McGill Alert / Alerte de McGill

Updated: Thu, 07/18/2024 - 18:12

Gradual reopening continues on downtown campus. See Campus Public Safety website for details.

La réouverture graduelle du campus du centre-ville se poursuit. Complément d'information : Direction de la protection et de la prévention.

SPF Spotlight: The Macdonald Campus Orchards

McGill’s Very Own Circular Micro-Economy

It was 35º C and cloudless at the Macdonald Campus Farm. Though Horticulture Specialist Michael Bleho greeted me at 11 AM, he and his staff had been on the farm since 6 AM. “The weather is tough on our staff,” Bleho said. “It’s difficult to work productively in that kind of heat, so we’ve been starting early and ending around 1 PM.”

It is this kind of dedication that has allowed Bleho and his team to create a productive and ecologically-friendly farm that fosters a circular economic model. With funding from the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), the Macdonald Orchards will continue to employ and train students, and feed our campus community, especially the delicious, locally-grown apples, for years to come.

Mike Bleho sits in a field with Executive Chef Oliver di Volpi at Macdonald Campus Farm.
Mike Bleho (right) has worked closely with Oliver Di Volpi, McGill's Executive Chef, Operations and Sustainability (left) to create a circular food economy at the University.

In 1979, Michael Bleho enrolled in the Diploma in Agriculture program at Macdonald Campus. He later applied and was accepted at the Horticulture Research Center. After a few years working for an indoor plant company, he realized he missed the outdoors, so he went back to see Jean Pierre Laplaine who hired him in the fall of 1984 to help bring in the harvest of the first apple orchards.

According to Bleho, typical viability of an apple orchard is 25-30 years; the orchards he helped plant in 1984 are coming to their end. To keep the orchards going, Bleho spearheaded the SPF-funded Macdonald Campus Orchard project, earning funding for a brand new apple orchard with a new, more space-efficient design and strategy. The project came to fruition this summer, as the new trees were grafted and planted by Bleho’s team of dedicated student workers.

Macdonald Farm management has always done its best to adhere to the highest environmental standards, especially regarding pesticide use, while still producing quality food. However, apple scab has posed a significant problem in the past. “Apple trees are prone to many insect and fungal pests. If you don’t do something, then you won’t get much of a quality product.” Bleho explained the effectiveness of a spray made of baking soda and sulfur that is now used on the apple trees. Still, “to be successful demands close attention being paid to scouting and forecasting susceptibility; it is much more time-consuming, but it is worth it. This season we will see a big reduction in the amounts of conventional chemicals that were sprayed on our trees, and so far, the results look promising.”

The apples are one of the many thriving crops that will soon be ready for harvest. The Macdonald Farm has a “repertoire of crops very typical of many small farms here in Southwestern Quebec” which includes plant Families like Solanaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Amaryllidaceae; also asparagus, lettuce, carrots, beets, and many varieties of pears and plums; sometimes strawberries and raspberries.

Apples grow at the Macdonald Campus Orchard.

While it is difficult to quantify all of the farm’s production, Bleho noted that “we deliver yearly around 25,000 Kg of food to our cafeterias downtown. Our market closes in early December each year and there is literally nothing left over by then, everything is consumed. Everything we grow on the farm is marketed through the Mac Market for our students and staff and the rest is delivered to our partners at McGill Food and Dining Services, which operates the many cafeterias on McGill’s downtown campus.”

Bleho was particularly excited when he explained this concept: how the money, product and work involved in the farm flows through McGill without really going elsewhere (kind of like McGill’s own microcosm of a circular economy). He explained that he thinks the circular economic model makes a lot of sense. “First, it allows us to maximise the use of our McGill farmland and machinery. We grow fruits and vegetables on McGill land, hire McGill students to produce it and sell it back to our cafeterias that feed our student body.”

“We produce a product that is grown only thirty kilometers from where it is consumed, giving our operation a smaller environmental footprint. We sell our products for a fair market price, and this allows us to pay our bills and hire students to help us grow and harvest our crops.” This is what the circular model ensures.

Launched in 2010, SPF project McGill Feeding McGill developed a liaison between the Macdonald Horticulture Research Center and McGill University’s Food and Dining Services. The SPF project was instrumental in developing this circular micro-economy by keeping some of the University’s financial resources within the institution with direct benefits to the McGill community, to students in particular.

Since the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is based at Macdonald campus, it makes sense to have the farmland planted to capacity. Bleho explains, “we are a living lab for courses at McGill. We also serve as a stage farm for students from the Farm Management and Technology program” Feeding and employing the student body, serving as a living lab and stage farm: the Mac Farms are doing great things for McGill.

“Our farm staff is made up of students from all over the world. I believe that much of our success is owed to our student workforce that is very keen and willing to work. They feel they are part of the food system at McGill, focused on producing food that is used almost exclusively to feed our student body. This goal seems to be a source of pride.”

Walking around the farm with Michael Bleho opened my eyes to the hard work, physical labor and dedication put into the food in our cafeterias. While we might take for granted the efforts put into every campus meal, it is very cool that we have the opportunity to take a deeper look at the farm behind the table.

And remember, the annual apple-picking at the Macdonald Orchards is coming up! Don’t miss out.

In memory of Jean Pierre Laplaine who worked at the Horticulture Research Center for over 50 years. A friend, a mentor, he touched many people’s lives and left a lasting legacy.

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