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By Sunjum Jhaj (she/her), Editor, Teacher magazine

For decades, Sardis Secondary School in Chilliwack has fostered students’ interest in farming through a hands-on agriculture program.

During my visit in early November to the Sardis Secondary School Farm, several students shared their personal connections to farming with me. Some lived or worked (often lived and worked) on family farms and had career ambitions focused on agriculture, others found a passion for growing food because of the school’s agriculture program. As more than one student mentioned, “Chilliwack is a proud farming community.”

Two of their teachers, Joe Massie and Tania Toth, have deep roots in the farming community. Both grew up on family farms and have woven their agriculture knowledge into their practice as science teachers.

Tania and Joe inherited a greenhouse set up by their predecessors at the school. At that time, the greenhouse was predominantly used to grow plants for the school’s annual Mother’s Day plant sale.

“The plant sale has been a long-standing tradition at Sardis Secondary,” said Joe.

Students plant and tend to their crops in the greenhouse for months leading up to Mother’s Day. On the day of the plant sale, the students host members of the community and share their plant knowledge with their customers.

Over time Joe worked to modernize the greenhouse with improved irrigation and hanging baskets. As the greenhouse improved, so too did the plants. The plants available at the Mother’s Day sale are now industry-standard plants and hundreds of community members turn up each year to buy what the students have grown.

With new modernizations in place, the students are also able to grow veggies in the greenhouse. This allows the students to practise and learn about agriculture skills throughout the entire year: first with a flowering crop, then with a vegetable crop.

“Every time we do something new, there’s a big learning curve,” said Tania. “We leaned heavily on community partners to learn how to grow greenhouse veggies.”

Bob Long, the previous principal at Sardis Secondary, knew of a five-acre piece of land owned by the Chilliwack School District that was on an Agricultural Land Reserve. At the time, the land was sitting empty. Bob had an initial idea to use the land for the school’s agriculture program.

“After the 2009 Mother’s Day plant sale, which was a huge success and left me fired up and excited, I went home and wrote a rough proposal with all sorts of things we could do with the empty land,” said Joe.

Joe and Tania worked together to write a formal proposal to expand the school agriculture program to include an off-site school farm. It took two years of meetings, grant applications, and fundraising before the school farm became a reality.

“Growth takes time because everything needs fundraising,” said Tania.

The local community in Chilliwack has played a big role in getting the Sardis Secondary School Farm up and running. Community members, local businesses, and community farmers have generously donated money for essential farm equipment and structures, seeds for planting, and their time to share knowledge and skills with the students.

“A lot of people have propped us up along the way,” said Tania. “We couldn’t have done this without all the support from the community, as well as support from the school, the district, and district maintenance staff.”

When the farm was finally operational with a well for irrigation, the students were able to get their hands dirty and work on the land.

Planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall are wonderful learning opportunities for students; however, the farm needs ongoing maintenance over the summer months when school is not in session. For years, Joe and Tania volunteered their time through the summer to care for the farm and tend to the crops alongside students.

Each principal Tania and Joe have worked with at Sardis Secondary has supported the farm in some way. Diego Testa, their second school principal, was instrumental in securing paid summer teaching positions to compensate Joe and Tania for their work with students on the farm over the summer months. And Dan Heilser, their third and current school principal, continues to advocate for the farm on the district level.

“It’s a lesson in communication and relationship building,” said Joe. “The relationships are what allow us to grow.”

When Joe and Tania set out to create the school farm, they had three big ideas in mind for the farm: first, to connect secondary, middle, and elementary classrooms in a meaningful way that fosters mentorship and relationship- building; second, to educate students about agricultural practices in BC and create opportunities for students to develop skills and career goals; and third, to increase place-based learning.

During my visit to the Sardis school farm, it was easy to see they’ve accomplished all three goals, as well as many other objectives they’ve laid out for the farm.

Today, the farm has secondary, middle, and elementary school programs. Programs for all three school levels run during the school year and during the summer. Students are responsible for all the farm work including, planting, harvesting, irrigation, weeding, and pest management. There are opportunities for students from different grades and schools to interact, work co-operatively, and mentor each other.

As more classes join the program, the farm has expanded to create unique and inclusive learning opportunities. For example, Sarah Balsillie, an elementary teacher at Promontory Elementary, has started a beekeeping operation for the elementary students who now produce honey at the farm each year. And the elementary garden has been expanded to include a garden bed that is wheelchair accessible.

Learning on the farm extends beyond sustainable agriculture to include topics such as food justice, food security, human impacts on the environment, and climate change. The students working and learning on the farm have directly experienced the effects of climate change several times throughout the program.

First, the summer heat dome and forest fire smoke made it difficult for students to spend a full day on the farm. Then November’s atmospheric river flooded several communities across the province. The extreme weather in the Fraser Valley resulted in flooded homes, closed roads, and devastating effects on crops and livestock. Farmers face threats induced by climate change every day.

The Sardis Secondary School Farm was luckier than many Fraser Valley farms and is expected to be fully operational again by spring. When the farm reopens, Tania and Joe will once again start working toward some big goals for the farm’s future. A classroom building on the farm to do theory work, an orchard with fruit and nut trees, and developing ongoing relationships to secure products and maintain the farm’s health are all goals for the future of the farm. As with everything else on the farm, these goals will be accomplished through community partnerships, fundraisers, and grants.

“It brings me joy to see the students learning about sustainable food production in a place that so many people have worked to create for them,” said Tania. “I’m grateful to be part of such a learning environment.”

What do they do with the food from the farm?
The Sardis Secondary School Farm has an ongoing community supported agriculture program where community members can sign up to receive a weekly basket of fresh seasonal produce throughout the summer months, when students are harvesting crops.

The school farm has also partnered with a local business that agreed to provide plants and seeds for the farm to grow food for the Bowls of Hope program. Bowls of Hope provides 850 kids in Chilliwack schools with a free, warm lunch every day.

And of course, some of the food is eaten and taken home by students enrolled in the program.

Donna Frost, the culinary arts teacher at Sardis Secondary, has worked with Joe and Tania to introduce a farm-to-table program for the agriculture students. Students get to prepare and cook the food they worked so hard to plant and harvest.

“I was interested in learning about the farm, and I noticed the kids got to take some food home, but they didn’t know how to cook it,” said Donna. “So I thought it was a good opportunity for the kids to learn some cooking skills.”

Students have used farm produce to make salsas, shish kebabs, salads, eggplant parmesan, and more. Oftentimes picky eaters are willing to try foods they normally wouldn’t because they were involved in growing and cooking it. As they prepare the meals, the students also learn about nutrition, the value of fresh ingredients, and the importance of buying local produce.

Throughout the fall, the school farm donates food to Sardis Secondary’s culinary arts program. The culinary arts program prepares and serves food in the school cafeteria for all students to enjoy.

“When you have good quality food to start with, you don’t have to do a lot to it to make something delicious,” said Donna.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine