This is the first in a series of interviews with student farmers from across Canada.
Erlend Bjørklund graduated from McGill University in December 2016 with Honours in International Development Studies. During his time at McGill, he worked at the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Garden (MSEG), a diversified vegetable farm located on McGill University’s Macdonald Campus in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec. Run entirely by student apprentices and managers, the Garden offers a one-of-a-kind experience in sustainable agriculture and farm management, serving as an intense farmer incubator. Each student commits to two seasons at the farm: the first as an apprentice and the second as a manager, responsible for training new apprentices.
YA: What stimulated your interest in farming? Did you have a background in farming prior to entering McGill?
EB: My initial interest in farming began with a general desire to be more self-sufficient. I have a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of attitude towards a lot of things, and learning to grow my own food is perhaps the prime example of that. I figured that if I wanted to learn, I’d need to get the full experience. MSEG provided it all: planning, preparing, seeding, caring for and harvesting vegetables.
YA: Tell me about your first year as a farm apprentice. Did you experience a steep learning curve?
EB: My first year as an apprentice at MSEG was the greatest learning experience of my life. Not only did I experience the large learning curve that is associated with the physical tasks of farming, but also the importance of teamwork. Everyone is working towards the same goal in a farm system, and this comes with its own challenges. Effective communication, working with different personalities and learning to listen are all very important. I felt I grew a lot on a personal level in my first year.
YA: How did your experience at MSEG compliment your formal education?
EB: Studying International Development and working hands on in the agricultural sector sparked my passion for food politics and the importance of agricultural development. It was practically a perfect match: I got to understand the field from both a theoretical standpoint in the classroom and a practical standpoint on the farm.
YA: What challenges and successes did you endure during your time at the Macdonald Student Gardens, both as an intern and manager? What motivated you daily?
EB: I think the major challenge we all overcame as a farm crew was developing into a well-oiled machine. Every week had an immense amount of tasks that needed to get done, and everyone needed to be on the same page. When you spend more than 50 hours a week with the same 6 people, you are bound to become very close. This creates a sibling-like relationship where you love and care for each other but can also encounter interpersonal problems. I’d say the key to this success was good communication and creating an inviting environment where issues could be discussed and resolved. With that nailed down, our greatest successes followed suit. Working with amazing people and amazing nature is probably the most motivating aspect of the job.
YA: What farming resources did you access as a manager? What resources or supports do you wish you had access to?
EB: The main knowledge resource that we accessed regularly was the timeless experience of neighbouring organic farmers, particularly Les Jardins Carya and Ferme Tourne-sol. Their desire to share knowledge was unprecedented and revealed the sense of community surrounding small-scale farming. I do, however, wish our farm had access to more physical resources, particularly some machinery or permanent infrastructure that would make certain jobs easier. The extra challenges this posed only made the work more rewarding though.
YA: Could you tell us what your best memory of MSEG is?
EB: I’d say one of the best would be our annual Garlic Festival market in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. The market was bustling with people and customers were very enthusiastic about purchasing from our student farm.
YA: Tell me about your plans for the coming years. How do you think you experience at the Garden will help you to navigate your academic or career path?
EB: This year I am applying to European Masters’ Program in Agricultural Economics and Rural Development. I hope to take the on-farm knowledge I have gained, continue to couple it with the theoretical knowledge from academia, and apply it in a career in food policy. I can’t stress how important I think it is for policy makers to understand how their decisions impact livelihoods. I hope to contribute towards a renewable-resource policy framework, with a greater focus on smallholders and their humbling works as stewards of the land. Without our farmers we have nothing, so I think it’s about damn time we change the way our policies acknowledge them.
For more information on the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Garden or to sign up for a CSA share, please visit http://macdonaldstudentfarm.wixsite.com/mseg.
Photos by Matthew McCormick and Monica Allaby.