By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
People are keen as a bean to learn how to farm. That’s being proven at Ignatius Farm where the New Farmer Program attracts over 300 participants of which many visited the farm in May for a tour to see just what is going on at this Jesuit retreat.
Located outside of Guelph, the Ignatius Jesuit Centre’s mission is to cultivate spiritual growth and ecological engagement and was once solely farmed by Jesuit Brothers. When the college at the centre closed, the space was reimagined to include community gardens, community shared agriculture, acreage rentals, an orchard and internships.
“There are so many opportunities and ways to farm,” says Chris MacLeod, the Educational Assistant at Ignatius Farm. “There is a lot of idealism but people are worried about their food security. There was a rush during the pandemic and that took a dip but it did not die off.”
As gardening and farming skills become lost in the general population, new farmers need to learn these skills. Some participants remember these skills learned as a child but no longer have land and miss the opportunity to grow things. With its 600 acres just outside the city of Guelph, Ignatius offers both the land and the training.
The Ignatius Farm New Farmer Training Program offers 40 online workshops and virtual field days with local farms and food businesses. Participants began in April with foundational knowledge and will learn about specialized aspects of farming over the growing season. In November, participants will focus on establishing their own farm businesses. Registration opened in March and the program focuses on organic farming in collaboration with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) and the National Farmers Union (NFU).
Many people first find their way to the Ignatius Farm via the community garden. Over three acres of garden are available to rent in 100, 200 or 500 foot lots. Perennial plots are also available for seasoned gardeners with proven weed management skills where they manage their own cover crops, soil protection and fertility. The annual plots are worked by tractor each fall, planted into cover crops and recreated each spring, depending on the allotments required.
Touring the yet dormant plots early in May, one gardener noted “community gardens are as unique as the space.” The Ignatius plots are framed by old trees, an orchard and are located near walking trails within the centre. It’s an amazing experience to see the plots in late summer and fall when the gardens are lush and vibrant.
As the tour continued, farm manager Heather Lekx led the group to the farm plots. Here, entrepreneurs can launch their own businesses which Origin Native Plants did in 2019. May Moon Flowers is another Ignatius farm launch.
Lekx says farm tenants crop varying acreages to grow field crops, tree fruits, medical and culinary herbs, hops, plants for willow propagation and livestock. Future farmers can rent one acre for $150, multiple acres for $115 and the large-scale cropper rents land at $95 per acre. “We want to keep it affordable,” explains Lekz. The farm accepts Requests for Proposals each year.
It’s a unique space with unique objectives. The website explains Ignatius Farm is dedicated to:
• Fostering an ecological way of life, for the healing of the world.
• Nurturing a deeper spirituality in people, leading to inner freedom.
• Promoting the production of local sustainable food.
• Providing a welcoming space for individual and communal discernment, and education
Lekx explains that the farm operates on three pillars: eco agriculture, eco restoration and eco spirituality. “They weave and intertwine in so many ways.”
University student, Ben Szoller, was on the farm tour and he has chosen to study Ignatius Farm as part of his dissertation on the merging of spiritual training and agricultural training on Catholic sites. “I’m looking at rural flight, social order, the role of farm and land and how it links up with the environment and spirituality,” explains Szoller.
For others, the farm offers more practical goals. Once the tour reached the old bank bank, each participant had a chance to share. One farm intern said, “We can feel the healing power of the environment above and beneath us. Working the land helps people find themselves.” Sharing that she suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and extreme anxiety, she felt she has discovered her “tribe” during the new farmer program training and that the community and connection to be discovered on farming is what life is to her.
Other comments from participants included:
– “I had a plot and did volunteer work here and I came today to be in community with people who share my desire and love for this work.”
– “If you get an opportunity to work on a farm, do it. The learning is rich. Here, there are community field days and work bees.”
– “Combining social work and fun…well, everything I looked for in social work I found in farming.”
– “We have been called in the movement to small plot agriculture to open into new ways of beauty, new ways of food production and new ways of being for our community.”
Intern Aisling shared that she arrived at Ignatius farm post secondary because she wasn’t sure where her life was going and being a lover of nature, she decided to become an intern. “I find it peaceful. Working in a field maintains my mental and emotional health and I feel this is where I belong and where I want to be,” she says.
Linda is also an intern and is taking the new farmer course. For her, it’s a process of learning to decide if she does want to farm or not. “It’s been on my mind since I was 10 and I’m now 56,” she laughs. Whether she farms or gardens, Linda loves being a part of this intentional community.
As the day ended, Lisa Conroy shared that she grew up on a farm, worked in the city but found she missed the connection to the land and growing things. She tried farming on her own but to her surprise, found the isolation was not her happy place. She wanted to farm in a community with other people. When the job of Farm Education at Ignatius came up, she jumped at it. “It’s an amazing blend of teaching and being in the field and I love being here,” she said.
Lekx believes small plot agriculture is the way of the future and more communities need to offer it. “These spaces are so critical to our well being as individuals and as a community,” she says. “They become places of healing, of teaching and of spirituality. I encourage you to think of what is the bigger ideal you are building towards and what can evolve within that.” ◊