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Field Tripping

When you hear the words “field trip”, you might imagine school-aged summer campers at a museum or water park. This summer, with the support of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, urbanite youth joined Green Thumbs staff on four inspirational trips to Wheelbarrow Farm. Over the course of four visits, 21 visiting 15-30 year olds met farmer Tony Neale, and participated in hands-on learning experiences they’re unlikely ever to forget.

Youth harvesting (and snacking on) sour cherries.

Experiential learning is valued by teachers and learners everywhere, because of its ability to increase information retention, and link theory to practice. Combining hands-on experience with reflexive practice, experiential learning allows learners to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar situation, become aware of the related thoughts and feelings that arise, ask questions, share insights, and deepen their understanding.

The Ontario Greenbelt

Our trip to Wheelbarrow Farm was designed to help city-dwelling youth better understand the geographical location of the Ontario Greenbelt, as well as its role in protecting environmentally important resources – particularly the nutrient-rich topsoil that surrounds the Great Lakes.

On our trips, Green Thumbs staff were also tasked with sharing the advantages of local food systems. A local food system is a collaborative network that integrates cultivation and harvest; packing, transport, and retail; food preparation, eating, and waste management into a closed loop. Here, Tony offered concrete examples: produce that is not sold at Wheelbarrow Farm’s six weekly farmer’s markets is used at the farm kitchen, feeding the very farmers who cultivate it! Inedible food waste (such as rhubarb leaves) is also used around the farm as “mulch” – a topdressing that assists the soil in retaining moisture, and that returns nutrients as it decomposes.

Sumaya with her rhubarb harvest.

Tony also taught our visiting youth all about farmer’s markets — when to harvest (earlier than any of us were typically awake!), which crops could handle being harvested later in the day (rhubarb, strawberries, and sour cherries, namely), how to wash (and in the process, reduce the temperature of) produce ahead of storage, and how to properly store produce ahead of market (in an amazing DIY walk-in fridge). Together we explored the value of farmer’s markets to the communities they serve.

Locally grown food:

  1. reduces carbon emissions (less packaging required, and less travel),

  2. provides meaningful work opportunities,

  3. improves access to nutritious food (a particularly challenging issue in big cities),

  4. allows purchasers to form interpersonal connections with growers (and each other) and,

  5. ensures farmland is protected from exploitation and nutrient depletion.

Youth processing rhubarb for market

Outstanding in His Field

One of the most incredible aspects of our visits to Wheelbarrow Farm was seeing Tony’s dedication to organic practices, land stewardship through permaculture, and renewable energy. Although not “certified” organic, Wheelbarrow Farm uses only approved organic inputs – such as mineral rich organic compost, manure, and rock compounds. Tony is also attentive to crop rotation (never allowing bare soil to stand unplanted for more than a week at a time, and planting cover crops as needed) and to crop diversity – growing everything from Romanesco Cauliflower, to Heartnut Trees, to cut flowers. Tony also strictly avoids soil compaction: he only drives his tractor on allotted trails, to make sure his crops have loose soil to grow in.

A youth photographing the snapdragons, one of Tony’s cut flower crops.

Having now worked the land at Wheelbarrow Farm for twelve years, Tony also diligently applies permaculture practices – ensuring that the placement of each building, tree, and perennial plant contributes to Wheelbarrow Farm in a variety of ways – forming a multifaceted symbiotic relationship. Concord grapes and Siberian kiwi shaded the buildings to keep them cool, while the buildings provide a ready-made trellis for these climbing perennials. Honey Locust trees help fix nitrogen for nearby fruit trees.

We could actually see the difference between Tony’s fields and that of his neighbour. While the unmown borders of Wheelbarrow Farm were thick with tall, green annuals, his neighbour’s uncultivated field showed thin, yellowing plants. While Tony hadn’t added external inputs (i.e. organic fertilizers) to his unmown areas, the soil was enriched by the annuals themselves, which died back each winter, and added organic matter back into the soil. The neighbour – who harvested his field for hay each fall – had no such organic matter remaining to fuel future growth.

The youth receive a brief introduction to renewable energy technology.

Powering Wheelbarrow Farm almost entirely with solar panels, Tony is able both to cut costs, and to trade extra energy back to the grid for future credit. While he admits that battery technology isn’t competitive with diesel yet (come on solid state batteries!) his solar-electric tractor already rivals his internal-combustion engine Kubota in terms of energy efficiency. It’s also nearly silent, which is incredible when compared to the deafening Kubota – and allows Tony and his farm workers to avoid permanent hearing damage common among farmers.

“It was great to learn about how local farmers are implementing [new] technology!”

Tony fields youth questions about the solar-electric tractor.

Tony’s stories of trial-and-error, observation, and experimentation showed us the vast amount of planning – and experiential learning – that goes into an operation of this size. While organic farming sometimes catches the negative press of being unprofitable, the highly adaptable and responsive approach at Wheelbarrow Farm has truly allowed it to thrive. Witnessing the speed with which tasks on the farm were completed also showed us how meaningful efficiency can be to a farmer’s profit margins. Tony is certainly the fastest rhubarb harvester we’ve ever seen!

Coming to Conclusions

Learning about tractor implements – this one is used to “hill” potatoes.

The time spent at Wheelbarrow Farm exposed visiting Toronto youth to the realities of farming, and emphasized the importance of supporting local farmers as they work to provide us with fresh produce. Tony’s experience and knowledge, as well as his openness to whatever questions came to mind for the visiting youth – allowed many to clarify where exactly their interest in organic farming lay. For some, the next step may well be an internship at Wheelbarrow Farm, and for others it might be an exploration of solar technology and solid state batteries. No matter what, visiting youth left Wheelbarrow Farm looking for ways to “be more like Tony” – not just through organic farming, but by becoming stewards for the land, so that it may be kept healthy for centuries (and millennia) to come.

“Visiting the farm has allowed me a better view into what farm life looks like, by getting to actually be in the space and speak to the main farmer.”

One of the most important parts of experiential learning is reflection, and we were pleased to realize that the travel itself was both instructive (travelling across the land helped some youth to better understand the distance between Toronto and Wheelbarrow Farm) and offered time for discussion and reflection. And, as one participant remarked, “gaining access to these spaces can be challenging for me, as I don’t drive!”

Offering free field trips to Wheelbarrow Farm allowed 80% of survey respondents to meet other youth interested in gardening and/or agriculture, and 100% expressed that the trip expanded their understanding of agriculture. All in all, a valuable investment!

Thanks Tony! And thanks to Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation for making these incredible field trips possible.

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