By Jason McBride, Macleans.ca
Published November 2, 2011
 
This past September, New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University held an event unprecedented in its 172-year-long history: a you-pick potato harvest. For the first five Saturdays of the new school year, students and Sackville residents were able to pick Russet and Superior potatoes from a boggy, 9.7-hectare farm in the heart of the campus. The rest of the spud harvest—a yield of 30,000 pounds—was transformed, to the delight of many ravenous undergrads, into fresh, hand-cut french fries and mashed potatoes in the kitchen at Jennings Hall.

The Mount Allison Farm had lain fallow for half a century before Michelle Strain, a gardener and the university’s director of administrative services, revived it this past spring in response to student demand for more fresh, local produce. Strain and her small team sought advice and borrowed equipment from nearby farmers, and received a guarantee from chef Tom Burrell, who runs the dining hall, to buy as much “homegrown”—as the chef calls it with a wink—produce as they could. Third-year anthropology student Heidi Goodine was one of two Mount A students who spent the past summer amending the soil, planting, watering and weeding—all by hand. Menaced by switchgrass, ferocious mosquitoes and relentless rain, the small crew (along with about 100 volunteers) produced a surprisingly large bounty—not just potatoes, but lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, carrots and green beans. “It was really exciting to see everything blooming and coming out of the ground,” Goodine says. “The weather was so poor we didn’t know if anything would grow.”

Mount A’s farm is just one of many agricultural projects sprouting on Canadian university campuses, often in unexpected places and reflective of a growing cultural obsession with knowing where our food comes from. The University of Manitoba recently opened the Bruce D. Campbell Farm and Food Discovery Centre, the first such facility in Western Canada, and the University of Windsor’s Campus Community Garden Project, which began in January 2010, nurtures connections between school and city through several communal garden plots. Concordia’s Loyola City Farm School Project, a pilot project now in its final phase, is a hands-on urban agriculture training program.

In Fields of Learning: The Student Farm Movement in North America, a collection of essays out this fall, co-editor Laura Sayre argues that student farms “may be essential in preparing our nation and our planet to become part of the food revolution of the 21st century.” As climate change, food-safety fears and declining natural resources make large-scale industrial agriculture increasingly unsustainable, smaller, more nimble and often experimental operations—precisely the kind of farms found on university campuses—and the experience and knowledge to run them, have become even more vital.

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