Living Off the Land – Nurturing a New Wave of Farmers

by Jo Barnes | photos by Janis Jean Photography – 

He plants the seeds, pulls the weeds, waters and tends his garden. He loves to eat the harvest but there’s one part of farming he really loves: finding the bugs!

Five-year-old Oliver Day is one of a growing number of local youth participating in a variety of programs run by Growing Young Farmers Society (GYFS), focused on teaching farming in the classroom.

“This program offers a place where children can learn foundational gardening skills, be outside and learn how to grow food,” shares Brooke Williams, Executive Director of GYFS.

Adds Graham Day, Oliver’s father: “It is important that kids understand what food is and where it comes from. For too many children, food comes in packaging from grocery stores. We hope that Oliver’s interest in food will make him curious to try new foods and also be mindful about nutrition.”

And, as for Oliver, he sums up his feelings by saying: “I love farming.”

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, GYFS runs numerous in-school programs and summer camps across the Saanich Peninsula and the Greater Victoria area. Students as young as five years old receive hands-on practical experience in gardens located on the school grounds or nearby farm sites.

“We are currently working with eight schools across three school districts: # 61 (Greater Victoria), #62 (Sooke), and #63 (Saanich),” comments Brooke. “Four to five classes per school attend a 45-minute garden session for six weeks in the fall and up to 10 weeks in the spring.”

Right now, GYFS is running summer camps at three sites: Government House through the City of Victoria, Lohbrunner Community Farm through Westshore Recreation, and Sandown Centre through Panorama Recreation.

The program is taught by teachers known as Grower Educators, individuals who are experienced in growing and producing healthy food and have backgrounds in supervising and teaching school-aged children. They mentor, guide and empower students and ensure that their gardens are successful and flourishing.

A former Grower Educator herself, Brooke well understands the potential of learning about farming and its practical applications.

“I studied nutrition, food systems and urban agriculture at the Ryerson Urban Farm at Ryerson University,” shares Brooke, who adds: “The University is now called Toronto Metropolitan University. I received my Certificate in Urban Agriculture and now co-own a small scale farm business in Victoria called Upbeet Garden. I am very much a young farmer myself.”

At the core of GYFS is a charity passionate about educating and empowering school-aged children on how to grow their own food, as attested by founding member, past President, and current Treasurer, Carol Hyland.

“When the society formed, I had four growing children and was interested in cooking, gardening and food related issues,” remarks Carol, adding with a smile: “Everyone in GYFS loved farming, food and kids!”

Since inception, the program has really taken off in the community. Key to this success is enthusiasm shown by school administration and staff.

“You need to have a principal who is keen,” notes Carol. “You also need a ‘Champion Teacher’ who is really interested in the program.”

Once a program is seeded in a school, it has the potential to grow and take root.

“Cordova Bay and Sidney Elementary Schools now run the program themselves,” says Brooke. “North Saanich Middle School is new to our program, and the students are very engaged as they work on a dedicated plot at Sandown Centre.”

So what are the benefits to children? As well as offering the opportunity to be outdoors, be physically active and learn about soil and plants, there are opportunities for learning applications in other avenues such as writing, art and the sciences.

“Some students keep journals of what they planted. It is a time to reflect on what resonated for them,” comments Carol.

“They do data collecting and measuring. They learn about the biology of compost, why it is important to put nutrients back into the soil, and the cycle of life.”

As our young farmer, Oliver, notes: “I really like finding bugs like ladybugs.”

In building and maintaining a garden, students learn to work with others, problem solve and talk about larger issues such as food security and sustainability.

“The truth is we need more farmers in general, but also ones that grow food using organic and regenerative practices, and who have the tools to be successful at it!” says Brooke. “Food grown locally helps to reduce our reliance on off-island food imports.”

GYFS programs teach youth the fundamental skills and knowledge about growing food. Along the way they explore, find challenges, enjoy the harvest and better understand their connection to their world around them. But most of all, they do all of this in a supportive, creative, and positive environment.

As Oliver succinctly puts it: “Farming is very fun!”

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