An organic education

Engineering students explore the MyFarm property, located approximately 40 kilometres outside of Kingston.
Engineering students explore the MyFarm property, located approximately 40 kilometres outside of Kingston.
Credit: 
Supplied

Queen’s students have the opportunity to get up close and personal with their food thanks to a joint venture between the University and Sodexo.

The project, known as MyFarm, is located on 76 acres of land some forty kilometres east of Kingston. Project planners hope the land will serve as both a practical farm and teaching environment.

Phil Sparks, Sodexo’s resident district manager said neither Queen’s nor Sodexo technically owns the land occupied by the MyFarm project.

“It’s really a partnership that we’ve developed between the University and Sodexo. Some land has been made available to Sodexo for an organic farm,” he said. “We’ve not bought the land—right now it’s owned by our corporate executive chef, Reginald Pearce and he’s allowed us to use a portion of his 79-acre farm for the project in kind of a free lease.”

Sparks said the idea to create an interactive space for students to learn about food production had been in discussion for some time.

“The motivation behind it was to create a venue to teach people where food comes from,” he said. “We find that in today’s society and culture, not many people understand the origin of the food they’re eating—getting your food is not as simple as going to the grocery store and pulling things off the shelf.”

Sparks said he’d like to see the project expand, adding that he wants to reach out to younger students.

“We wanted to provide an educational opportunity for students—not just on the Queen’s campus, either. We want to expand to the public school system as well. We want everyone to have a chance to understand how we as humans can impact and do impact the food chain,” he said.

Sparks said the younger demographics are particularly removed from the realities of food production and consumption.

“Dinner doesn’t have to come out of a box on the grocery store shelf. My kids are 11 and 13 and they can cook a three course meal,” he said. “Many elementary school students will show up to school with Lunchables—they don’t know that food comes from the earth, not from the grocery store. I’d like to see that culture change.”

Sparks said he hopes to see a change in attitudes towards the environment as well.

“We’ve got some beekeepers that have brought us some hives out there—without honey bees we don’t have any crops. Without the bees’ pollination, the food chain comes to a standstill, but we just swat them out of the air. In North America, our bee population is becoming critically low. We need to rethink the way we interact with the environment every day.”

Sparks said the project also aims to teach students the importance of a sustainable food chain.

“We’re trying to make the project cost-neutral, with an end result being changing the way people look at the food chain, to understand that the choices you make today last for a long time. And that good food and healthy food does not have to be as difficult as most people think it is.”

Although the project has been in development for some time, Sparks said the last year or so has seen an increase in public interest.

“It’s been in the works for a couple of years, but the last 14 months it’s really picked up in momentum. It’s been its peak of activity so far,” he said. “I think it’s because we’ve been able to generate more interest in what we’re doing. It’s not something I think anyone else is doing in Canada, or at least around this area, so it’s unique.”

Queen’s students from geology, environmental science and engineering have visited MyFarm thus far, Sparks said.

“I think so far our strongest partnership is with Four Directions Aboriginal Centre on campus,” he said. “We’ve created approximately two acres on the property for them to plant some crops for medicines and scouted out a spot for a sweat lodge. We gave them an opportunity to do some things they can’t do in the city of Kingston currently—they can go on medicine walks and interact with the natural environment, etc.

“We’re trying to create a venue where we can blend the education and the social aspects of a farm. One of our next projects is to build a classroom structure with a kitchen in it. Hopefully engineering students from Queen’s will design that building and find some sustainable energy and building materials solutions.”

Geoffrey Eichorn, Sci ’09, got the chance to visit the MyFarm property last year as a part of a geological engineering project entitled “Organic Farm Engineered Water Supply.” Along with three other engineers, he was given the task of designing a water management strategy for the farm.

The team went to the property to take notes and measurements and to run tests on the water. Chemical testing ensured the farm environment would comply with organic certification environmental regulations, and the team investigated alternative energy sources to provide power to farm equipment.

Eichorn and his team visited MyFarm over a period of eight months. He told the Journal in an e-mail that his time at the property was a unique opportunity.

“The experience on the farm was like no other I have had through a project during my time at Queen’s,” he said. “We were very lucky to have been given the opportunity to experience what it is like to work on a farm. Although we did not do any farming, we certainly got dirty and gained an appreciation for where our food comes from, as well as the sheer beauty and value of farm lands.”

Eichorn said his research would not have been possible without the farm.

“In geological engineering, we have a strong component of field study in our curriculum. This is so critical for proper learning, particularly in our field of science. I think there is a growing shift towards alternative learning styles and field experience makes such a difference,” he said.

The MyFarm project has led to a variety of related student projects, including experiments with biodiesel fuel generator and designing and building models for a sustainable greenhouse.

“The farm holds potential for projects like these in engineering but also in other subjects that might deal with sustainable development, international development and public health and safety,” Eichorn said. “Of course, it also has great potential to teach people how to farm. I think that will be the cornerstone for this project, given that food awareness and security is becoming ever more critical in this century.”

And on that farm he had a...

In partnership with The Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, two acres of MyFarm is being dedicated to growing these products for next year’s educational powwow:

•Traditional ‘three sisters’ corn
•Beans
•Corn
•Sweetgrass

Four Directions also has plans to build a sweat lodge on the property sometime this year.

Additional plans for MyFarm this spring, include:

•Building a greenhouse to produce seedlings
•A certified organic fruit and vegetable garden
•Areas to raise free-range, hormone-free pork and chicken

These crops will be sold to students at the campus farmers market.

qnc.queensu.ca, Emily Davies and Monica Heisey

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