We begin the day sleepy-eyed, yawning, and low-energy, having just rolled out of bed and biked to the fields. Throughout the day spent in the open air, we gain strength and energy, doing work that requires using our muscles and minds equally. We finish around 5:30 PM feeling exhausted and accomplished, arriving home with dirty hands and knees, with soil in our hair and ears and deep in the corners of our eyes. – Matthew McCormick, student farmer at the MacDonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens
It was nearing eleven and the late September sun was beating down on the rolling cornfields surrounding the quiet town of Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue as I toured the MacDonald Student Run-Ecological Gardens (MSEG). On the two-acre plot of land situated on McGill University’s MacDonald Campus Farm, a small but passionate team of student farmers is growing over sixty different crop species.
MSEG was initiated in 2009 by a small group of McGill students who were seeking hands-on experience in ecological agriculture. The group was provided a minimal amount of funding and gained access to a plot in the MacDonald Campus Community Garden, where they began growing vegetables. The founding members began providing fresh produce to Happy Belly, a student group that prepares and serves healthy and locally sourced lunches to students and staff members on MacDonald Campus.
Throughout the next several years, students from both McGill campuses expressed a keen interest in getting involved with the project. MSEG received substantial funding from McGill’s Sustainable Projects Fund, which allowed the team to expand its operations. MSEG acquired space in the Horticulture Centre and the team soon after initiated a CSA program to support the financial stability of the project. In 2013, MSEG was granted its current plot of land on the MacDonald Campus Farm, which was made available for student use through partnerships with the Farm and local organic producers Les Jardins Carya and Ferme du Zephyr.
The gardens have grown into quite a serious, self-sustaining production, having expanded and transformed every year since the inception of the project. A manifestation of sustainable, small-scale farming, MSEG offers students an incredible opportunity to explore, apply and expand their knowledge of ecological agriculture.
The MSEG team currently consists of three farm managers and three interns, all of whom come from diverse educational backgrounds but share a common passion for sustainable agriculture. Matthew McCormick, an MSEG intern, said that he decided to get involved with the project after one of his professors arranged for a tour of the gardens. He recalled, “After visiting the gardens, I was impressed by how much the student farmer knew about sustainable agriculture and how well she could communicate the life of the garden,” he said. “She could point to every single bed and tell us what was planted there, how it was seeded, and how much each vegetable could sell for at the market.”
The majority of students who get involved with the project have little to no background in agriculture. Matthew had no experience in growing food when he joined the team last summer but was drawn to the project due to the unique opportunity it offered to learn outside of a classroom setting. “I realized that in my time at McGill, I had never been exposed to this type of experimental learning and saw this as an opportunity to get my hands dirty, while actually gaining real skills outside of the classroom,” he said. “After realizing how much planning, critical thinking and resourcefulness goes into small-scale farming, and how delightful it is to see community members enjoy food that I helped grow, I became an advocate of local, sustainable food systems.”
Rebecca Phaneuf-Thibault, a farm manager at MSEG, explained that the team is firmly committed to providing local and organic produce to students on both of McGill’s campuses. MSEG currently offers fifty CSA baskets and provides fresh produce to the Out of the Garden Project, a student run café on MacDonald Campus. The group has also sold produce to McGill’s Student Housing and Hospitality Services; however, it is less profitable for MSEG to sell wholesale to the residence dining halls than to sell produce directly at the Marché Sainte-Anne and the McGill Farmers’ Market.
Rebecca feels that selling food to the residence cafeterias is not necessarily the best way for MSEG to become meaningfully integrated into the sustainability mission at McGill. She said, “Having more connections with McGill on the educational side is how we could best contribute to the sustainable food system at McGill; that is, getting more people involved, having people come to learn. MSEG is a platform for learning, rather than large scale production.”
One of the greatest challenges that the students face in operating the gardens is the transition that occurs each fall. Throughout the summer months, the team works full-time at the gardens; however, members become full-time students once again in September and must balance their time. Matthew explains, “We do the best we can and love the project; however, it is not in our means as students to become a profit-centered project as all of us are juggling class work. We are still considering ways to maintain the stability of the project given that we are students and have certain limits.” Farm manager Lorine Dargazanli added that she was positively surprised by the smooth transition that occurred this fall, acknowledging the support of volunteers and helpful feedback from customers.
Students commit to the project for a minimum of two years, beginning as garden interns and later help manage the project. “There’s a huge learning curve involved,” said Rebecca. “It’s incredible – you can’t get that level of experience in a lot of other places, especially in an academic sphere.” Apart from learning to grow many different types of vegetables and building basic farm infrastructure, team members gain leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Matthew said, “I have gained skills in leadership, volunteer coordination, consensus-based decision making, and more.”
Throughout his experience with MSEG, Matthew has also realized the importance of building strong networks amongst farmers. “Our team was kindly welcomed into the community of small-scale farmers in our region,” he recalled. The MSEG team was invited to participate in farm Olympics, harvest parties, and potluck-style dinners throughout the summer. “There were seven of us students working in the fields every day but I often found myself thinking that if I should want to pursue a career in farming, I might spend a lot time alone,” said Matthew. “By being included in these regional farm events, I saw that it’s important for farmers to build networks and foster relationships of support with their colleagues, rather than relationships of competition.”
The responsibility to maintain the success of the project rests entirely on the shoulders of the student farm managers and interns, meaning that they must often manage unforeseen challenges that arise throughout the season. “We were faced with many challenges throughout the season that required what one of my coworkers calls ‘disaster control,’” said Matthew. “Our truck broke down the day before a market delivery, our irrigation system exploded multiple times in one day, and towards the end of our CSA program when we were running out of fall crops, we had to get a little creative with what we put in our baskets.”
Around noon, the student farmers took a break from working in the fields, their hands and knees brown from the soil and their faces blushing summer pink from the warmth of the sun. The team was tired from the morning’s work but were energetic and at ease in each other’s company. Despite the often chaotic and stressful balancing act that these students must master, they remain passionate and fearless advocates for small-scale, sustainable farming. Matthew remarked that “for all of us, this has been the scariest but most rewarding learning experience we’ve had in university.”
For more information on the MacDonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens, please visit: https://youngagrarians.org/growing-young-farmers-macdonald-student-gardens/