January 4, 2017

Lessons From Finding Common Ground

I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a truck that takes a right turn into a laneway with a small sign announcing we’ve just arrived at Common Ground Farm.  I survey the fields we pass by. I’ve watched them drastically transform over the past eight months from blank canvases in the damp chill of spring to their bountiful growth in the sweltering summer heat and then their slow, browning decline as frost and snow settled in. I’ve also seen myself change from a soft handed academic studying food and agriculture to a tanned skinned and bleached haired farmer, learning by digging my now calloused hands into the soil.

            Since the beginning of May I have been one of three interns at Common Ground. Not only have I learned how to grow food, I learned what food sovereignty can look like. Running out to the field, I harvest something for supper. I make a meal using only the CSA share we brought home from the farm. Friday night dinners on the farm include pork chops from the pigs we fed our scraps all summer long. There has been nothing more rewarding than consuming what I seeded and helped nurture earlier in the season.
            Over time, staying late on the CSA pick up night and working at the Farmers’ Market, I started to recognize the regulars who  strive for food sovereignty by valuing local, organically produced food grown by farms like ours. Common Ground is also a place of learning and connecting people to food. This was true not only for us interns (and everyone who works on the farm) who purposely spent months on the farm learning, but also our market customers, CSA members and different groups of students that would come tour our farm- ranging from young home schooled kids, to high school students, to college culinary students.
            As an intern part of CRAFT (a network of farms that offer internships on their organic farms) I was also able to learn from other farms beyond Common Ground. Once a month my fellow interns, both from my farm and other CRAFT farms, and I would visit various farms in the network.  We were able to see the inner workings of our own farms, but also able to see the approaches and philosophies of other farmers too.
            While Common Ground has been operating for six years we visited farms that have been operating for 25 years or more. Farms such as Orchard Hill run by Ken and Martha Laing and Meeting Place operated by Tony and Fran McQuail are both pioneering organic farms I had learned about in university. These people started growing organically with only a vision of how they wanted their food to be grown, and through trial and error, made it to where they are today. Over the course of the last three decades these farms have moved towards sustainability in all areas, including their homes and horse-powered machinery. They have perfected how they grow food and now experiment and research new ways for organic farmers to improve soil health.
            While one can learn a lot about sustainability from these older farms, one of my favourite farms we visited was a relatively new urban farm in Hamilton called Backyard Harvest. It is a farm that uses people’s backyards the way rural farms use their different fields and they bike or walk between the properties. The owner, Russ Ohrt, said something that stuck with me: urban farming is more like social work.  He knew not only the property owners well, but each one of their neighbours by name. Urban farming brings people closer to their own food production.
            On the same day we visited another urban farm in Hamilton that looked vastly different. It was a project funded by the city in one of the lowest income areas of the Hamilton that transformed a public park into a farm. Again, this project was more about the social work involved in encouraging people to join them or ask questions, and making healthy, local food affordable to the people in the area.
            I reflect on everything I’ve learned from this internship as we pull up to our usual parking spot near the house and we’re greeted by the two farm dogs as we jump out of the truck. I’ve experienced food sovereignty first hand and I’ve realized the way to food sovereignty can look different, I’ve seen what it means to have a sustainable farm, and I’ve witnessed farms working to connect next-door neighbours to their food sources. I smile as slip on my rubber boots and I’m ready for another day of hard work; long talks in the field about food, agriculture, and life; and learning by doing. There aren’t too many days left before Christmas comes and I’m on my way back home, so I’m going to take every moment of this experience in.

Morgan Sage, Research Assistant, ECVOntario, University of Guelph.


  1. Reading this piece is making me crave some great local food. Thanks for sharing with us your experience Morgan, sounds amazing.

  2. Great job and thumbs up to Morgan Sage and the ECVOntario Teammates. I really love the urban farming component of the piece because it reminds me of the increased veggies (and tomatoes) productivity in Cuba, where these veggies are grown on the condos and apartments veranda, gallery, decks, etc.