June 5, 2017

The Art of Alternative Agriculture

It was nearing the end of fall. We were sad yet excited. It was a quiet and warm day. Planting season was coming to an end. On our way to the Maitlands’, we talked about ways we had personally practised alternative agriculture and food sustainability.

 The Maitlands’ are a sweet couple who have a passion for gardening and alternative agriculture. In the past, they had traveled to a few African countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, and experienced delicacies from various cultures around the world. When we arrived, they welcomed us with much warmth, tea and some banana bread. The house had a hospitable feel to it. Gardening hadn’t been much on our agendas coming to Canada. One thing for sure is that we had never imagined coming from Africa was that many households in Canada practiced this art. For us we grew up watching our grandparents, parents and other relatives both garden and farm. When planting season came, they had a certain smile we couldn’t quite put our fingers on.  We saw that in the Maitlands’ that day, proud yet humble home gardeners.

Just before we saw the garden we sat to discuss more about their passion for gardening and alternative agriculture. Both of us were just as curious asked what inspired them to start gardening. Mrs. Maitland explained to us how her father before her had studied Agriculture and it was through him that she was inspired to start gardening herself. The Maitland further explained “We also knew that industrialization was coming, so we still wanted to experience good organic food”. That was something we, like many others rarely thought of when we talked about what inspired one to start farming themselves. Indeed, industrialization has had a great impact on our lives in so many ways, even in our food production and consumption. For instance, a trip to the grocery store means more packaged food, such as chips and pre-packaged salads, whereas the opposite means one could pick fresh produce straight from one’s own garden.

“We have been gardening for over some 25 years now” they further observed. They noted that after having done it for so long it somewhat became therapeutic as well as a hobby. We sat there in awe and amazement at how much we were learning from these proud yet humble home gardeners.

Artists they were, as we dove deeper into conversation the Maitland’s mentioned they also took part in other forms of alternative agriculture such as community gardening and various forms of food preservation methods. As they further illuminated their thoughts about Alternative Agriculture, they introduced us to the idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) (http://csafarms.ca/what%20are%20CSA%20farms.html) and plot renting. For the Maitlands’ it was at Ignatius (https://ignatiusguelph.ca/ignatius-farm/community-gardens/) that they parttook in community gardening outside their home . “It is also a great way for locals and small scale farmers to interact with their community, while having access to fresh local produce,” Mr. Maitland added.  At Ignatius they were able to rent a piece of land where they could work, grow and eat their own food in addition to their private backyard garden. This not only meant they could save more on food but also plan their menus and meals around their own fresh produce from the gardens. We were both intrigued and we loved the idea of directly taking part in growing and harvesting one’s own food.

Backyard showing the compost container

Once we were done enjoying our snack, the Maitland couple invited us into their backyard garden. We were impressed with the professionalism of their garden. There in the backyard was a small yet functional greenhouse. Mr. Maitland explained to us that that is where they start their seedlings in the spring. Yet there was more, a compost station. This was the most interesting concept about the garden. They used the residue of crops from the harvest as their compost manure. This was done not only as a sustainable practice but as a cheaper alternative (as oppose to store bought manure) for the next planting farming season. The Maitlands’ grew almost everything we could think of a backyard garden could have and more. They grew tomatoes, onions, all kinds of herbs (such as parsley, cilantro and dill), collard greens, carrots even radicchio. We even got to try some of their cherry tomatoes and other herbs straight from the garden.

Compost preparation - leaves 

“This year we tried something new” Mrs. Maitland explained. They had never grown okra until just now. To the Maitlands’ (as they had explained) trying out and growing new plants was an exciting challenge. One thing was certain; this challenge was tackled with much grace and ambiance, as they had a successful yield of Okra. They also talked about other challenges they had growing other crops like melons and cantaloupes. “These are quite difficult to grow in the backyard” they explained. Another was corn, as it took up much space so they decided not to grow it.

Flowering okra plant @ Maitlands' backyard

When we finished looking at the garden, we headed to their basement. There they showed us the various ways in which they preserved food. They refrigerated their peppers and other vegetables. They dried or canned their tomatoes, fermented their cabbage and cucumbers and stored their carrots in buckets of soil, all year round until planting season was in full wing once again. “The only things we normally buy are our meat and dairy products and fruits, and maybe a few fresh products such as tomatoes” they explained.

The afternoon was coming to an end, as we got ready to leave the Maitlands’ house, they offered some goodies from their backyard garden and storage. Filled with gratitude, we both headed home that day having learnt more than we had expected to learn. We not only learned just how easy and affordable it can be to have access to healthier and fresh food right in our neighbours’ backyards, but also how it can bring one joy and fulfillment.
We will leave you with a quote from Dr. Lionel Tigers (Professor and Anthropologist)
“Our ancestors were eating meat over 2.5 million years ago. We mainly ate meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts. We have to assume our physiology evolved in association with this diet. The balanced diet for our species was what we could acquire then, not what the government and doctors tell us to eat now.”

Senda Chinganzi & Antonia Ofosu, Research Assistants, ECVOntario.
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