Closing the circle

Blog written by Justine Gabias
July 10th, 2018

I grew up surrounded by plants and flowers. My grandfather was a flower grower and florist in 50’s Quebec. His greenhouses were filled with carnations, poinsettias, and chrysanthemums. My mom and her siblings spent their childhood running around those big greenhouses, and eventually all seven children got involved in the family business, which later became a flower shop and garden centre. My mom became manager of the flower shop, so my two sisters and I spent our early years in the company of roses, azaleas, baby’s breath, tulips and birds of paradise. To me, playing in empty boxes of fern and salal was normal, and often extremely boring. Flowers to me meant waiting for my mom to finish work so we could go home. It is only now that I realize how amazing my childhood was, how accessible beauty was to my sisters and I.

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When I became a teenager, I started working in the garden centre in the summer, watering geraniums, weeding potted trees, moving bags of soil. And I have to tell you, I HATED it. I’d cry about it. Unlike my mom and sisters, I had no interest whatsoever in gardening; I was an artist, I couldn’t care less about begonias or tomatoes.

Life had set me up with everything I needed to become a grower, and yet I refused to even acknowledge it. So I took a different road, moved to Vancouver, studied art, worked in a University. And then, last winter, life cleared her throat and said hey, how about now? Are you ready now?

That little nudge was the moment I learned about the KPU Farm School program. I was sitting in my windowless office, realizing that, even though I loved my job and the financial security it brought me, I was just spinning my wheels. My career felt like this great pair of shoes you hang on to—the shoes are awesome, everybody tells you how great they are, but they’re half a size too small, and they’re just uncomfortable enough that you can’t walk very far with them. It just didn’t fit, no matter how hard I tried.

When I landed on the Tsawwassen Farm School website that November morning, something clicked. It was one of those rare moments of clarity when I knew exactly what I needed to do. So I contacted Caroline Chiu, the program coordinator, and she was extremely generous with her time. She gave me all the info I needed, answered all my questions, and gave me a tour of the farm. It was wonderful to have access to her knowledge and experience, as she had gone through the program herself and knew it inside out.

Fastforward to now—it is almost mid-July. And I have not an ounce of regret. I love it. I love every aspect of farming, and I have discovered that my personality is way better suited to it than I thought. I believe that humans have the natural ability to grow and nurture things. It requires no special talent. I am realizing that ‘having a green thumb’ is not an esoteric gift (which I never received); it is hard work, paying attention, learning the plants’ and animals’ languages, and having the capacity to learn and adapt. Farming requires organization, a creative mind, a knack for problem-solving, patience, a good work ethic, a big heart, a strong back, a large brim hat and tons of sunscreen. It is also extremely dependent on community and relationships. It has been so great meeting folks with different backgrounds, hopes and dreams. The farm staff is small, and the cohort is just shy of 15 students, so we get to know each other pretty well, especially when we are weeding side by side! My peers have become my second family, and I can’t wait to visit their farm one day to help them build tunnels, plant garlic or harvest new potatoes.

The 8-month program is a balanced mix of in-class lectures, fieldwork, and field trips to various farms. We learn everything we need to operate a small-scale farm, from crop production to business management, and everything in between. The instructors, guest lecturers and farmers we meet are all incredibly knowledgeable, humble, and supportive. I am still blown away by the spirit of generosity that permeates farming. All the young farmers we have been lucky to meet are happy to share their wisdom and experience with us future farmers. There seems to be no trade secrets, no signs of unhealthy competition—they are rooting for our success, hoping we make it, and that more people join the small-scale, organic growing movement.

After spending the Spring prepping the field and planting seeds, the farm is now in full swing; we are harvesting weekly and taking turns working the booth at the Mount Pleasant Farmers’ Market. I truly enjoy the market, where I can put my artistic skills to use and talk to amazing customers and vendors. It doesn’t beat giving the piglets belly scratches, pulling beautiful turnips out of the ground, or sharing a big post-harvest feast with my peers, but it’s close! Fresh food—the one you contribute to grow, and can share with people you care about—tastes magical. The act of eating has changed for me; nourishing yourself with vegetables and fruits you have grown sustainably feels and tastes SO. MUCH. BETTER.  Especially the potatoes. Oh man.

That’s what food should taste like. And that’s how our food system should be: local, sustainable and accessible to all. It is not lost on me that I am here in BC as a guest, and as a guest I must make sure that I am a good steward of the unceded land I stand on. I want to learn how to contribute to the healing of the land, and nurture the beings I share it with. That is partly why I chose Tsawwassen Farm School—because of its focus on sustainability and connection to the Tsawwassen First Nation. I am so humbled and grateful to be able to learn from inspiring instructors, lecturers, and from my Tsawwassen First Nation peers. Their wisdom is a gift.

The future is exciting—there are so many interesting possibilities for next season, it is almost dizzying. I could start farming right away on one of the farm’s incubator plots, work on a ranch to learn more about sustainable meat production (and finally wear my ranch hat!), or perhaps start my own business relating to food security or education.

I also sometimes dream of following in my grandfather’s footsteps and grow flowers. Even though he’s not around to mentor me, I’d love to get to know him through farming, and maybe, finally, close the circle and carve my spot in the family business. Sometimes you have to go home to find out who you are.

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