The Food School Farm
at Centre Wellington District High School
A Project SOIL Pilot
and Participatory Action Research (PAR) Case Study
Written by Tim O’brien
Download as pdf (10 MB)
Interviews conducted between May 2014 and June 2015
CASE STUDY HIGHLIGHTS
- Collaboration between the Upper Grand District School Board, the Township of Centre Wellington, and Wellington Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
- The Food School follows the Ministry of Education’s Green Industry curriculum, which addresses topics such as landscaping, horticulture, and agriculture
- The Food School offers Grade 11 students the opportunity to get first-hand experience in farming, harvesting and preparing sustainably grown food
- The Food School Farm has 1 acre of land on the site of a 19th century farmhouse with kitchen, offices, classrooms, washrooms, and basement with cold storage
- The site has 10 garden beds ranging in size from 400 to 1600 square feet, with plans for a 30’x50′ greenhouse
- Seeds donated by CWDHS staff
- Irrigation water is collected off the farmhouse’s roof and stored in cisterns
- $150,000 loan from the Waterloo-Wellington Community futures Development Corporation, repaid over 15 years at 1% interest through Fundraising events
The Wellington Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (WCSA), the Upper Grand District School Board, and the Township of Centre Wellington have formed a collaborative partnership, striving for a healthy and sustainable food system. The partnership provides the students of the Centre Wellington District High School (CWDHS) in Fergus with a unique opportunity to experience the ins and outs of food production under the title “Food School”—farming, harvesting and preparing sustainably sourced food of their own. The school offers a series of integrated courses for grade 11 students in both growing food outdoors and cooking in the kitchen.
Located on the east side of Fergus, Ontario—within a five-minute walk from the CWDHS—the Food School farm property comprises roughly 1 acre of land surrounding a nineteenth-century farmhouse. Until now, the municipally owned property had been used primarily for storage of machine equipment, construction materials, and other maintenance leftovers. The WCSA has a volunteer, non-profit board comprised of members of the community who want to promote a healthy and vibrant food system. In 2011 they entered into an agreement with the township of Centre Wellington that would see the site repurposed for the Food School project. Under this agreement, the board of volunteers—with help from teachers and students at CWDHS—have become the stewards of the property, renovating the farmhouse, and cleaning and cultivating the land for local education, recreation and food production purposes.
Officially opening their doors to the public in September 2014 with the first Annual Fergus Whole Hog BBQ fundraiser, the WCSA and their brand-new Food School Farm exemplify positive food production on institutional land for communities everywhere and thus has been appropriately selected as one of five project SOIL pilot sites.
The Food School Farm project was realized in 2011 by the Wellington Centre for Sustainable Agri-culture’s board of volunteers. These individuals, along with others like CWDHS culinary school chef instructor and past WCSA board member Chris Jess, saw a unique opportunity to provide local youth with a healthier and more vibrant food system – a simple idea turned into reality. The vision for the food school farm was to implement small plot intensive (SPIN) farming that would provide practical experience for the students of the CWDHS, raising awareness for sustainable food through the creation and physical maintenance of the farm. Previously, Chef instructor Jess would purchase the necessary food for his culinary class from a local grower – an opportunity lost in his eyes.
The township of Centre Wellington, which includes Fergus and Elora, has a population of roughly 26,000 and is deeply rooted in an agrarian culture. The Centre Wellington District High School already possessed an innovative culinary program where students experience a professional kitchen atmosphere. The opportunity for food production to supplement the preparation was seen as an exciting educational opportunity. Additionally, the initiative would see the reclamation and refurbishment of one of the community’s historic farmhouses, a goal which has been widely supported by the community, as demonstrated by unanimous approvals by town council.
Behind the scenes, the farm project involves the WCSA board of volunteers who facilitate all funding initiatives, future planning, and decision-making.
The WCSA board consists of six volunteers led by Jana Reichert, the board Chair and Economic Development Officer of the County of Wellington. Russ Spicer (Vice Chair), Bryan Welch (Treasurer), Kristen Drexler, (events committee chair) along with Karen Welch and Erin Pratley all bring a variety of expertise to the organization.
Chris Jess—a key founder and previous member of the board—is a primary catalyst for the Food School initiative. As the culinary arts instructor for grades 9 through 12, chef-instructor Jess provides the link between the WCSA and the CWDHS/UGDSB. Having completed professional training at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Culinary Program, the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California, and international training in Australia, Jess brings invaluable experience to the students at the CWDHS school culinary program. Throughout his 20-year career, ‘slow food’ mentors like Eliot Coleman and advocates like Raj Patel and Michael Pollan have cemented both his love for local & seasonal ingredients, and his commitment to pursuing better food alternatives. Chris continues to serve as a committee member and is a major visionary in working with the WCSA.
The Food School’s program is guided by the Ministry of Education’s Green Industry curriculum, which delves into landscaping, horticulture, forestry and agriculture. The specifics of the curriculum were then honed by Chef Chris Jess to suit the requirements and capabilities of the CWDHS.
Also, the board is aided by teacher / volunteers from the CWDHS who contribute their time to the farm. In addition to Chef Jess, other instructors from the school are involved on a voluntary basis, bringing practical knowledge experience and a shared passion for the program. Rob McColeman, a construction / mechanics instructor, brings both farming and equipment experience, overseeing small construction projects with the students and lending small machinery to the farm. Under McColeman, the grade 11 students laid out, prepared, and planted the planting beds during their class time. Michael Johnston also contributes time to the farm, overseeing small renovation work to the farmhouse when he is not teaching English in the farmhouse classrooms.
The Food School farm property is roughly one acre on the east edge of the town of Fergus, bordering commercial agri-cultural land. The farm is entirely fenced-off and divided into sec-tions. The gated north section—directly ad-jacent to Belsyde Ave. E—has been assigned for prime agricultural space; the middle south section is a large, open lawn space complete with fruit trees and smaller garden beds; the highest ground and furthest from Belsyde Ave. E, is the primary farmhouse grounds, complete with large trees, a storage shed, the main entrance and space for parking.
The Farmhouse consists of a main kitchen that has two offices, two classrooms, two washrooms and a partially-finished basement to house a walk-in cold storage room. A recently renovated covered porch at rear of building provides ample space for working outside in inclement weather. A newly installed aluminum roof provides catch-ment for rainwater, which drains into and is stored within above-ground cisterns. The farmhouse is connected wirelessly to the CWDHS, allowing internet ac-cess in the classrooms.
A storage shed safely houses gardening tools and equipment, seed and planters, as well as the newly acquired BCS rototilling machine.
The site currently has 10 garden beds of sizes varying from 400-1600 square feet. The project has purchased the materials for a 30’x50’ greenhouse which is to be installed on the middle portion of the site. As the land had never been worked before, creating garden beds from sod was difficult, and associated with significant weeds. These proved hard to control using organic methods.
At this point the bulk of the larger machinery—e.g. riding lawn mowers and weed trimmers—are voluntarily contributed CWDHS staff, or are provided voluntarily by the neighbouring municipal maintenance workers.
Over the course of the 2014 pilot, several small infrastructure projects were completed, combining the ingenuity of students, the knowledge and design background of the PAR researcher, and occasionally random materials at hand.
Cold Frame Prototype
A cold frame box was devised as a way to use the surplus board glass from the neighbouring hockey arena renovations. The idea was to create a portable growing box that could be used for produce during colder months, either to start earlier in spring, or extend the season later into the fall. Though the design is functional and simple to make, the weight of the glass panels (125lbs or so) mean that the desired portability is likely unfeasible.
The design and construction of a 10’x15’ “floating deck” was initiated primarily for the First Annual Fergus Whole Hog BBQ fundraiser, with the intention of relocating and reusing it at a different location on site afterwards. The deck served as the central focal point for the event, a stage for the band and sounding platform for all emcee announcements.
Foundation & Hardware:
– Deck Block Piers: capable of holding 4”x4” posts or 2”x6” joists (QTY: 21)
– Support Posts: 8’x4”x4” (cut to length according to topography) (QTY: 1-3)
– Deck Screws: Roughly 4lbs~ of 2 1/2”
Structure & Surface:
– Joists: 10’x2”x6” (QTY: 7)
– End Boards: 15’x2”6” (QTY: 2)
– Surface Boards: 15’x2”x6” (QTY: 22)
Total Cost: Roughly $800
The front facade of the farmhouse was altered after some significant grading changes to the farm grounds. As a result, the students used the opportunity to construct the framing out of 4”x4” lumber for a stepped approach to the house. Left open and partially filled with rubble, the stairs required completion. The framing was cleaned out and filled with the appropriate levels of A-gravel and Chips-n-Dust before laying brick pavers (which were found around the farm property).
Two classroom chalkboards were present in the farmhouse but not in use during the summer. The exterior space under the newly renovated porch was selected for them to be mounted and used as message boards or for outdoor classes. With simple lumber framing and heavy-duty anchor bolts, the boards were fixed to the stone wall. A mailbox was installed to keep the chalk and erasers handy.
Total Cost: $65 for lumber and hardware
The first planting season saw an unseasonably high level of rainfall, which meant that the absence of any form of mechanical irrigation did not have a negative effect. The farm has, however, come to acquire two recycled cisterns into which water from the farmhouse roof will be collected, stored, and accessed for irrigation in the future. The distance from farmhouse to plots poses a problem of access, though the difference in elevation would easily facilitate ample gravitational flow through a system of watering hoses.
The soil used for the planting beds existed on site. The plots were marked out, and the earth tilled accordingly. The issue with the existing soil was the persistence of weeds, which are in high concentration as the site sat as an open grass field for many years. It will likely take several years of tilling and mitigation strategies to effectively render the unwanted growth manageable.
The farm saw all of its seeds donated through the associated teachers involved, including Rob McColeman and Michael Johnston. At this point, donations will be the primary supply source as an initiative to collect and cultivate seeds and seedlings ‘in house’ is yet to be established.
The Waterloo Wellington Community Futures Development Corporation promotes economic growth in the County of Wellington and the Region of Waterloo. More specifically, they offer financing for start-ups, community projects, and other businesses. In 2011, they provided the WCSA $150,000.00 to renovate the farmhouse at 1% interest over 15 years.
The WCSA is committed to raising $10,000 per year in paying back the loan by hosting a variety of fundraisers such as catering ‘celebrity’ dinners for the community. One such event, the First Annual Fergus Whole Hog BBQ fundraising event held in September this year, raised nearly $7,000 to kick-start the repayment and is expected to grow exponentially. Jess highlights how “…such events are opportunities to promote discussions about sustainable agriculture in and around the community” while providing the students with real-world experiences in food systems.
As this was the first season for the farm to have gardens planted, emphasis was on cultivating the soil, allotting bed sizes, and troubleshooting techniques with an admittedly low expectation for yields. However, some produce was successful for harvest and sale, but not a lot. “Maybe a few hundred dollars this year, but we’re already looking at hiring a farm manager that can both grow amazing food and find their own salary through various funding sources”, says Jess.
Community / Social Resources
The WCSA is an organization formed for the purpose of providing unique educational opportunities to the community’s youth, and thus the connection with Centre Wellington District High School is understandably so important. Jess explains that “The hopes of growing a new generation of young ecological farmers is the investment in this particular relationship, making the WCSA available to students to learn and engage with a new vibrant food system.”
He goes on to say that “The municipality of Centre Wellington Township has been very supportive of the use of the land and farmhouse. As they are the landlords, their support has paved the way for the programs that are now available to the school and school board.”
Policy and program resources
I think we have a viable pitch to funders and foundations as to why this arrangement is worthy of supporting. Everyone from 4H to Agricultural societies, to OMAF will be pursued in the years ahead. There’s also talk of engaging local community members in workshops at the farm that would promote urban farming practices ~ Chris Jess
Jess notes that currently there are “no real policy connections, but there are plans to connect with the local Dufferin Wellington Public Health department and their efforts to engage residents around sustainable, local food procurement.”
First Annual Fergus Whole Hog BBQ
Resources Needed to Sustain the Project
It goes without saying that the project partners are integral to the success at this point, and with theirs as well as the community’s continued support, the project will no doubt continue to grow. The continued commitment and dedication of the WCSA board of volunteers is vital and will take the project from its early success onward – gaining far- reaching notoriety and influencing other communities as it proceeds. Using the First Annual Fergus Whole Hog BBQ fundraiser as a barometer for success, the WCSA will have no problem reaching their goal of raising $10,000 per year for the project.
As Jess mentions, in order to effectively maintain the gardens and capitalize on food production, the addition of a permanent farm manager would be ideal. The size of the gardens is perhaps too large to be effectively maintained by volunteers as it is now, requiring significant experience and time commitment that a full time farm manager would bring. The increased attention to the property would only enhance the school experience and further community support.
The main constraint for the project is paying down the 15-year loan. The goal for the WCSA is to raise $10,000 each year for the duration. As per the agreement with the township of Centre Wellington, the farmhouse is to be renovated and maintained in addition to the property being cared for.
WCSA board member Erin Pratley explained that “short term [success] was getting the program established…” while long term “we’re such a young organization that we are still looking at how the WCSA can use the space to create a positive impact in our community and on the food system.” The renovation of the farmhouse and the changes made to the property have been a huge first-step success, while gaining the support from neighbours and the community at large only furthers the achievement. The support was evident with the unquestionable success of the First Annual Fergus Whole Hog BBQ fundraising event.
With a project such as this, the first few years getting things up and running–especially involving multiple organizations–will inevitably hold its share of challenges. Jess explains that the biggest challenge is funding the month-by-month repayment of the loan, as it requires timely and efficient fundraising events. At this point, the bulk of the repayment funding comes from two major dinners per year catered by the student program, and an annual whole hog BBQ cook-off, which are reliable successes. Physically, the farm property itself demanded continuous attention: “particularly the importance of vigilant check-ins with the contractor to stay within budget”, as Jess explains. With this, such major costs like the new aluminum roof and overhead structure were built in a timely, cost effective manner.
RELEVANCE TO OTHER PROJECTS
The Food School project is relevant to other communities as it exemplifies a positive response to the desire for a healthy and vibrant food system. Effectively using institutional land to provide sustainably sourced food alternatives, the project also demonstrates the successful repurposing of previously unused facilities, which can be appreciated universally.