For Dave Barnes, chair and founding member of the Assiniboine Food Forest Initiative, it all started with a desire to protect the stands of oak, ash and maple along the banks of the Assiniboine River east of Brandon.
“I saw threats to landscape everywhere,” he said. “I saw these ancient oak trees. I know they’re older than Brandon and I thought it would be so sweet if we could have protection for them.”
Barnes began testing the waters for local support and his vision soon began to grow. He found permaculture advocates interested in habitat conservation, gardening enthusiasts and people passionate about sustainable food production and food security. What began as a simple goal to preserve trees became a mission statement ranging from the promotion of low-maintenance public gardens to public advocacy and education.
In 2014, the fledgling Assiniboine Food Forest incorporated and gained the lease for 40 acres of land at the east end of Brandon.
Ten of those acres, as Barnes originally desired, were natural woodland, now protected by the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation. The remaining 30 acres, however, had been cleared, used as low-intensity grazing land for the last half-century and were riddled with spurge and thistle.
It is those 30 acres that, through a variety of projects, the group hopes to reclaim.
“We are raising funds in every way that we can because we are launching an effort to rebuild habitat,” Barnes said. “We’re rehabitating — regenerating habitat. We want to build food into the landscape and we want to plant forests of many kinds. We want to have a parkland-sort of an ecosystem with as many native trees as we can work in. We would like to regenerate a wetland and a small pond with a dam to retain the spring meltwater and we’re hoping to weave food that is fruit and nuts and many other forms of food for humans and wildlife into that mix.”
Food forest members will get priority on any harvest, Barnes said, although produce will also be available to the public. The initiative currently has about 80 members.
“We’re going to pick saskatoons this summer, so if you’re a member, you’ll get the call first,” he said. “You’ll get a warning when it’s going to be ripe. It’s not like we’re going to be policing the area, but we want to have memberships and we want there to be small perks for having memberships.”
Since 2014, the group has held workshops on gardening and permaculture, ecosystems or healthy living and has branched out into cultural events, such as the Treesblood Spring Festival each May. They have partnered with the Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation, Assiniboine Community College, the Brandon Community Garden Network and the Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative, among others. Barnes has appeared to speak in schools and, more recently, the initiative introduced an astronomy night to observe the Lyrid meteor shower April 22-23.
A system of mowed paths are currently the only feature on the land’s open terrain, but that is on track to change by next year. A half-acre prairie garden, devoted entirely to native plant species, is planned for this summer. By fall, the group hopes to unveil a one-acre edible orchard, a project it hopes will one day function like a communal garden with fruit-, berry-, seed- and nut-producing plants.
An $8,000 grant for the project was provided by the Brandon Area Community Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada, Barnes said, and the group plans to launch the orchard alongside Brandon’s Culture Days, this Oct. 1.
“That’s going to get us going pretty well,” he said of the funds. “The prairie regeneration, we don’t expect to be too costly, but this is what fundraising is about and we will not be getting city money. The city has to be cautious about riverbank properties. They’ve had to pay a lot of money for some of their riverbank developments.”
Tom Gonsalves, vegetable industry development specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, said the project would showcase the province’s potential for tree-based produce. While certain species may be difficult to adapt to Manitoba, he said, some bush-based produce should grow readily.
“It’s not just the fresh fruit itself,” he said. “You could do value added in the sense of jams, jellies — that kind of thing, with those bush fruits.”
The initiative eventually hopes to plant stands of willow and poplar and regenerate the previously cleared oak.
Next year, the focus will turn to a dry creek bed, the planned home of a wetland regeneration project. The creek bed has been an annual outlet for snowmelt, feeding into the often already swollen Assiniboine River, Barnes said.
The Assiniboine Food Forest has discussed water control mechanisms and excavating the future pond area with Ducks Unlimited.
“The wetland is going to require money, so there we go,” Barnes said. “Once we accumulate $100,000, we’ll launch that project.”
Fundraising is underway for the group’s ambitious project list.
Barnes, who produces maple syrup and eggs, put both his operation and the food forest on display April 9 with guided tours. About 200 pails of sap are harvested from the area surrounding the food forest each year for a total 150 litres of syrup.
His operation, Barnes later added, ties into the group’s vision of self-produced, sustainable food.
The upcoming Treesblood Spring Festival will also act as a fundraiser for upcoming projects.
Barnes added that he expects membership to grow after the syrup tour fundraiser.