I am a big fan of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Farm. I’ll be taking a tour there this spring. It’s the only working farm in the city of Vancouver, located on a 24 hectare expanse of land on the campus grounds, with 10 hectares actually farmable. With that kind of “undeveloped” land one can imagine that the farm is under constant threat of development, in fact it was designated as “Future Housing Reserve” in the university’s 1997 Official Community Plan. But the farm will not go down without a fight and not just from the students who get their hands dirty there; the surrounding well-heeled communities shop at its popular farmers’ market. Up to 500 people line up each summer Saturday for the abundant vegetables, herbs, flowers and small fruits, over 200 crop varieties grown organically in their market garden. And they almost always run out of the organic eggs fresh from their flock of free-range chickens. The market garden produce is also featured at many of the city’s nearby high-end restaurants.
The farm has a rich offering of hands-on educational programs, both for UBC students as well as the community at large. There’s a children’s teaching garden with a beautiful little cob archway and garden shed. Children helped to build the natural structure by mixing clay, sand and straw together with their feet, molding the mud into balls, then stacking them to form the walls. The honeybees are popular with the kids too and they also help pollinate the gardens.
In the Mayan Garden, there are three sisters plantings (corn, beans and squash). Mayans “in exile” as they call themselves, have created this demonstration garden to educate students, faculty and visitors about their culture. Their produce is sold at the farmers’ market too.
I attended a beautiful fall celebration there one year. The Mayans were dressed in colourful native costume that day. There was a marimba band playing. Children ran about. The men walked through the dense cornfield cutting cobs of corn with their scythes. The women were bent over the traditional in-ground fire, standing the multi-coloured corn, still in husks, on their ends in a circle round the fire. Other women served up thick, sweet corn drinks and handed out tantalizing traditional foods, some I recognized, like the tomales wrapped in corn husks, but others, like the delicious white jelly-like squares, dotted with black beans I had never seen before. Standing in the field that day, encircled by a forest, Mayans and music, with no landmarks to orient us, I said to my friend, “Where are we?” We could have been in Guatemala. This was truly a gathering place. And it may have been on that day that I decided I must see Guatemala myself.
The Aboriginal Garden is tended by the Vancouver Native Health Society’s Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen in partnership with the Musqueam First Nation. The garden takes up about one acre of land at UBC Farm. Land that is on Musqueam traditional territory. Urban aboriginals are bussed from the downtown eastside (DTES) to the site to work and learn in the garden. The garden helps to stock their community kitchen with fresh produce, including some traditional foods like salal and salmon berries. They have recently added a smoke house too so they can smoke their own fish. There is a very large aboriginal population on the DTES, many suffer from malnutrition. The group also hosts cultural workshops and events that celebrate aboriginal traditions around food, the harvest and the seasons.
The farm’s medicinal garden features a lovely interpretative trail through the native second growth forest where students and visitors can learn about native plants and ecology. Guided foraging walks are led by elders and other community leaders.
In their research plots, students are investigating new techniques in sustainable agriculture. The departments of botany, forest sciences and the faculty of land and food systems all use the site for field research. When I visited once, I asked Mark Bomford, the Farm coordinator to hurry up and come up with something for sowbugs before they took over the world. He said they already had and took me over to see the chickens.
Excerpt from Something’s Rotten in Compost City, The Plot to Take Over the Food You Eat.