“This connects the community and the school, and it is the hands-on commitment and the ownership that really draws the kids in and draws the families in.”
– KATHARINA STIEFFENHOFER, Winnipeg FI LMMAKER OF “…AND THIS IS MY GARDEN.”
The pepper plants are up in Mrs. Woitowicz’s classroom in Wabowden. So are the tomatoes.
Planted by her Grade 3 and 4 students, the tiny seedlings’ appearance mark the start of another garden year in this northern Manitoba town. The plants are destined for about 70 gardens awaiting across town.
All belong to Eleanor Woitowicz’s students, present and past. They’ll be responsible for tending them through the spring and summer, and harvesting them next fall.
Backyard gardens were introduced in 2006 by Woitowicz and another teacher, Bonnie Monias, who decided to take a science curriculum initiative of the local school division, Veggie Adventures, and build a garden project around it.
Having taught at Wabowden’s Mel Johnson School for over 30 years, and being an avid gardener herself, Woitowicz said she started to think about this after seeing so many kids growing up here knowing next to nothing about vegetables, let alone how to grow them. Most fresh produce consumed here is transported from thousands of miles away.
Woitowicz, on the other hand, had gardened as a kid and always had a big garden since moving to Wabowden.
“I thought, maybe I need to share something with the community that I’ve been in for a long time and share my knowledge of gardening,” she said.
The decision to place the raised-bed gardens in her students’ own yards, instead of at the school, was to instil more personal ownership of them, she said.
“We said maybe if we put them in their yards maybe they’ll look after them,” says Woitowicz.
Of the 70 gardens planned this year, about 20 will be the gardens of Woitowicz’s Grade 3 and 4 students, trying their hand at this for the first time. The rest belong to students who moved up in the grades, but wanted to keep gardening. Several parents have caught the bug too and are establishing gardens next to their kids’.
Woitowicz visits her students’ gardens throughout the summer to see how everyone’s doing. The appearance of that first tomato or carrot or broccoli is a big moment for a young, firsttime gardener, she said.
“I find when I work with the kids they’re really keen on it,” she said.
“It’s so rewarding to work with them, and it’s so neat to see them get excited when they grow something.”
The success of Wabowden’s garden has gained considerable attention. It has caught the attention of the David Suzuki Foundation. It was also highlighted at the United Nations at a European Economic and Social Council sustainable development conference last year. At a December 2009 awards ceremony at the Manitoba legislature,
Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie awarded Woitowicz with a Manitoba Excellence in Sustainability Award for the program.
A newly released documentary film titled “…And This Is My Garden,” by Winnipeg filmmaker, Katharina Stieffenhofer, is certain to raise its profile further. Premiered in Winnipeg March 13, the full-length film follows the Wabowden teacher and students through the entire 2009 garden year, culminating in a big community fall feast the kids prepare.
Stieffenhofer, also an avid gardener from having grown up on a Manitoba farm, said she was inspired hearing about the Wabowden project and immediately wanted to make a film to inspire others. Stieffenhofer met Woitowicz and Monias last year at the 2009 Growing Local conference. She devoted the rest of the year to making the film, making monthly drives north with camera crew.
What impresses her is the new model Wabowden is creating for teaching schoolkids to garden, Stieffenhofer said. Familiar with school programs across the country, including the concept of the edible schoolyard, Stieffenhofer says this is a unique approach because it’s in sync with the garden year. It doesn’t end in June when school is out.
“To me that’s the way to do it. This connects the community and the school, and it is the hands-on commitment and the ownership that really draws the kids in and draws the families in.”
This is also a way to address so many bigger-picture issues around food security, health and the environment in the north and beyond, said Stieffenhofer.
UNEARTHING AN AGRICULTURAL PAST
Stieffenhofer’s film also explores Wabowden’s own agricultural past.
Wabowden residents are interviewed recollecting how grandparents and parents once grew gardens and traded fresh produce for fish and meat.
The film tells the story of how Hudson’s Bay Co. employees once grew large gardens here, during Wabowden’s days as a fur trade post.
It also includes rare footage depicting the substantial efforts made in the 1950s and 1960s to develop commercial agriculture here.
Stieffenhofer was fascinated to learn Mel Johnson School stands on the former site of a government-run experimental farm operating at that time, so she set out to learn more about that part of Wabowden’s history.
Her research led her to Peter Braun, former manager of the experimental farm. Braun is interviewed in the film and includes his own footage in the film showing the large forage and potato fields that grew here under his tenure.
Standard vegetable crops and forage crops did quite well here, due to the isolated location and absence of pests, Braun says in the documentary, adding that “Agriculture could be a viable industry there, if it was to happen.”
Woitowicz agrees the North could certainly become much more self-sufficient in food.
But the first requirement for that to happen must be to revive skills and knowledge by cultivating them in these young minds, says the teacher.
The seeds for that may already be sown. Says one of her most enthusiastic students, 10-year-old Bernell Bayer, at the end of the film: “What I’m thinking about in the future is that I want to grow more gardens and I want to turn my backyard into a garden and grow my own stuff, sell a little bit.”
Stieffenhofer’s film is produced in association with Buffalo Gal Pictures. For more information about the documentary visit http://andthisismygarden.com/.