Mentorship Success Stories
Below is an article featuring Randi Townsend, a former Three Oaks apprentice.
Farm fresh — in the city: Program plots out a future for fresh urban harvest
Barefoot Gardens farmers Randi Townsend, second from left, and Sarah Laurance, right, taste test some of their produce with Red Apron owners Jennifer Heagle, far left, and Jo-Ann Laverty, centre at Just Food Farm.
Photograph by: Julie Oliver , Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — If you walk into The Manx pub and order a salad off the specials board these days, you might be getting delicious fresh lettuce produced by an innovative program that’s helping everyone from would-be farmers to street kids.
Ottawa non-profit Just Food has started an urban farm on a 120-acre wedge of NCC land just west of Blackburn Hamlet. The Start-Up Farm Program has a dozen plots being tended by everyone from 20-year-old local-foodies to immigrants with farming experience but no land.
“I’m a real urban farmer for sure,” says Sarah Lawrance, 30, who loads the salad greens she grows with farming partner Randi Townsend, 27, into a cooler before taking OC Transpo route 94 from the farm to deliver the goods to The Red Apron and Market Organics.
“We’re really excited because for a long time Just Food has wanted to develop a food hub, with community education about food and farming and incubator farms,” says Leela Ramachandran, manager of the farm program. “We’re seeing a real emergence of a new type of farmers who don’t come from the regular farm background.”
In this first summer of operation, nine quarter-acre plots are worked by people like Lawrance and Townsend, who call their farm Barefoot Gardens, as well as recent graduates from university agriculture courses and even a farmer from Haiti who’s growing amaranth. For $1,600 a season, startup farmers get the use of the land with electric fencing around it, access to irrigation, use of a washing station, access to some farm equipment and cold storage, and a series of workshops on everything from soil fertility to sales and marketing.
“It’s a big transition to start farming,” says Ramachandran, who farmed for two years in the Wakefield/Chelsea area. “We’re trying to offer an option for people who are not quite ready to go out and buy their own farm.”
Ten new quarter-acre plots are to be offered next year, while this year’s crop of new farmers is expected to move up to half-acre plots, then full acres in their third year, before moving out to farm on their own.
Two one-acre plots are being operated as partnerships: one with Operation Come Home and another with Karen refugees from Burma and Thailand.
“It’s fantastic,” says Catherine Dowdell, who co-ordinates the FarmWorks program for Operation Come Home, a group devoted to preventing Ottawa’s at-risk youth from becoming homeless adults.
“Some of these kids are getting up at 5 a.m. to get here on the bus by 7. Their spirits are calmer out here on the farm, and they’re learning a work ethic. My dream is that I’m growing little farmers.”
Jarrah Thomas-Reynolds, chef at The Manx on Elgin Street who buys produce grown at the new farm from Operation Come Home, says, “I was on board completely as soon as I heard about this program.
“It’s so cool to make that connection between the product and the land, but also, some of the kids who work in kitchens might have been at risk themselves, so it makes another connection.”
Thomas-Reynolds says any worries he might have had about the quality of the produce he’d signed on for back in March disappeared once he started getting deliveries a few weeks ago.
“Everything has been top-notch. We got the most amazing purple beans, so we made a Vietnamese purple bean slaw. The mixed greens hold up a lot better than regular salad mix. Everything’s so fresh.”
Tamara Severa, 19, is one of the youths who planted and cared for those beans and greens.
“I was living at the Y when I saw the sign about FarmWorks in the window of Operation Come Home,” she said as she pulled weeds from a row of parsnips. “I got interested in organic farming. It’s a lot better than a retail job, that’s for sure. It’s hard work, but it’s also keeping me in shape.”
David Sendybyl, 23, who describes himself as being “street involved” before he connected with Operation Come Home, says that if he wasn’t working on the farm, he’d probably have ended up working at McDonald’s.
Lawrance and Townsend, who want to be farmers because they want to an alternative to the industrialized food system, say they couldn’t have made their plot pay without having The Red Apron as a ready customer.
“It’s enough to worry about the growing when you’re first starting out without also having to worry about marketing,” says Townsend. “As it is, we’re sometimes working 60-hour weeks.”
Jennifer Heagle, co-owner of The Red Apron, says she was thrilled when she found out that one of her employees was also going to be a farmer who could supply the shop with fresh, organic produce.
“We’re always looking for ways to demonstrate the connection between the local land, the farmer and the food that we prepare. And it doesn’t get any more farm-to-fork than this. Is it easy? No. Is it cheaper? No. But we think it’s fantastic.”
Just Food, which also oversees Savour Ottawa and more than three dozen community gardens, got funding for the new farm program from the Ontario Trillium Fund, Beau’s Brewery and the City of Ottawa. The concept is that the Just Food Farm will become self-supporting through farmers’ fees and selling products, such as educational workshops, to the general public.
“Moe (Garahan, the executive director of Just Food) really is changing the world in a real, meaningful way,” says Heagle. “I can’t think of a better use of NCC property than helping young people learn to be farmers.”
And here’s some stories by other former apprentices:
I apprenticed part-time at Northbrook Farm during Summer 2012. I had woofed before, but did not have much confidence in my farming abilities, and was lucky to land at such a positive, inspiring, fun farm. I started in April and got to take part in every part of the growing season, from starting seedlings, transplanting, planting, weeding, harvesting, packaging and selling at farmers market, as well as little seed saving and food preservation too. Heather loves to answer questions and share her experience of starting a farm, and she treats male and female apprentices equally, whether its asking you to fix the irrigation or to freeze blueberries. Its hard to know what brightened my days most, her awesome, hilarious kids or her delicious lunches. I also found myself part of a warm, welcoming, super fun community of Saanich Organics employees and friends, competing fiercely in the Great Zucchini bakeoff, visiting neighboring farms for Apprentice workshops, and swimming in Secret Lake. I left in October, empowered in my ability to start my own farm in the near future, knowing that what I didn’t yet know I could learn from books, volunteering and reaching out to the farming community wherever I am. The Saanich Organics crew loves it when apprentices wants to farm, and will do anything in their power to help you get land, jobs and resources! This summer I am excited to be working full-time at Morningdove Gardens in Kelowna, BC, with plans of farming cooperatively with friends in the area in coming years.
-Sue Cairnie, 2012
My time at Three Oaks was unforgettable. Rachel, Grant and the kids were so welcoming, and showed an immense amount of trust by inviting me into their homes and their lives, for which I am eternally grateful. Working alongside Rachel and the other apprentices and volunteers, I learned everything I had wanted to know about farming, and so much more. Rachel was encouraging, patient, and most of all humbling. She was the core of our team. But, even when she was busy racing off taking the kids to this, or picking them up from that,
it was touching how guilty she felt leaving us and showed how much she loved the farm and her helpers. I will continue to keep in touch with Rachel, as she’s become so much more to me than a farmer: she’s a mentor and above all a friend.
It was a real treat to be able to learn and observe how Saanich Organics operated. If you want to know how to run a successful farming business and co-op, Saanich Organics is the place to learn! The three women who own it- Rachel Fisher, Heather Stretch and Robin Tunnicliffe- are superhero female role models, balancing a livelihood often with family and kids, and doing it all with smiles on their faces! Kudos! Check them out- they always welcome a helpful hand and positive attitude.
-Maria Yasel, Nov 2012
Apprenticing with Heather at Northbrook Farm was the best experience of my life. Spending a full season on the farm is a great opportunity to understand the seasonal cycles of farming – from preparing the soil, planning the crops and planting the seeds to picking the veggies and packing the boxes for the families who receive our produce.
Apprenticing at Northbrook Farm was a fantastic experience. My partner Jill and I both apprenticed and then partnered in the management of the farm and business with Heather.
If you want to learn not only how to grow food, but how to build a profitable business out of it, you really can’t do better then to involved yourself with the Saanich Organics community. There are so many different people and small farms that are involved, there are always people to learn something new from.
While I haven’t continued to farm, my experience at Northbrook and Saanich Organics has continued to influence my approach to life and business. It was an incredible time, full of incredible people.
-John Mardlin, 2010 & 2011
I grow a huge garden every year and am still on the look out for a perfect spot to farm.
-Hannah Roessler, apprenticed in 2009