Keep CALM and Garden On

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator March 14, 2019


Stewart Akerley by his Little Green Thumbs classroom garden at LaVeryndre School in  Portage la Praire, MB

From the moment you step into his classroom, Stewart Akerley’s unbridled energy, passion and enthusiasm for teaching is evident.

My husband and I first met this Portage la Prairie School Division elementary teacher when we volunteered for Canadian Agriculture Literacy Month (CALM) in March 2015.

Cucumber almost ready for harvest

It was also Akerley’s first year of participating in Agriculture in the Classroom’s (AITC) Little Green Thumbs (LGT) program which provides teachers with everything they need for an indoor garden. It compliments the curriculum at any level and offers students the opportunity to grow their own food (tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, lettuce, herbs) right in their classroom, giving them a valuable hands-on learning experience.

Mr. A’, as he is affectionately known by his students, found out about AITC and their Little Green Thumbs program from another teacher in the division.

“She was discussing the success she was having growing a garden in her classroom and I was hooked on every word. I filled out the online application to AITC that very same day,” Akerley said.

During his first year in the program, I asked if he was a gardener. Surprisingly he wasn’t. “I’m learning along with the kids!” he enthusiastically replied. He set up his garden and jumped into learning with his students.

Cherry tomatoes in progress.  Mr. A’s current record for cherry tomatoes grown in one year is 500. He’s hoping to break that record this year!

The outcomes were very fulfilling. “As a teacher, I love to see kids engaging with live plants and learning how to care for them. I love to see their enthusiasm as they get rewarded with healthy food for all their hard work. Gardens offer a wealth of learning for young minds and I will always have one in my classroom now. The challenges have been few. We’ve had a few bugs (insects); holidays make it tricky to keep the plants watered and once the plants are ready for harvest, it’s hard to keep little fingers off. That last one’s a good challenge, though.”

Akerley strikes you as one of those people who was born to teach, but the path to it wasn’t a direct one.

“I started out my career managing automobile collision repair centres and did this for six years. During this time I was asked by my church to try teaching Sunday school. For me, it was an instant hit. While my career was stressful and draining, teaching once a week poured life and vitality back into me. I knew I had to pursue this further. Within a few months, I had quit my job and was accepted into Education at University of Winnipeg. I am now in my eleventh year of teaching and have had the pleasure of teaching in six different schools.”

Akerley also believes in taking opportunities to expand learning outside the classroom. He has run both floor and ice hockey programs for students and is an ardent advocate for healthy eating. At the end of the school year, sending home plants for his students to care for during the summer months has become routine.

During his third year of having a classroom garden he added to the program by purchasing a Tower Garden (an aeroponic systems using water, liquid nutrients and a soil-less growing medium). Successful application for a bursary provided the funding. The vision was to have healthy food more visible and available to students throughout the school. The results were remarkable.

“By the end of the first year with the tower garden, we had produced three different types of lettuce, rainbow chard, arugula, red peppers, cherry tomatoes and strawberries. From it we were able to have three ‘salad parties’ throughout the year that fed 20-30 people each time.”

Feedback like this has made it all worthwhile. “Mr. A, my family went out for supper last night and I ordered salad because the salad we had at school was so good,” one student commented.

Akerley emphasized, “This is what I want my students to take away from this experience. I want them to know that growing food is hard work. It takes patience, and it tastes great. I want them to want to make healthy choices when the choices are available for them.”

Students getting hands-on with soybeans and canola during a CALM presentation

He continues to participate in CALM, extending the learning and allowing his students to connect with area farmers. The ripple effect from AITC’s programs, combined with Akerley’s engaging teaching style and passion for learning, is effecting positive change in the community.

We all have that one teacher who made a positive impact on our lives. There is no doubt that ‘Mr. A’ is a difference-maker who will be remembered by many. His enthusiastic participation emphasizes the value and far-reaching benefits of having, and continuing to grow, AITC programming across the country.

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Celebrating ‘My Circle’

For me, this year’s International Women’s Day is deeply personal. It is a celebration and acknowledgement of the amazing circle of women who inspire, encourage and support me.

Last fall depression came knocking on my door. I struggled, stumbled and fell. But instead of hiding, I spoke my truth.  The rally from my circle was overwhelming.  I was full of gratitude and awe. Friends and family, both in person and on-line, reached out to lift me up when I needed it most.

Looking back, the evolution was so natural, so subtle, that at first I wasn’t even aware of it forming. But through life’s experiences – education, work, recreational activities, conferences, meetings, travel, and even on-line connections – my circle has grown and is diverse, dynamic and robust.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more cognizant of what I admire, respect and value in the women around me, both personally and professionally.

Authenticity. Gratitude. Kindness. Joy. Compassion. Empathy. Humour. Positivity. Encouragement. Dedication. Fearlessness. Teamwork. Determination. Life-long learning.

I am fortunate to have so many phenomenal women who support me not only within my comfort zone, but also nudge – or sometimes pull me – beyond my safety net showing me how much more I am capable of accomplishing. They help me shine brightly when all I want to do is hide under the covers. They celebrate my successes and help me learn when things don’t go as planned.  They point me in the right direction when I’m feeling lost.  They laugh with me, dance with me, listen to and stand by me. They inspire me with their intentional lives, acts of kindness and bravery.  Their presence in my life has made me a better person.  Knowing they are there for me is both reassuring and empowering.

Allowing myself to be vulnerable and honest about my struggles last fall made me acutely aware of the expanse and depth of my circle. A reminder to continue to build, nurture and embrace it. A reminder to express my appreciation to the incredible women who inspire and support me.

This quote sums it up well. Here’s to my circle and to yours.  Happy International Women’s Day!

A circle of women may just be the most powerful force known to humanity. If you have one, embrace it. If you need one, seek it. If you find one, for the love of all that is good and holy, dive in. Hold on. Love it up. Get Naked. Let them see you. Let them hold you. Let your reluctant tears fall. Let yourself rise fierce and love gentle. You will be changed. The very fabric of your being will be altered by this, if you allow it. Please, please allow it.”
― Jeanette LeBlanc

 

 

So much more than ‘just potatoes’…

                        Originally published in The Manitoba Co-operator November 16, 2017                              “Building their community one potato at a time”


How does it feel to give away 35,000 lbs of potatoes in just under 5 hours?

“It was awesome…a lot of fun,” recalls farmer Mark Peters with a wide smile. Peters and his wife Yanara, of Spruce Drive Farms, grow certified seed potatoes 12 miles northwest of Portage la Prairie.

On Saturday, October 14, 2017 they brought in two potato trucks and a conveyor to a vacant lot in Portage and set up for their second Community Potato Give-Away.

Gathering spuds along the 36-foot conveyor

Word about the event spread throughout the week and people were already lined up by 8:30 — a half hour before the give-away was slated to start. While many had driven, others walked, pushed strollers, rode bikes or scooters. As the potatoes were unloaded from the truck onto the 36-foot conveyor, folks gathered around filling bags, boxes, containers of all sizes and even backpacks.

Volunteers worked alongside the Peters, helping load and carry the spuds as well as encouraging those who were unsure of what to do to find a place along the conveyor and help themselves. The atmosphere was light and jovial. It didn’t matter who you were, or where you came from, everyone was welcome to as many potatoes as they wanted.

“What I loved about it, is that we’re not just targeting one sector of our community. We had people of all ages, all income brackets and walks of life stop by,” said Mark. Many people on fixed incomes and social assistance came up to him to express just how much this was helping them out, shake his hand and thank him. Others stopped by out of curiosity or because they knew the Peters. Some didn’t even need the potatoes but just thought it was a cool idea.

For Yanara, the feeling of community was incredibly gratifying.

“Discovering how people are there for each other, like those taking potatoes for perogy fundraisers to support other needs in our area. Or the grandmothers who cook extra meals for the children in their community,” she said. “We’re all the same and we all have a story.”

“You had people that come back two or three times,” Mark added. “But they’re not coming back for themselves. They’re coming back for their neighbours, their friends, their families.” And that is exactly what the event is all about. The inspiration to reach out and help others. Filling a need. Building and extending community.

Inadvertently it also bridges the farmer-consumer gap. The young ones in the crowd often opened up the best conversations. “Why are the potatoes dirty?” ”How come there are so many different shapes and sizes?” “Why are you giving them away?” Many discussions ensued on food waste, what happens to produce before you find it on your store shelves, and why it feels good to give back when you can.

The inaugural event in 2016 was a result of circumstance. Seed potato production standards are very precise. That year, some of the Peters’ crop did not meet seed specifications but was perfectly suitable for the consumer market. However, without a contract to sell consumer potatoes, there was place for those spuds to go. They could have left them in the field and avoided incurring any more costs, but that type of waste didn’t sit well with the Peters. They opted to dig the crop and the “Community Potato Give-Away” was born.

Being cognizant of local vegetable fundraisers in the community, they waited until those were over before proceeding. The event was a success, in more ways than the Peters could have imagined. The heartfelt gratitude and connections made were powerful and lasting.

“It was always on my heart,” said Mark. “I really I wanted to do that again.”

However, this past summer rains eluded his area. Only the smaller of his two potato fields had access to irrigation. The potatoes in the larger field suffered under the intense summer heat, not looking healthy at all. Peters worried, unsure if he would even have enough to fill his seed contracts.

Once harvest was underway, those worries slowly receded. Whether it was divine intervention or answered prayers, that field with little to no rain, produced amazingly well. On the last day of harvest, Peters had a good idea of what was left in the field and didn’t think it could all fit in his storage bin. The give-away would happen.

He set up a sizer to separate the larger potatoes (less desirable for seed) as they were unloaded. One and half truck loads were set aside for donation. Along with the Portage la Prairie event, six 2,000-pound totes were filled to be delivered to remote reserves across the province. The fact that the Peters don’t even mention the effort, cost and time that goes into this, speaks volumes.

Many asked if this will be an annual event. When it comes to farming, it all depends on the year and success of the crop. The Peters remember and appreciate how generous people were with them when they were young adults, so when they are in a position to give back, they definitely will.

“It’s only potatoes, but it just brought so much to the community,” Mark said. “It’s a great opportunity to interact with people and hear their stories. The most basic need is being met with most basic vegetable.”

Building Community – One Bag of Potatoes at a Time

Mark & Yanara Peters – Certified Seed Potato Growers

Is it possible to give away 35,000 lbs of potatoes in just under 5 hours? Why yes,      it is.  And growers, Mark and Yanara Peters were thrilled to make it a reality.  On October 14 they hauled in their potato trucks and a conveyor, from their farm 12 miles northwest of Portage la Prairie, and made it happen.

 

  Despite the cool Saturday morning, people were already lined up by 8:30 – a half hour before the Portage Community Potato Give-Away was slated to start. They came pushing strollers, riding bikes, walking and  on scooters, as well as by car and truck. Many heard about the event on local media or on-line, while others just happened by and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Well, the ‘fuss’ was about sharing a bountiful crop, building community, listening and sharing stories. It would be much simpler to take produce directly to a food bank or soup kitchen to distribute, but last fall at their first community give-away, the Peters discovered the magic in the one-on-one interaction. They don’t consider or mention the effort, time or cost that this intentional act of giving requires.  But they do remember and appreciate how generous people were with them as young adults and simply want to pay it forward.

Gathering spuds along the 36-foot conveyor

With the help of a few volunteers, people gathered around the conveyor – some approaching cautiously, unsure of what to do and/or in disbelief that could they take as many potatoes as they needed. As bags and boxes were filled, they opened up about their lives, and those of others whom they were helping. Grandmothers spoke of the after-school meals they make in their homes for children in their community. They are not only nourishing bodies, but souls and passing on their cooking skills to another generation.

 

Those who live alone took small bags for themselves, but many knew of families in need or shut-ins who would also appreciate the farm-fresh produce. Immigrants spoke of the gratitude they have for living in Canada and the joy in being reunited family members as they arrive. Some people were there to collect potatoes for perogy fundraisers or church dinners — supporting other needs in the community.

Food memories were shared — how family-favourite soups were made, preferred methods for cooking up spuds, whether it be fried, mashed or baked, which spices they like to use and if butter or gravy was the best. One young mom was taking the potatoes home to make Irish Potato Bread. She described how her grandmother, now living in a care home, had taught her to make it — her pride in carrying on tradition was evident.

Those who had excess garden produce — tomatoes, beets, carrots — brought it by to share with the crowd. Others dropped off bags and boxes to ensure those who didn’t have containers had something to cart their potatoes home in. One young family stopped by to get their spuds, then stayed to help others gather theirs.

Inadvertently, the event also offered an opportunity to agvocate (advocate for agriculture) and engage in farm to food discussions. The young ones in the crowd often opened up the best conversations. “Why are the potatoes dirty?” “How come there are so many different shapes and sizes” “Why are you giving them away?”        So discussions ensued on food waste, what happens to produce before you find it on your store shelves, and why it feels good to give back when you can.

Mark & Yanara Peters pausing for a photo as their Community Potato Give-Away drew to a close.

After last year’s giveaway, there was no doubt in the Peters’ minds that if given a successful crop, they would share again. This year, my husband and I were fortunate to be able to help and found out first-hand just why. Besides the stories, memories and agvocating, the gratitude expressed by those who came by was truly heart-warming. While some merely thanked you with a shy smile, others wanted to shake the farmer’s hand. Coffee and snacks were dropped off. One gentleman pressed a few coins into Peters hand, insisting he buy himself a coffee despite Peters repeating it was not necessary.

But the most touching moment for me was a grandmother, who put her hand on her heart,              looked Mark in the eye and expressed her deep appreciation, saying, “You don’t know what this means to us.” Then she reached across the conveyor and embraced Yanara in a hug.

If you’re going to build community, this is way to do it, face-to-face and heart-to-heart.

Practicing Appreciation

 “Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude.”                               Albert Schweitzer

Last month our community lost a very special person who worked at a local financial institution. She always had a smile, a kind word, genuinely cared and went above and beyond to help her customers. She was exceptional and made a difference in the lives of all those she touched.

After her sudden and unexpected passing, I wondered if she knew how much she was appreciated. I wondered if I had ever let her know how I enjoyed our brief interactions. She wasn’t a friend, yet she was a familiar, valued presence in my life.

We all know people like this – they work in stores, banks, schools, healthcare, at service stations or tire shops. They stand out from their peers. They are cheerful, helpful, efficient. They improve our daily lives with their positive outlook and leave us feeling valued and appreciated. But do we reciprocate that feeling often enough?

P1140059A simple thank you or word of encouragement can go a long way to making someone feel valued for doing their job. It isn’t difficult, time-consuming or costly. Serving the public can be trying, and often only the negative is conveyed. Positive feedback is always appreciated and often leaves us feeling better as well.

I have always made an effort to express thanks but this recent loss left me wondering if I had done enough. It reinforced my resolve to not take people for granted, to ensure I always convey my appreciation. After all, the difference-makers in our lives, who brighten our days, do so quite often without even knowing it.