosphere for his staff. “We have a really awesome crew right now and as far as growth goes, that's the most important thing,” he said. 

“Basically just keeping that heart and soul in the company.”

 

Che Nolan from Peace Garden. Che Nolan Photo
Che Nolan from Peace Garden. Che Nolan Photo

 

For more information about Peace Garden, please visit: https://peacegardendesigns.com

Seeding Change from Home

Seeding Change from Home

A look at food and seed security from an Organic Master Gardener perspective

By: Brenlee Brothers

Jennifer Burns-Robinson is busy starting seeds for her home vegetable garden west of Stony Plain, Alberta. Her whole garage is lit up with fluorescent lights that cover 300 onion bulbs, 40-some pepper plants and other various herbs and flowers in preparation for Spring planting. “I’m endeavoring to figure out fresh storage,” she said. “I managed to grow about 40 pounds of onions last year and I still have about 15 pounds left in the garage and they’ve stored perfectly, so now I know I can grow things and supply us through the winter.” 

As a gardener of 25 years, Burns-Robinson has much food growing experience interwoven with knowledge as a Certified Prairie Horticulturist, Arborist and Landscape Architectural Technologist. “What makes my heart sing, as they say, is working with plants,” she said. “I really need to be outside with my hands in the dirt.”

Jennifer Burns-Robinson is an educator and Organic Master Gardener near Stony Plain, Alberta. Sarah Beau photo

Jennifer Burns-Robinson is an educator and Organic Master Gardener near Stony Plain, Alberta.
Sarah Beau photo

In 2014 she started teaching the Organic Master Gardeners course for Gaia College. It was a happenstance opportunity that came to be through a community garden in Stony Plain. Being the arborist she is, Burns-Robinson noticed an orchard of fruit trees needed tending. When she asked the groundskeeper if she could volunteer to maintain them, she ended up getting hired to teach fruit-growing for Stony Plain OMG.  

This was before she had taken the Organic Master Gardeners course herself, but when she did, it was a major shift in understanding that healthy plant and food production takes root in healthy soil. “I had not focused so much on soil before taking the course, so it was a bit of a shift in perspective to not think about the plants and their needs, but to think more about the soil and its needs - and therefore - the plants' needs get met because the soil is happy,” she said


Burns- Robinson weeding a raised bed of spinach and garlic last Spring. Jennifer Burns- Robinson photoBurns- Robinson weeding a raised bed of spinach and garlic last Spring.
Jennifer Burns- Robinson photo

In the OMG course, the foundational lessons come first. Beginning with botany, soils and organic growing from the industry perspective, which are heavy classes with a lot of information packed into a short window of time. “What I always tell people is don’t get overwhelmed, take deep breaths...you can always review the information afterward.” Learning those foundations first allows for everything to make more sense going forward when you begin to apply the knowledge, she said.
 
“I'm really grateful for the Organic Master Gardener program, for the work it’s doing to spread the message essentially, that we need to be stewards of the land; we’re not users of the land, we’re stewards of the land.” Gaia College helps teach so many people who are eager to learn, she said. “Gaia gives them the information they need to go forward and spread that passion.”

No one is good at gardening their first time. Everyone is learning, and it’s something you can learn for a lifetime, Burns-Robinson said. “I would like to teach people how to grow food.” 

If she had her dream situation, she would use her home garden as a demo site to show people how to grow organic food without the “gimmicks,” while also passing on knowledge of what to do with the food after harvest. Things like fermenting, canning and dehydrating to store food through a Canadian winter.

While helping a friend find vendors for a farmer’s market a while back, Burns-Robinson was looking around to see what kind of fruit and vegetable farmers were in the Stony Plain area. “I could not find vegetable farmers. There are lots of grain and cattle farmers, which is great, but there were only two vegetable farmers I found within an hour of our market. That’s a problem,” she said.

“On a city wide level, is there enough food in the surrounding farms to support the city if it had to? In most cases no, there isn’t.”

Food security is a huge concern, she said. “I just don’t think the Canadian food system is set up to sustain us without all of the inputs we have.” Canada is highly dependent on the United States for sustenance during the off-season, such as certain food items like greens from Arizona or strawberries from California. We haven’t supported the infrastructure to have year-round food supply here in Canada, she said. Being able to grow what you can in the short seasons we do have and then knowing how to preserve that food through the winter is an important skill we need to relearn. “Our great grandparents knew how, but that information has been lost over the past few generations.” 

The government should be helping to create infrastructure that will support food security locally and in the greater scope of things as a nation. When farmers retire in Alberta, if their kids don’t want to take on the farm, the land gets sold to developers, which often leads to subdivisions or high end houses and no food being produced on that land whatsoever, she explained. “The young people who want to farm - who want to learn to farm - cannot afford to buy that land. I personally think if there was some kind of program to bridge the gap between the farmers who have the land and the young people who can't afford the land, we would all benefit.” It’s a real problem, she said. “Because once that land is lost to development, it’s lost.”

With 3.5 acres of growing-land, Burns-Robinson is contemplating the idea of starting a CSA for people in her community. “It would be so nice because then I would feel like I'm contributing to food security in my own small way.” For now it will remain a vision as it would be a big project to take on alone, with her husband on the road so much for work. 

A progress shot of the home orchard where Burns-Robinson grows apricots, plums, apples and cherries. Jennifer Burns-Robinson photoA progress shot of the home orchard where Burns-Robinson grows apricots, plums, apples and cherries.
Jennifer Burns-Robinson photo

Still, Burns-Robinson is making an impact in other ways, with an aspiration to start a seed library in Stony Plain and an interest in breeding potatoes.

She uses heritage variety potatoes to produce seeds that adapt to her specific region. “I always grow at least seven varieties of potatoes, so there’s a lot of chance for genetic diversity in those seeds,” she said.

The idea is to grow out a seed potato, make sure it's stable and healthy and then five or six years down the road, there might be a new variety worth naming and propagating, she said. “The cool thing is, it’s become then a landrace - a variety that’s adapted to my particular climate. So that means that if it’s successful here in my yard, it’s most likely going to be successful in this whole greater Edmonton region.”

Landraces are something Burns-Robinson discovered a couple years ago. Essentially a landrace is a variety that has adapted to a particular climate, place or soil. These adaptations can happen quickly, even within a generation or two of seed-saving “I think with climate change, we’re going to be experiencing more extreme weather, we’re going to be seeing changes to overall temperature, amount of precipitation and things like that. So plants that can adapt that quickly are going to be essential,” she said.

This tomato plant was grown hydroponically as a Winter experiment. It now has six fruiting tomatoes. Jennifer Burns-Robinson photo

This tomato plant was grown hydroponically as a Winter experiment. It now has six fruiting tomatoes.
Jennifer Burns-Robinson photo

 

 

An Inside Look at Ecological Farming in Ontario

An Inside Look at Ecological Farming in Ontario 

Exploring racial justice, food-sovereignty and land stewardship 

By: Brenlee Brothers. 

Angel Beyde has worked in urban agriculture and small space balcony gardening for 25 years, growing from a passionate hobby into a full-time career. As an ecological landscaper, educator and facilitator devoted to regenerative landcare practices, Beyde has trained and mentored many people over the years. She currently works as a consultant for the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, providing feedback while facilitating community meetups so BIPOC folk can voice specific barriers and needs they have in regards to growing food. 

Beyde also runs an eco-landscaping social enterprise in Toronto that focuses on providing employment opportunities for people who face barriers such as mental illness, addiction, newcomer challenges, etc. 

Raph Beaulieu and Angel Beyde from their balcony garden in Toronto. Angel Beyde photoBeing city dwellers, Beyde and her partner Raph Beaulieu grow an abundance of fruiting plants, leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers from their balcony in the GTA.  “It really creates a strong sense of community I find, when you grow food in the city or even raising houseplants, it’s such a nice way to connect with people,” she said. 

Her passion for nature and the interrelation between vibrant soil, healthy food and a healthy community has evolved over the years through self study and practice. “I’ve always been self taught in regenerative gardening, and I really wanted some kind of more formal educational structure around the stuff that I knew, to try to bridge some gaps and deepen my knowledge,” she said.
 
After becoming an Organic Master Gardener in 2016 through Gaia College, she went on to co-facilitate the program for a while. It was during this time when Beyde and Beaulieu began dreaming up the idea of having their own farm, where they could commit to the long term work of growing food and strengthening food-sovereignty. Now the couple are looking for a suitable piece of land in rural Ontario (of 10 acres or more) to begin their Good Fortune Farmstead.  

Angel Beyde trimming tomato plants. Angel Beyde photoThe transition from urban growing to rural farming is not an easy one. “Land and equity is a massive barrier for new farmers, aspiring farmers, third-fourth-career farmers like myself. The fact that our prime agricultural land is considered a commodity on the open market, is devastating and really harmful for our food security,” Beyde said. 

For new farmers looking to buy a piece of property, it means they compete with developers, wealthy people who want to build estates and large scale “conventional farmers,” looking to mono-crop huge acreages of soy, wheat and corn. For retiring farmers looking to sell their land to aspiring growers, a big obstacle can be that their only option to make money after a lifetime of farming, is to sell their land for upwards of a million dollars, she said. “It’s definitely the biggest challenge. Just to see how we can make it not only viable or sustainable, but regenerative, so we’re not impoverished in order to be able to grow fruits and vegetables organically.” 
 
As a Black, mixed raced grower, Beyde has a strong understanding of the realities BIPOC communities face in Canada in relation to both growing and eating organic food. Supporting BIPOC people to access land for eco-farming is a concrete way to help restore people back to the land who have been historically and currently oppressed, Beyde said. 
 
“Especially in the crosshairs of this pandemic - climate change and racial injustice - which we’ve seen now are kind of all braided together in a really deep and painful way.”  When you look at who owns the land, what’s being done on the land and who’s hungry - and you add those up - it shows how these things are interconnected, she explained.  

The vast majority of land in Canada is owned by non-racialized landowners and the majority of farmland is treated with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and monocrops for cash-cropping, by an industry that has no standards or laws to enforce or maintain ecological balance. If you look at populations who are hungry in Canada, Black Canadians experience food insecurity at nearly twice the rate of white Canadians, even if you adjust for variables like education, income, home ownership and immigration status, Beyde said. “If we don’t have racial justice, where people have equal access and equity in our food-growing system, we can’t actually heal climate change and we can’t transfer land ownership equitably to a broader sector of our society.” 

The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario is an incredible resource that’s developing a lot of interest and dedication to supporting BIPOC farmers and eaters, she said. Once Good Fortune Farmstead is up and running, Beyde is interested in partnering with different community groups that receive funding, in order to help improve food security in various communities. “It would be great if it was just a direct subsidy to the farmer from the government, but if you have to go a roundabout way, through partnering with a community organization, I think that can be one way to get awesome, local, organic seasonal food to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.” 

The future Good Fortune Farmsteaders, Raph and Angel. Angel Beyde photoFarmers are the foundational backbone to our society; people who are passionate about ecological stewardship, but are not remunerated for the services they provide. Farmers are integral to improving soil health and increasing soil microbiology, they help clean the water to protect and increase biodiversity, yet they can’t charge consumers for these services, she said. “As it is, people are barely breaking even. Any profits are razor slim and most of the farmers I know put almost everything back into the business because they are so passionate about doing things in an ecological stewardship way.” 
 
Farmers shouldn’t have to be saints, Beyde said. They’re just business people who happen to really love the earth and want to do things in a regenerative way. “Some of the very best farmers I know are not making minimum wage. That blows me away - that people we depend on three times a day, every day, who are really more than pulling their weight in regenerating the ecology around them (literally creating a tomorrow for us; air to breathe, water to drink, something to eat) - and those people are not making minimum wage for the most part.” 

These issues should not be on the shoulders of farmers, Beyde said. “They are supposed to be farming. It’s a hard job.” 

All levels of government should be collaborating to come up with tangible, concrete ways to compensate farmers for the ecological stewardship they are offering to society. “Our broken food system just shows how things are really, really messed up, (for something as simple as we’ve got to eat every day), and therefore I think we need lots of different players collaborating in order to make change,” Beyde said. 
 
During this dark and uncertain time, Beyde and Beaulieu find motivation in the joyful appreciation of simplicity; holding onto the dream of going out every day to plant, tend and harvest. “It’s hard, sometimes back-breaking work, but there is something so comforting about the timelessness of this work. It’s joyful, it’s reassuring and it’s necessary; and there’s not a lot of jobs you can say that about,” she said. 

Farmers are incredibly optimistic people who are determined to trouble-shoot and find solutions, Beyde said. “I really want to understand what I can contribute to make this more sustainable and hopefully actually regenerative for farmers themselves.” 

There’s no lack of resources, they’re just rather damned up right now, she said. “There seems to be more of a hunger and a will to liberate those resources to get them flowing to a more balanced and equitable food-system for everybody; because we all need to eat.”

“I hope in my own humble way, I can find something that will make ecological farming and eating organic food an easier choice for more people.” 
 
You can connect with Angel and Raph through their instagram at good_fortune_farmstead.  Say hi or let them know if you have a lead on land opportunity.
 

Gaia College co-founder continues legacy

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.”

Your Health is Your Wealth – Eating for the Future

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.


Astrid 
Gaia College Instructor