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Cultivating sustainability at McGill

My experience with the Mac campus student garden

It was 7 a.m. and already hot when I visited the Macdonald Student-run Ecological Gardens (MSEG) last July. It was harvest day at the gardens, where the group was growing over an acre of fruits and vegetables. The entrance to the project was marked by four herb spirals, which are vertically structured gardens that are highly productive and energy efficient, allowing one to stack plants to maximize space.

The MSEG garden was launched by a group of students, including myself, in 2010, and is meant to educate students and the greater community about sustainable food production. It now contributes food to the McGill and Montreal communities, and provides opportunities for students to do important research on agriculture and sustainability.

There are currently over sixty different crop species in this acre, arranged to produce a larger amount of vegetables per unit area in a more sustainable manner than the traditional row method in agriculture. Along with common vegetables such as carrots and kale, there are some new additions such as artichokes and okra; chickens lay eggs and consume previously harvested vegetables’ discarded biomass. On one side of the acre is a circular vegetable garden with paths and keyholes that divide it into segments like a pie. This segmented design is quite often used in permaculture to save time and resources, as its circular shape minimizes water waste on the fringes of the garden and watering the crops takes less time.

In the systems of agriculture used by MSEG, there is decreased use of water, fertilizer, and chemicals, and there is a lower emphasis on economic efficiencies that come with costs to the environment.

When I visited the garden in the summer, I was very happy to see how well this project had evolved from when it started several years ago. The garden had been supported by Chandra Madramootoo, former dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, even though its aim was to question the way in which agricultural practices were being taught at McGill with regard to water management and row planting. Before this project, I had lost a few battles I had engaged in to enhance sustainability on both McGill campuses. But the MSEG succeeded.

The MSEG project began in 2009. Several of us students dreamed of having a student-run farm on the Macdonald campus. The MSEG project, for which I was an advisor, was intended to do what some other universities had already done: set up a sustainable food production system with minimal inputs that would give students hands-on experience in growing vegetables. In addition, it was intended to provide the McGill and surrounding communities with a demonstration site for workshops, and the opportunity for research in ecological agro-systems and resource use.

This project was also meant to help encourage new research opportunities at McGill in the growing global bioeconomy, an area that the University must continue to invest in since tens of thousands of jobs will be created in it in the future. Conventional agriculture typically uses fossil fuel, water, and topsoil at unsustainable rates, resulting in huge consumption of fossil fuels. In the systems of agriculture used by MSEG, there is decreased use of water, fertilizer, and chemicals, and there is a lower emphasis on economic efficiencies that come with costs to the environment.

During the early years of the project, students also collaborated to design a permaculture garden on the eight plots they were allocated in the student gardens beside the EcoResidence on campus. The eight-plot garden produced a large amount of vegetables that were distributed freely to students.

After the Sustainability Projects Fund was created in the 2009-10 school year, Emily McGill, a past garden volunteer, worked with a group of students to apply for funds to start the permaculture garden project. The production area consisted of the original eight garden plots in the student-run garden, along with a quarter acre in the Horticulture Centre.

The biggest challenge that the students faced was the steep learning curve that they had to endure while doing the project.

The students faced some incredible challenges in the project’s first year. They had received a few thousand dollars from the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society to start the project, which covered seeds and equipment. What little money was left covered a small part of their salaries until the SPF paid them in full. However, in 2010 the money from the SPF did not come until the third week of July. This was mostly due to the time it took for the University to register the students as employees. Until then, they were left to manage their own living expenses, which put a strain on them. Since they had no transportation to take their produce to the market, they had to borrow cars from friends to accomplish this.

But by far, the biggest challenge that the students faced was the steep learning curve that they had to endure while doing the project. They had to learn about the different types of produce they were growing. As an advisor to the project, I helped them as much as I could in the field. But even so, they were relatively unknown at the marketplace and therefore did not have enough clientele to sell the volume of crops they were producing. So even though the students managed the garden successfully and learned a lot, the project lost money.

In the following three years, land would be added to the project in the Arboretum and the farms; prepaid food baskets would be promoted and would be a means by which extra money would be raised for the project early in the season.

At 7:30 a.m., on that hot day in July, the six members of the MSEG crew started to arrive. They collectively decided what would be harvested for this day and what would be the composition of this week’s vegetable baskets and for their market stalls – one in the Ste. Anne de Bellevue market on Saturday mornings and the other on the downtown McGill campus on Thursday. This year’s production had been very good except for the infestation of cucumber beetles which caused the total loss of the cucumber crop.

The MSEG crew tells me about the future garden in the Arboretum that was planted in the spring and was designed by a second-year member of the MSEG – Lorine Dargazanli. It is self-sustaining and has everything from fruit trees and berry bushes to nitrogen fixing shrubs. Each element has been carefully planned – from roots, to ground cover, herbs, shrubs, trees, big canopy trees and vines – so that each is of benefit to the other, thus creating a stable eco-system which will be in full production in two to three years.