Building Vibrant Land and Food Connections on Manitoulin Island, Ontario
By Heather Thoma, LoonSong Garden
Originally published in the Society for Biodynamic Farming and Gardening in Ontario‘s May 2014 e-newsletter
Paul and I have lived on Manitoulin Island near the northern part of Lake Huron for just over 10 years, and have been cultivating connections through food, farming, gardening, and community education the whole time. We started LoonSong Garden the first spring we arrived, and we started our vegetable seedlings with Turtle Tree seeds before we even knew where we would plant them! We picked up our biodynamic preparations from Uli Hack that first spring as well, also before we knew exactly where they would go on the fields; we just knew we would be using them. We have farmed/gardened on two different farms: the first in Sheguiandah near the shores of Pike Lake, and the other where we have been for the last several years, in Little Current not far from the North Channel of Lake Huron, at the base of the Niagara Escarpment. This is where we live now as well, and which many people think of as the home of LoonSong.
While grains are a large-scale, full-time endeavor for Paul, gardening is something that can be more easily decentralized, and so I have scaled back the garden over the last couple of years. Rather than focusing on commercial growing and selling, I have instead focused my energies on education — supporting and inspiring others to grow their own gardens rather than depending on others to garden for them. Throughout the running of our CSA, attending markets, growing and milling grains, and using the biodynamic preparations and the planting calendar, education has been a key element of our work.
In the first few years after arriving, we helped to found the Manitoulin Community Food Network “to promote and support the awareness, production, and consumption of healthy locally grown foods.” For many years this was a vibrant and diverse group, tackling issues and offering educational workshops, and meeting regularly for discussions and initiatives among farmers, health care professionals, teachers, parents, business owners, and members of the public. An annual Harvest Bounty Dinner was the Network’s main event for several years, gathering up to 400 people for a local food meal along with entertainment or speakers, all organized by volunteer efforts. The Network helped to build great linkages between small-scale farmer and between farmers and eaters, weaving strong community connections.
I have worked with all of the of the seven First Nations communities on the Island (Wikwemikong, Whitefish River, Sheguiandah, Aundeck Omni Kaning, M’Chigeeng, Sheshegwaning, Zhiibaahaasing) over the years, helping to coordinate island-wide spring and fall Cross Cultural Local Foods festivals, which integrated learning about traditional gathering and cooking of wild foods with First Nations elders and learning and harvesting from local farms. I offer planting workshops with several of the First Nations communities each spring, to help build on existing gardening skills, support community garden development, and more recently to help the communities who are encouraging backyard raised-bed gardens for both young families and elders. When speaking about the Stella Natura calendar and biodynamic approaches with First Nations folks, they often remark that these are the ways that their aunties and grandparents worked in their gardens.
I am currently coordinating the Manitoulin Child Poverty Nutrition Task Force, which has been an inspiring collaboration between First Nations and non-First Nations partners for over four years now. We created a community Food Security Directory, which lists food and nutrition resources across Manitoulin — farms, school breakfast programs, farmers markets, food banks, health center nutrition services, etc. (available at www.childpovertytaskforce.com).
I have initiated a Good Food Box (GFB) pilot project in the last year with local grocers, and began a fruit tree gleaning initiative to gather fruit for the GFB. The Task Force will begin working with local farmers to support them in contributing to the Box this summer, and a “Grow a Row” project is starting up for residents across Manitoulin to contribute backyard veggies to the GFB. Screenings of an inspiring film about a comprehensive school and community gardening initiative in northern Manitoba called “And This is My Garden” have ignited lots of community excitement about engaging families in gardening; this is a film you may want to see if you are interested in this sort of community work.
This month marks the seventh season I will participate as classroom farmer support for the Kids Can Grow program. In this program, teachers in six schools and community groups across the island work with kids and volunteer farmer supporters, to plant and care for 10-15 different types of vegetable and flower seedlings in classrooms or community centers, from Easter until mid-June. They then sell the seedlings at farmers markets and community events as a fundraiser, or plant them in their school gardens, which they then care for over the summer. This program is a great mix of returning students who get hooked on growing plants and keep coming back to participate each year, and new students who come into the program learning from scratch. It is especially inspiring to see the students teaching each other as they go, and to hear how they then go home and teach their parents as well!
To be able to do more in-depth facilitating of Goethean approaches with smaller groups, I have been teaching workshops through another organization, 4elements Living Arts, where a colleague and I have been working with local artists to initiate projects, events, education, and research that link the arts, landscape, and community. With outreach through this interdisciplinary organization, I have the opportunity to offer workshops that cultivate holistic observational skills regarding the farm landscape and integrate art and science in hands-on, creative projects.
We have grown in many directions here over the last decade, and are excited to see what new developments and deepening of knowledge will come in the next 10 years, here on Manitoulin or in our work in other parts of Ontario. Please be in touch if you would like to know more about any of these initiatives!