This is part of The College Farmer, a series of interviews with student farmers from across Canada.
Marisa Lenetsky is a farm worker from Brooklyn, New York, and a recent graduate from the Sustainability, Science, and Society program at McGill University. During her time at McGill, Marisa worked at the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Garden (MSEG), a diversified vegetable farm on MacDonald Campus in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec. Run entirely by student apprentices and managers, the Garden is an intense farmer incubator program. 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. Young Agrarians spoke with Marisa to learn about her experience at the Garden and where that experience has taken her.
YA: What inspired your interest in sustainable agriculture?
ML: While in high school, I read Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food and I became interested in food systems as a result. I started spending more time going to farmers’ markets and learning about the local food movement. Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my uncle’s house in the Hudson Valley doing gardening work, which I always loved. It was during this time that I began to make the connection between the food system and what it meant to produce your own food. My first agricultural experience was WWOOFing at a homestead in rural Sweden, the summer before I was a student at McGill. The hard physical work and the intellectual connection to food drew me to agriculture and sparked my interest at getting involved in MSEG.
YA: Tell us about your first season farming. Was there a steep learning curve?
ML: There is definitely a steep learning curve when you go from doing occasional gardening to your first year on the farm. The diversity of vegetables and each of their unique needs was alone enough to be overwhelmed. For me, the biggest part of the learning curve was not just learning how to produce the food, but realizing all the other considerations and responsibilities that come with running a farm: crop planning, financial management, marketing, machinery maintenance, administration, etc. It was during my time as an intern that I came to realize that even if you grow an abundance of beautiful vegetables successfully it doesn’t matter unless you’ve done all the other work that doesn’t happen in the field.
YA: What challenges and successes did you endure during your time at MSEG, both as an intern and manager? What motivated you daily?
ML: The immense responsibility with relatively little experience was a constant, but equally rewarding challenge. At times it felt like constant disaster management, but a big motivating factor was realizing how much I was learning and that the opportunity to have so much autonomy is rare. Having so much control and independence meant that I could try to create my own vision for MSEG, and make changes where I thought there were shortfalls. The team dynamic of MSEG was also a constant motivator, however stressed I was I knew that I wasn’t in it alone and the bond that this establishes between farmers is immense. The people I worked with will remain some of my best friends.
YA: How did your experience at MSEG compliment your formal education?
ML: As a student in the McGill School of Environment and given the contemporary environmental context, much of the course material presented and sentiment is consistently dire and pessimistic. As an excited new student this quickly takes a toll. I found agriculture to be an outlet for positive energy where real meaningful change can be created. Spending thousands of hours caring for the same small plot of land and seeing the direct impact you can have on so many people was refreshing and gave me a renewed sense of confidence. I’ve found that many farmers have come to agriculture through this path. There’s only so much time that one wants to commit to learning about the degradation of the environment before you feel the urgency to act in opposition.
YA: What are some of your favourite memories of MSEG?
ML: The general rhythm of the summer is all a great memory: working hard all day with great people, going swimming together after work and eating ice cream, and then congregating at someone’s house to make a great meal with what you’ve grown is so much fun. I was always happily surprised to find the team spending the evening together after so much time spent together at work.
A specific memory that I do have started with panic when we found out that we no longer had access to the van we had been using to bring our produce downtown to the farmers’ market. Our truck didn’t have the capacity needed and I had no idea what to do, with so many customers counting on us being there. An intern then had the idea to expand the capacity of our truck by building up a tall wooden frame from the bed to hold our bins. This then turned into such a fun experience of problem solving and learning about carpentry, and we successfully made it to the market a few days later with a great looking truck! This also gave us greater independence for the rest of the season and seasons to come; we no longer had to rely on any vehicle except our own to get to the market.
YA: What farming resources did you access as a manager? What resources do you wish you had access to?
ML: One of the greatest resources that we had access to was having other farmers a phone call away for problem solving tips or advice. MSEG’s Senneville plot is directly next to Les Jardins Carya and the Santropol Roulant Farm, the farmers there were always inspiring and encouraging in the wake of irrigation explosions, pest invasions, or just to have a fun lunch. Additionally Paul Meldrum, manager of the Macdonald Campus Farm, has been our biggest advocate for infrastructure needs and more general support. Working at MSEG was a times extremely taxing, knowing that there are people nearby rooting for you gives you the extra push that you need at the end of a hard long day.
One of the greatest challenges of a student farm is the fast turnover of students involved and knowledge of past experiences and practices. This means that record keeping is spotty at best. Having a more thorough extensive record keeping system in place that got passed down would have been an extremely helpful resource. Not knowing information such as what varieties have been grown in the past both unsuccessfully and successfully make it so that to some extent managers are starting from the beginning every year. This does have an upside in terms of learning, but also limits the margin of progress.
YA: Tell me about your plans for the coming years. How do you think your experience at MSEG will help you navigate your future career path?
ML: I worked as a manager at MSEG in the 2015 season, and then worked at a farm in the Hudson Valley for the 2016 season as a crewmember. Going from managing one farm to being an employee at another farm allowed me to focus directly on improving my production techniques without all the other responsibilities, which was great. Next season I will be working at another farm with a bit more responsibility and learning new techniques for growing vegetables at a larger scale. I see myself continuing to work on a diversity of farms for the next few years honing in on best practices and getting the experience of working in different climates and communities. Following this I hope to purchase my own land and start my own operation.
Photos curtesy of Marisa Lenetsky and Shereen Zangana.
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.