Toronto

How this school farm program gives students 'a closer relationship with the land'

One year ago the site was a grass schoolyard. Today, it is an organic farm and the site of a hands-on learning program called School Grown. 

School Grown teaches students organic farming, sells produce to the community

Lou Boileau, the youth engagement coordinator of School Grown, teaches students how to grow organically using marigold flowers. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Some recommend talking to plants to encourage them to grow.

But in between Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute and Highway 427, okra, callaloo and indigo tomatoes grow to the background noise of highway traffic.

One year ago, the site was a grass schoolyard. Today, it is an organic farm and the site of a hands-on learning program called School Grown — a project by the not-for-profit organization Food Share in connection with the Toronto District School Board. 

"Because it was our first year, it was a great opportunity for the students to come in and create an urban agriculture space from beginning until harvest," said Lou Boileau, the youth engagement coordinator for School Grown.

Three courses at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate incorporate the farm into their classes — one on construction, another on green industries, and one for women in skilled trades.

The students learn everything from seeding to transplanting, irrigation and harvesting techniques, Boileau told CBC ​​​​​​Toronto.

There are two farms run by the School Grown program. The other is on the rooftop at Eastdale Collegiate Institute on Gerrard Street East near Broadview Avenue. 

Boileau said she would love to see more school yards turned into farms.

Sara Wara tills the soil on the farm. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

"I love tilling the soil. When I come out I'm covered in dirt," said Sara Wara, a student at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute. 

For some students, it is their first introduction to working in the dirt, but Boileau said she can see "them develop a real love and satisfaction for what they're growing." 

Affordable organic produce 

Walking through the rows of tomatoes, Boileau picks one and pops it in her mouth.

Everything grown on the farm is organic. 

School Grown teaches students how to grow organic produce using marigold flowers and neem oil, because "in the long run it's better," said Boileau.

For example, the marigolds that the students plant at the base of the tomatoes keep insect pests away, so the students don't need to use pesticides. Neem oil also repels and kills pests.

School Grown's last weekly market of the season takes place on Thursday, Oct. 17. 

School Grown sells fresh produce to the community at the weekly market. (Provided by School Grown )

"We sell a pint of scotch bonnets for $2. We did a comparison to Loblaws which sells about six for $4.50," said Boileau. 

The market attracts about 200 people from the surrounding community, including seniors and children. 

Wara enjoys this part of the program.

"It makes me feel really good because I know all the hard work I put into the garden has paid off," she said. 

Teamwork and community building 

On the cement ground of an old tennis court, Daniel Ravits, a co-op student, layers compost and wood chips — "like lasagna," he says — to create fertile soil for growing crops. 

School Grown has a community compost program that trades vouchers that can be used at the market for food scraps. 

"It's a very symbiotic way because we consume the vegetables that mother nature gives, and then we give back with the compost," said Wara.

Daniel Ravit harvesting organic carrots from the School Grown farm. (Samantha Moya/CBC News)

Ravits likes helping on the less popular tasks. 

"One thing I'll be able to take from here to other places is teamwork, the importance of accepting help from others."

As the growing season wraps up, Boileau said she will use the winter to plan for next year. 

"Especially as we're preparing for climate change, I think there's a lot of youth who are hungry for information on having a closer relationship with the land," she said.

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