Urban farm grounds spirituality and theory

“I never thought, as a kid washing carrots from my parents’ garden, that I’d land up here,” says Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) farm collective co-founder DeLayne Toews, dirt under his fingernails and a grin on his face. More than a “garden project,” the urban farm on CMU’s west Winnipeg campus sells sustainably grown produce, teaches about food’s connection to the land, provides a practical outlet for academic disciplines, and explores spiritual vocation.

With support from the student body and the blessing of the institution, Toews and other alumni, practicum interns, and one instructor turned the dream of a farm into a reality on campus.

“CMU faculty, staff, and students are committed to environmentally sound practices as a consequence of our desire to live faithfully and participate in the reign of God in our world,” says CMU vice president academic Earl Davey. The institution has approved the farm’s use of the land for a two-year trial. Student council voted to contribute $3,000 from their surplus to the farm’s start-up costs.

Over the winter, collective members came to consensus on everything from what kind of seeds to plant (open-pollinated) on the one-acre plot, to how to market the produce (farmers and sharers first, CMU cafeteria and community organizations next, excess sold to a local restaurant). The first planting was May 15, and the first box of produce was delivered to “sharers” June 27.

Using the Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) model, the collective members distribute the produce in weekly delivery boxes to 20 “sharers” who have paid $450 in spring to receive the farm’s bounty for the season. CSA patrons also share in the risk – there is no refund if crops fail and weekly boxes are sparse.

“Working with and depending on the grace of God for our sustenance reminds me that it’s God’s sustaining presence at the centre of all that is good in the world,” says Jennifer Dijk, who splits a “share” with a friend. “And I really love experimenting with different foods, so this is a great way to be creative in the kitchen.”

“InFARMation”

Production of sustainably grown crops is only one of the farm’s purposes. Situated on a university campus, education is also a major goal. Learning starts with the sharers – who receive a weekly information sheet about the growing season, regional produce, and crop varieties – and extends into the classroom.

International development studies instructor at CMU Kenton Lobe will hold the first session of his ecological peacebuilding course on the farm, “grounding” the theory. “Something different happens [in the garden] than in the classroom, sitting in desks,” says the collective member. “I love to see where conversation goes with students in the garden.”

Though a farm on campus presents obvious opportunities for international development and biology courses to explore practical learning, another primary goal of the collective is to link the physical, productive, earthy task of tending creation with the notion of spiritual vocation. “The excessive, beautiful, diverse way God makes things grow is a pattern of grace,” says Toews. He sees in the garden an earth-tender/grace-receiver model, rather than producer/consumer model: here, the plants do the work while humans benefit.

This is Toews’ passion, and he hopes to see biblical and theological studies explore learning opportunities in the plot as well. To that end, he led a chapel session at the farm Sept. 20.

“As I prattle on about miracles of grace, I feel a sense of the good news of God’s grace that breaks in with each season,” Toews says, and he’s had plenty of opportunity to expound to sharers, volunteers, and campus visitors who dropped in to see the farm over the summer.

CMU farmers, interns, and students explore – not only as farmers, but as theologians – how to “live into this model of diversity and excess, live inside God’s creation, not outside, in a way that honours God’s creation.”

—Karla Braun

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