Urban Food: Interview with Dustin Bajer
On a frigid Edmonton day in January, I spoke with Dustin Bajer at the cozy Three Bananas Cafe. Dustin is an urban beekeeper, educator, and Co-Chair of the Edmonton Food Council. He is also the coordinator of Sustainable Food Edmonton’s program Urban Ag High, which aims to bring urban agriculture to high school students. Sustainable Food Edmonton was an Emerald Award finalist in 2016 for their significant contribution to agricultural education and urban food production in Edmonton since 1989. Here is our conversation:
On embracing urban agriculture.
I have a background in education, and spent the last 10 years teaching for Edmonton Public, most of that time with Jasper Place High School. While there I worked on some agricultural projects, specifically around permaculture design. It’s about growing gardens that look and behave like forests, with a variety of foods, mostly perennial. At the school we started making food forests - we could have cleared the courtyard and planted a bunch of carrots, but instead we cleared the courtyard and planted saskatoons, grapevines, rhubarbs, asparagus, cherry trees... So that’s how I came to urban agriculture in the classroom. I eventually started consulting with Sustainable Food Edmonton, who help other schools set up urban agriculture projects. My role through Sustainable Food Edmonton is to help give them the resources they need to be successful. Over the last couple years we’ve worked with about a dozen schools.
On the mission of Sustainable Food Edmonton.
The vision of Sustainable Food Edmonton is community building through urban agriculture. One of the biggest things that comes out of a community garden is a community place - nobody’s going off the grid growing all of their own food with their 4x8 community garden plot, but you get to know your neighbours, you get to share skills and ideas, and community flourishes out of that while growing food at the same time.
On our disconnection from food sources.
There’s an obvious disconnect between production of food and consumption of food. If a piece of meat to you is this thing that comes in a cellophane pack, you’re removed from your relationship to that food - your understanding of how it was produced, your understanding of the impacts on the environment.
"There’s an obvious disconnect between production of food and consumption of food."
Often what we’re talking about with local food is having some kind of connection to it - it’s grown by somebody I know, or it’s grown in the region, or it attaches you to the seasons. It ties you to the climate and the place and the culture. Eating is fundamentally a social act.
On why schools should introduce urban agriculture to students.
Students are trying to figure out what they want to be, or who they are. The earlier you are in that stage, the more potential futures you might have. The role of education is to help students discover their thing. And that might be growing food, that might be eating food, that might be preparing it, and unless a student is exposed to it, they might never discover it.
There was a student at Jasper Place [who] went to [study] culinary at NAIT and then brewing down in Olds. He’s been taking all of the spent grain from the brewing process and growing mushrooms on it. Playing around with urban agriculture and mushroom production in high school gave him some of those ideas, and I’d like to think that it’s helped him discover something about himself that he’s then able to run with.
"The challenge is that we need to show a generation that urban agriculture is something that could be pursued."
Let’s face it, most kids aren’t thinking “when I grow up I want to be a farmer.” I don’t think it occurs to people when you live in the city growing up. The challenge is that we need to show a generation that urban agriculture is something that could be pursued.
What I love about Urban Ag High is that we can play around with models of urban agriculture in a really safe space. Let’s try to make an aquaponics system, let’s put in a food forest, let’s grow a garden, let’s see what we can do, and if it fails nobody goes out of business. The primary purpose of urban agriculture in a classroom is still education and so as long as students are learning, there’s no harm in pursuing a project that doesn’t really work out. Future urban agriculture initiatives throughout the City of Edmonton could be the result of things that happen in schools. Those students will often go home and start gardens, or join community gardens, or go out into the workforce and pursue jobs around food and agriculture. These are the kids who can become the next chefs and the next urban farmers.
On specific schools impacted by Urban Ag High.
One is Inner City High. Their students are 90% indigenous, and we worked with the teacher there to first start growing vegetables in the classroom. As soon as the weather got warm we took these big planters that are outside of the school and reworked them with lots of indigenous plants that have a historical use - things like strawberries, currents, highbush cranberries, [and] saskatoons. Things that naturally grow here but also have some connection to the culture of the students who are attending the school.
Morinville Composite High School did some really great stuff. They run an urban agriculture class, play around with some hydroponics, and grow vegetables that get sold to a local Sobeys. They’re uniquely positioned in that Morinville is more rural than Edmonton so they have a lot of producers in the immediate area. They can head out to a chicken farm or a canola field in ten minutes. They’ve been taking advantage of that and really trying to partner with a lot of the producers in the region.
"If you can target schools and education you can keep graduating food-conscious people."
I think about the culinary arts program at Jasper Place High School. Those kids are super passionate about cooking, and a lot of them end up going to NAIT or SAIT and then they end up working in our restaurants. Over time they contribute to the local food scene in a variety of ways. If you can target schools and education you can keep graduating food-conscious people, and that adds up over time and can have a big impact on the local food scene.
On dealing with a cold climate.
The school year and the growing year are at odds, but there are ways to work around it, and there are lots of models of urban agriculture. Indoor gardening - aquaponics, hydroponics, container gardening - is less dependent on weather than growing outside. So there are things you can do to grow and get engaged 365 days a year.
In my ideal City of Edmonton, 50-100 years from now, we’ve done a lot to embrace our natural environment and work with nature, and I think urban agriculture is a really great tool for doing that. I would love to see this adopted more largely by schools. In the short term, it’s going to depend on those individual school champions who want to go above and beyond their regular teaching job to throw in a school garden, which is a huge commitment.
What we’re hoping to do now is create more of a process. We’re moving toward a system-wide approach to tie that community together. There’s a lot of teachers who are maybe on the fence, thinking it would be fun to do a gardening project at the school, but they don’t know where to start. I think if you can tell the existing stories it encourages those people to try. If we can build that community and get those teachers talking among themselves, I think that will be really helpful. I’m optimistic that it will continue to keep growing.
On how you, our readers, can get involved.
If they’re involved in education in any way, and that could even be at the university [level], talk to those teachers, talk to those students - about food, about gardening, about nature - and see if there is an interest in pursuing urban agriculture projects.
Specifically on the SFE side, go to the website, and there are lots of volunteer options there. If you think that urban agriculture could be an effective tool for creating community, like the facebook page, follow on twitter, and help us share the positive stories so we can encourage more people to try this stuff.
Grow a garden, eat good food.
The interview has been edited and for clarity and brevity.
This post was written in partnership with Alberta's Emerald Foundation