“I don’t grow plants, I help plants grow” — Michael Gavin of Dirt Boys Urban Farm, as quoted by Chelsea Klinke, Young Agrarians (YA) Apprentice.
Chelsea Klinke moved to Calgary from the United States in 2019 to start her master’s program in Anthropology, quickly bypassing that into the Ph.D. program. She describes her focus in “ecofeminism and the gendered implications of different subsistence strategies, primarily large scale agriculture”. This includes the “divisions of labour and power, inequalities and decision making within and among households, and at different levels and value chains along the way, from… farm to fork,” says Chelsea.
Her studies have surrounded experiential learning and the connection between people, their environment, and their food.
After volunteering with a farming-focused non-profit in the area she met Alexis, a YA Apprentice at the time. Alexis invited Chelsea to farm tours organized by YA; Chelsea visited farms and met farmers in the YA network including TK Ranch, Takota Cohen, and YA Apprenticeship Coordinator, Kolby Peterson.
The Application Process
Along Chelsea’s journey, she met Michael Gavin through a Dirt Boys Open Farm Days event. “What really captured my attention was just the way that [Michael] spoke about what he was doing and his philosophy and approach to farming,” says Chelsea. Soon after that, Chelsea started volunteering informally with Michael, expressing interest in applying for the YA Apprenticeship program with Michael as a mentor. She calls it a “collaborative effort” as the pair approached Kolby to sign up and be matched together in the program.
Michael Gavin of Dirt Boys Urban Farm demonstrating tools at a YA Apprenticeship farm tour.
She submitted an application, writing an essay to express her interest and paying the application fee. Michael did the same, applying to be listed as a mentor for the program. “It was just already established that we would be paired together. But we still had to individually apply and meet the criteria,” explains Chelsea.
Dirt Boys Urban Farming runs a four-part business:
- Garden Consulting
- Harvest Box Program — a CSA (community supported agriculture) — with 33 shareholders
- A partnership with YYC Growers – a CSA-style program on a larger scale for Calgarians
- Selling at one farmer’s market
Michael, who runs Dirt Boys, manages one main plot (referred to as the “CCSL”) as well as ten backyard plots in central Calgary. This style of farming is known as SPIN farming (small plot IN-tensive). Dirt Boys also practices a style of regenerative farming called no-dig. It’s described as a method of farming that causes the least amount of disturbance to the soil as possible to promote soil health and microbial life.
Potato towers at the CCSL plot are an efficient way to grow potatoes within small spaces in urban settings.
Some practices that Chelsea learnt during her time at Dirt Boys include:
- Keeping the soil covered. When designing a crop plan, Dirt Boys intentionally spaces out the plants so that the soil remains covered as the plants leaf out. For plants that don’t leaf out, mulch is used instead.
- Chopping and dropping. Plants are chopped where the stem meets the soil, “leaving [the] root ball or root structure in the soil,” explains Chelsea.
- Avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.
- Intercropping perennials and different native plants. This can be useful for promoting pollinators in the gardens as well as for pest management.
Chelsea and Michael chat with YA Apprentices on a farm tour of Dirt Boys.
Chelsea joined the team as a YA Apprentice at the end of April, working 40 hours a week, and eventually moved to work 20 hours a week to focus on her Ph.D. work in June.
From April to May, Chelsea primarily helped with preparing the garden beds for the season. As part of the no-dig method, the beds are all covered with tarps before the farming season. To prep the beds, a lasagna method is used — the tarps are removed, cardboard is laid out, and healthy soil is piled on top. Other tasks Chelsea assisted with included making rows, broad-forking, setting up the compost bins made out of recycled pallets, prepping the A/C unit for the walk-in cooler, and building raised garden beds.
During June, the days were a little more laid out:
Friday: Maintained beds (weeding)
Saturday (morning): Harvested for CSA
Sunday: CSA pick-ups
Monday: Large harvest for YYC growers, with the help of volunteers. The vegetables were then loaded into the truck, brought to the CCSL, washed/packed, and put into the cooler.
Tuesday: Harvested and packaged vegetables for market. Then, all the vegetables harvested from the previous day were brought to YYC Growers for distribution. Following this, the vegetables from the morning were brought to the farmer’s market, which ran from 3 PM to 6:30 PM.
Wed/Thurs: Day off
Unlike other YA Apprenticeships, Chelsea’s Apprenticeship position was less strict with hours. In addition, as Dirt Boys is an urban farm, Chelsea was responsible for finding accommodation on her own. She was given vegetables to use if there was excess from the market. As every experience varies, it’s always best for apprentices to set up expectations before the start of the season.
The sea-can at the CCSL plot is used to store equipment and also contains the cooler powered by an A/C unit.
Beyond the Apprenticeship
As part of Chelsea’s Ph.D. research, she is working with Sara Rodriguez and Oscar Jara, an elderly couple who live in the same community as Chelsea, a few doors down. The land on which Sara and Oscar live is being used for a community-driven food initiative.
This initiative looks to fill in the gaps in our current food systems with the idea that everyone, regardless of social or economic status, should have access to nutrient-dense and regeneratively-grown food. “Food is tied to larger systems of racism and systemic oppression,” Chelsea says. She continues to explain how “looking at food as a basic need of survival can therefore be a tool to displace people and dispossess people of…their means of living in society”.
Sara and Chelsea talk about concepts like collective ownership with the YA Apprentices.
Chelsea describes how it’s not a project — it’s “community organizing” she says. There is no individual ownership of the project, rather there is “collective ownership” and “shared experiences”.
The land in which Sara and Oscar reside is in the neighbourhood of Southview Calgary. The land is located on a busy corner near a major bus stop and the mailbox in the neighbourhood. Initially, they started to spend more time in the space, piquing interest from those who walked by. They invited neighbours to see the backyard chickens, sharing the eggs with them as well. Eventually, trading started to happen — eggs for bread, a rose bush for the garden, an olive branch, etc. They invited folks to share the space, use the space, and implement their ideas in the space.
Sara gives a tour of the space.
They hope that this concept of localizing food can be brought back to other neighbourhoods. “We’re not being naive and [think] this is gonna solve all food problems…it’s just one step towards re-creating that localized food network that all that anyone could fiscally access,” Chelsea explains.
Chelsea hopes to learn how to take care of animals, learning tasks such as feeding the animals, building structures, providing medicine, maintenance, and slaughter. She wants to continue her work in legalizing the ownership of backyard animals in the city. She also plans to start a homestead with her partner on his property near Cochrane.
Backyard chickens at the community space.
Interested in Becoming a YA Apprentice?
Chelsea encourages others to apply for the Apprenticeship program as it differs from farm jobs. “I’m not only learning from my experience with Michael, but from the experiences of all my other apprentices…fellow apprentices, from their mentors [and] from their farms,” she says. Read more about becoming a YA Apprentice or applying to be a mentor if you’re a farmer.
You can also read our article titled How To Get Into Farming in Alberta if you’re interested in learning more!
Photos by Michelle Lam, New Farmer Engagement Coordinator, unless otherwise stated.