Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens cultivate a sustainable future

How a student gardening club grew into a highly productive urban farming initiative

One of the first concerns about the climate crisis is often the future of our food systems. Tucked between fields at the Macdonald Campus farm and the Morgan Arboretum in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue at the western tip of Montreal, is a group working on just that: the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens (MSEG). They are a small but mighty group that has been growing produce and educational opportunities on our campus for over a decade.

Beginning in 2009 as a gardening club, MSEG quickly expanded, with the support of the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), to become a highly productive urban farming initiative. As the group grew, it became a McGill-affiliated student business to provide the Montreal and Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue communities with fresh, local produce.

Students selling goods at the market

Fresh goods are sold throughout the growing season at weekly farmer’s markets as well as community-supported agriculture (CSA) baskets. CSA is a system where households pre-purchase a share of the year’s harvest and receive weekly baskets of seasonal goods during the summer and fall. This system allows MSEG to cover operational costs needed to begin each year.

Community-supported agriculture

“This year we had 75 CSA memberships. We try to provide as much diversity as we can have in our baskets produce-wise, which allows us to plant and care for a variety of produce,” says McGill student and MSEG manager Kayla Dowd, a fourth year bioresource engineering student.

Student holding fresh radishes

Despite the small size of their fields—roughly 3.5 acres in all—MSEG is able to grow over 50 different crops each year.

“One of the reasons that come up a lot when we ask people why they joined us as a CSA member is because they want to try new vegetables,” says Dowd. “It’s fun for us too because we learn and grow as young farmers.”

The scale of this operation is not the only impressive part of MSEG. This organization has a unique structure as well: it is entirely run by no more than six students at a time.

Each student is hired for a two-year commitment to the farm: their first year acts as a training period, while the second becomes a management opportunity. Every year, three managers hire three new students to work with and train. At the end of the season, the managers leave the group and the apprentices are promoted, continuing the cycle.

Responsibility and training

This structure creates a unique opportunity for a level of responsibility and training that is not generally possible for undergraduate students.

“It’s a very intense learning opportunity that allows you to acquire far-reaching skills quickly,” says Ariel Lapointe Lamontagne, a second-year environment student and another of this year’s three managers.

Student planting carrots

“One growing season is such a brief amount of time to gain that much experience, and then having the chance to pass on that knowledge to the next generation of interns... It’s a very empowering journey.”

“I think that [MSEG] builds confidence as a young farmer and has offered an opportunity to apply the theoretical knowledge that I’m learning in my degree and how I can actually apply what I’ve been learning in the classroom,” Dowd adds.

Each season with the revenue provided through the CSA baskets, MSEG can fund the cost of wages and production.

“Since we are a hybrid between a McGill club and student business, funding can be difficult. A lot of small farms get government funding, but because we are a part of McGill, it's something we don't have access to,” says Dowd. “The [Sustainability Projects Fund] is one of the only funding opportunities that we've been able to have, and it's been huge. It's been a major help.”

SPF-supported project

The Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) is the largest fund of its kind in Canada, valued at $1 million annually, and has the mandate to build a culture of sustainability on McGill’s campuses through the development and seed-funding of interdisciplinary projects. The SPF has supported MSEG in a number of ways, ranging from purchasing tools to creating composting systems.

“MSEG has been in existence for over 10 years and is one of the original SPF supported projects – few projects have been in existence for that long,” says Dr. Caroline Begg, Faculty Lecturer in the Department of Plant Science.

Over the years, Begg has provided MSEG with continued support, from finding resources to providing connections with individuals and other organizations. She says many students have completed internship courses related to the farm under her supervision.

Small-scale agriculture and sustainable food

“MSEG has given many individuals, interns and managers, confidence to start their own farms or continue in the field of environmental sustainability,” says Begg.

Despite all odds, MSEG has maintained its mission on campus and has been changing conversations around the future of our food systems since its creation.

“I think that the future of sustainable food systems will need to rely on small-scale agriculture,” says Lapointe Lamontagne. “In reconnecting people with the food that they eat—and most importantly, where it comes from—we can share the ways that our current system needs changing.”

“I think this is what the movement towards sustainable food is all about.”

Learn more about MSEG by visiting their website to find information on volunteering, CSA basket sign-ups, newsletters, and more.

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