By Danielle Adriaansen
Locally-grown food is as close to home as it gets for some students at Assiniboine Community College (ACC). At the college’s North Hill Campus in Brandon, they can stroll over to the 3.2-acre plot or 2,800-square-foot sustainable greenhouse to check out what’s growing year-round.
Many of the fruits, veggies, herbs and sprouts will make their way to a dinner plate – but not before being part of exceptional learning opportunities along the way.
Through a combination of education, research and outreach, ACC is finding new ways to improve food security at various socioeconomic levels and to do its part to help build healthier and stronger communities – an approach the college has dubbed “field to fork.”
That’s an ambitious goal, but the concept has already taken root in the curriculum for students in horticulture and hospitality programs.
“Applied research projects related to horticulture are beginning to flourish at our college,” says Derrick Turner, ACC’s dean of business, agriculture and environment. “You just need to step foot inside the sustainable greenhouse to get a sense of all the work being done.”
For faculty researchers Dr. Sajjad Rao and Dr. Lord Abbey, research and development are central to their teaching methods. They and their students investigate energy use and productivity inside different types of greenhouse models, use fertilizers to extend the shelf life of onions, and determine best practices in composting and compost use in various food production systems.
Ramping up food security
Their findings are published and presented at workshops and seminars, providing valuable information and guidelines for other growers. They will soon be extended to include northern Manitoba communities where there are more limitations on the growing season.
This information helps to strengthen food security, allowing farmers and gardeners to have more control over the crops they grow and to better understand environmental variables and the effects they have on crop production.
Researching spuds no small potatoes
Potatoes are big business in Manitoba; according to a 2014 report by Statistics Canada, the province has the second highest land coverage of the crop next to Prince Edward Island. In recent years, Manitoba potato growers have turned their attention to sweet potatoes, which have high nutritional value and growing consumer demand. While the sweet potato is only distantly related to a regular russet potato, there are similarities between the two including their benefits in crop rotation and the production practices used.
Dr. Rao is leading a multi-year project that will examine varieties of sweet potatoes to grow on the Prairies. Currently, there are 10 kinds being studied inside ACC’s sustainable greenhouse. By 2016, he hopes to be partnering with a local farmer, growing the crop on their farm.
“Once we get results from the grower’s plots, we will be able to say ‘these one or two varieties are viable for commercial production,’” Rao says.
Applied research projects like these provide students in the Horticultural Production and Sustainable Food Systems programs with hands-on experience in research methods and help deepen their understanding of food security and sustainability.
Community benefits from harvest
But the payoff doesn’t end with the growing season. When harvest rolls around, the local community gets to enjoy the fruits of the students’ labour. ACC hosts a number of food and beverage events throughout the year and tickets to these events sell out in a matter of hours.
Harvested foods make their way to the kitchen where Culinary Arts students and their instructors turn them into spectacular dishes.
This past fall, they had fresh ingredients like tomatoes, baby greens, sweet corn, fennel, onions and beans. What they can’t use right away is canned and preserved, allowing them to extend the nutrition and flavour over the winter months for other events. Hotel and Restaurant Management students pair dishes with the perfect beers and wines, heightening the overall experience for patrons.
The college is committed to developing its field to fork approach even more in the future, creating new learning opportunities for students, and continuing to build stronger ties with the larger community.