This story is even closer to my heart than others I have shared as it involves my sweet parents and the story of a community farming project. This story is about them, the project they have helped initiate but also indirectly tells so much about me and the path I am on with my work and my passions. These two are responsible for fostering for my love of plants, gardening, food, cooking and of course eating and sharing food with others. Family dinners were foundational in our house. I especially looked forward to Sunday dinners. They were the types of meals you would smell cooking a good part of the day and often involved some of our family’s favourite recipes and there was always dessert. My grandpa would join us every Sunday and sometimes our elderly Austrian neighbour, Joe or other family friends.
We always had a garden growing up and both sides of the family were well rooted in farming communities. I feel so grateful to have grown up in such a loving and caring environment and exposed to good food and taught to cook from a very early age. I was raised to have a deep appreciation for nature and eating with the seasons and from as close to home as possible. I am keenly aware, however, that so many do not have such a supportive and nourishing start to their lives and do not receive the love and support they need to thrive. It is my intention with the telling of these stories around food and healing to not only look at how we can use food to heal our physical bodies but how the act of growing food and caring for plants can be deeply healing on an mental and emotional level.
This brings me around to Serenity Farm, a 14,000 square foot organic farm in the fertile Blenkinsop Valley in Victoria. It is a garden project with the primary intention of creating positive change for people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and/or addiction and in some cases involved in criminal activity. In the garden, community volunteers, staff and participants work together to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers, which are then provided to the participants and sold through Seven Oaks, The Local General Store, Souper Meals, and a small CSA. Much of the money generated through produce and flower sales goes back to the participants.
The inspiration for the project came from my dad’s career working in the legal system and specifically with the Victoria Integrated Court, in combination with my mom’s passion for horticultural therapy and their shared love of gardening. My dad recognized the need for more positive community involvement and support for those engaged in the justice system who have a history of homelessness, addiction and/or mental illness.
Serenity Farm just wrapped up a successful sixth growing season. While I had been to the farm on several occasions, I had never been when the volunteers and participants were there. It was such a joy to see it all in action late this summer at the peak of the season and experience the connections and sense of belonging among the participants as they went about the various jobs that were to be completed that day. Some were harvesting lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beans, cauliflower, and potatoes. While my mom harvested flowers, others worked on the compost and the chamomile was brought in and hung to dry for future tea making.
It makes me so happy that my parents are involved in this project together. They both bring different and equally important skills to the project. It has been beautiful to watch an idea come into being and to see my parents living out some of their dreams while providing such a valuable service to their community. My dad always had a desire to move out to the country and have more land to grow and he has found that at Serenity Farm and as I was following my mom around taking pictures she said to me “this is kind of a dream having all these cut flowers” and to see her sharing the therapeutic benefits of gardening with others in this way is so perfect.
I love how we just never quite know where our passions will take us, it is often to places and projects that we never could have imagined. In this case it all started with planting a seed, tending to it and watching it grow. The diversity of people working together in community is only surpassed by the diversity of plants and pollinators on the farm. I so look forward to seeing how Serenity Farm continues to blossom in the seasons to come as I enjoy the bounty from the farm.
Please continue on to read my interview with Ernie and Ardelle and learn more about Serenity Farm.
INTERVIEW WITH ARDELLE AND ERNIE
You both have a strong connection to nature and the rhythms of the seasons. How did your love of plants and gardening come to be?
We both grew up in, or closely connected to, farm communities in southern Alberta, where many of our neighbours and family friends had large vegetable gardens, and adjoining yards were decorated with flowers. As small children we knew the joy of picking and eating vegetables in the garden. There was never any question that we would grow our own vegetables and flowers, and we have been doing so for approximately 40 years.
What was the inspiration behind starting the Serenity Farm project? What was your desired outcome?
The inspiration for starting the garden flowed from the work of the Victoria Integrated Court, recognizing that there are few opportunities for positive community engagement for persons in contact with the justice system who have a history of homelessness, and addiction and/or mental illness. The desired outcomes include rehabilitation, earning extra income, positive involvement with persons living a healthier life style, increased confidence, and free access to organic produce grown with their own hands.
What feeling do you hope people will come away with after spending time working on the farm?
We hope that the volunteers will develop a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to improve one’s life situation once you end up on the streets due to addiction and/or mental illness, and also the satisfaction of knowing their efforts are making our community a better place by providing needed assistance. For the participants from the downtown we hope they achieve the goals referred to above, and come to view the garden as a place where they are needed and belong.
What has been the impact of engaging those with mental illness and addiction (and often criminal behaviour) in organic farming?
Some of the most common feedback we receive from the participants is a feeling of positivity and improved confidence and self esteem, improved eating habits as they have access to free organic vegetables, learning new skills and earning income, a sense of belonging by being a part of and building a healthy community, pride of accomplishments (including improvements they have made to the garden) and a feeling of calm and peace from the connection to nature at the garden. A number of them have also moved on to gainful employment.
Projects have a way of taking on a life of their own and evolve in ways beyond our initial vision. What are some of the benefits you have seen that you didn’t anticipate when you first started out?
We did not anticipate we would become one of a few low barrier services in Greater Victoria for this population, where they can attend year after year.
You are now in your sixth growing season. What has made the project so successful?
The success of the project to date has been due to the dedication and hard work of the volunteers and the part time staff, David Scott and Jackie Robson (including fundraising), and due to the ongoing support from our donors, and sponsoring agencies; the Victoria Integrated Court, Island Health and the John Howard Society.
How has the project impacted the two of you and your relationship to each other?
We have certainly developed a much greater appreciation for the needs of this segment of our society, and a realization that underlying what may at times seem like rough exteriors are talented, warm individuals, who have the same desires and needs as the rest of us. It is also the first time outside the home where we have had the opportunity to work together, which has been a positive experience. We are constantly reminded of how fortunate our lives are and we are very appreciative.
What is your vision for the future of Serenity Farm?
Our vision for the garden is to continue the existing program, and if possible, to expand into similar services for persons in an addiction recovery program.
Home kitchens and gardens are foundational to health and wellbeing. How do you use food and gardening as tools for wellbeing in your daily lives?
Our sense of personal wellbeing continues to be closely tied to the land, even though we live in an urban setting. We do this by growing some of our own food, and by purchasing our remaining produce from Serenity Farm and local organic farmers we have come to know. Ernie adds that “it is also significant that Ardelle is a fabulous cook”.
If you would like to make a donation, get involved or learn more about Serenity Farm please visit their website.