I had the opportunity to do a fun little interview with Humans Who Grow Food last week. Amid the rush of life and to do lists, it is easy to forget about the reasons we got into all this vegetable growing in the first place so it was a pleasure to take some time to reflect. To read other inspiring stories from growers around the world, check out @humanswhogrowfood on Instagram. Scroll down to see the full interview.
How would you quickly describe yourself?
I am a lucky human who was born into a loving family 38 years ago. I have studied engineering, architecture, and education, worked as a teacher and farmer, and in recent years become a husband and father. During my lifetime, I have become aware of countless injustices, but somehow remain hopeful in the human spirit and our potential to change. I am fascinated by the beauty and complexity of the natural living systems on this planet and strive to do a better job of protecting them. Solving problems is fun for me and I feel like my aptitudes are well suited to address the problem of sustainable living. Food production is the subject I am focussed on right now. I have got a perfectionist streak that inhibits my work flow from time to time and I tend to take on more projects than I have time for, but I am getting better at making compromises and setting more reasonable goals so I that still have time for friends, family, and a little tinkering in life. I am creative, logical, stubborn, diligent, loyal, frugal, hard working, loving, organized, sincere, calm, and ever curious.
How did you get inspired to grow food?
I had two sources of inspiration. The first was my parents. I was lucky to grow up in a family that always ate meals together and those meals often contained something grown in our large backyard garden. In my younger days, I took this for granted and was never excited about helping with garden tasks. When I moved away from home though, my story changed. I guess it was a typical case of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. The carrots in the grocery store just didn’t compare to the ones that came out of our backyard garden.
The second source of inspiration was my growing understanding of the industrial food system. During my career as a high school teacher, I became more and more interested with the challenge of sustainable living on this planet. As I led my students through numerous lessons and projects on the subject, I learned a lot about our food supply. The more questions I asked, the more answers I found that I didn’t like. It became clear that the food choices that were available to me in the grocery store were hurting our planet and even my personal health.
Why do you grow food?
When people ask me what they can possibly do to live more sustainably, I often challenge them to think about their food choices first. Food is the perfect starting point because we all make food decisions every day. Each time you stick something in your mouth, you cast a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. Too often people get distracted with allure of big ticket items and fancy technological gadgets that promise to solve our problems of sustainability. Growing food is a simple affordable action that people can choose to make their lifestyle part of the solution. By growing our own food, we opt out of the industrial food system, enjoy the highest quality of produce available, and save thousands of dollars a year in the process. I find pleasure in doing work with such a valuable reward so I am happy to invest the time.
What is your location (country and city) and how big is your growing space?
We are located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Last season, our growing space was about 9000 square feet. Next year, we are cutting this back to about 5000 square feet.
What do you grow?
We grow arugula, cabbage, swiss chard, baby kale, lettuce, spinach, microgreens, basil, cilantro, dill, mint, thyme, parsley, garlic, celery, rhubarb, leeks, onions, beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, salad turnips, radishes, beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, winter squash, raspberries, strawberries, sour cherries, apples, and probably a couple of other crops I am forgetting.
What are some of your best practices for soil and pest management?
We top up our beds with a couple of inches of compost before each growing season. This boost the organic matter and microbial life in the soil and also serves as mulch that retains moisture and give our vegetables an advantage over the weed seeds below.
After establishing a garden site in the first year, we never till our soil. This leaves the bank of weed seeds untouched deep below the surface and helps keep the fungal networks intact.
If we know that some of our beds will be empty for a portion of the summer, we will cover them with an opaque tarp to suppress weeds and prevent the soil from drying out.
What is the biggest hurdle you face when it comes to gardening/farming?
This was the most difficult question for me to answer. We face a lot of tricky challenges like the unpredictability of weather, insects, theft, the short shelf life of produce, and the complicated logistics of a multi locational farm. With practice though, we have figured out strategies to overcome these challenges or at least reduce their impact.
The only subject I continue to struggle with is the pricing of our produce. We grow all of our food by hand with no synthetic fertilizers or harmful pesticides, we transport all of our growing equipment, transplants, and harvested produce by bike, and we refrigerate our produce in coolers powered by solar panels. As a business, we bear a higher cost of producing food more sustainably, but we operate in a market which is saturated with food grown on an industrial scale using fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides. The true costs of these industrial methods are externalized into our shared air, land, and water, and future generations will pay the price.
It is difficult to communicate the value of good food quickly. The costs are hidden because people are so fare removed from the labour of food production, and aside from improved flavour, the benefits of choosing good food are not immediately realized either. Today there are tomatoes on the shelf at the grocery store every month of the year even though they are only in season here for 2 to 3 months. The flavour may not be the same and the farming practices may not be sustainable, but since products like this exist on the market as so called tomatoes, people have become seeing vegetables with low sticker prices. How do we present vegetables of much greater value into a market like this and set a new norm for prices?
A big part of the solution is education, which is part of the reason we sell almost all of our produce through a membership model. Our member families commit to the farm for a whole season and better understand some of the hidden values of our produce. Not one member has ever complained that our prices are too high, but I admit our current prices also don’t accurately reflect the true value of the food yet. In time, maybe we will get there. Until then, I will continue to wrestle with this one as I refine our methods and collect more data on our production costs.
What are the biggest rewards for you from gardening/farming?
I love having access to the best food on the planet. It is a pleasure to share it with our farm members and we enjoy eating it every day.
Are you involved with any community initiatives such as seed/plant/food share, training, or other efforts in raising awareness?
I have been working with the Saskatoon Food Council for several years to help make urban food production more welcome in our city.
What inspiring message would you like to give to the community?
If you are already growing your own food, thank you for doing good work and please keep it up! If you ever loose steam, surround yourself with people who love great food and don’t let the media in this world fool you into thinking that your work isn’t valuable. Human life can be simpler than it is made out to be. Grow great food and enjoy it in the company of others.
If you have yet to grow your own food, what are you waiting for? Borrow some land, find a couple of dollars for a few seeds, and start growing. Our farm exists today only because we stopped making excuses. We certainly didn’t have all of the answers when we started and we likely never will. What’s important is that you start growing so you can start learning.