Commitments, Contradictions and Experiential Learning 101

Article by Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Well, it’s been a few months. Since my last post, I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate in Jordan and spent my summer first working on a permaculture farm on Denman Island, then on a small start-up organic farm in Armstrong BC (where, in fact, I remain quite contentedly for the moment). I started off charging forward with the joyful prospect of heaping permaculture skills onto my academic background in evolutionary ecology. Heady stuff.

I just want to run out and do everything at once: designing sites, building swales and hugelkultur beds, harvesting water, and basically getting down-and-dirty adding hands-on work to my list of experience. As many of us do, I tend to fall into the classic trap of trying to do everything at once; and to just keep adding skills and experience(s) rather than develop existing ones.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at  permaculture course in Jordan.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at permaculture course in Jordan.

This summer was no exception. While I did add a heap-load of skills to my repertoire (and work on some muscles and a tan), I’ve been struggling to process what the few months have meant to me in terms of learning, personal growth, professional growth, and so on.

Some themes keep re-emerging::

 1) Test what you “know” by doing things. Do something. Do anything. The learning is in the doing, not in what feels like “learning”. As a scholar I’m great at getting caught in this trap: the potential for further learning is endless. It’s the doing that needs to be plugged in to make the learning stick.

2) Commitment. Choose something. Anything. But do it, keep moving forward, and all the things you were trying to choose between will either fall away, or fall into the framework of what you commit to. I kept getting hit over the head with this one this year. Everyone from my friends and family to distant voices of past exes to a radio show host used words and phrases like “making a commitment”, “setting down roots,” and “choosing a focus.” I learned a little more about why these phrases keep resonating with me; but also that sticking to an overarching commitment can result in conflicts between the minor goals (e.g. stay in one place and build on basic farming skills, versus drive across Canada and the US on a 6-week road-trip to learn about some alternative approaches to food security and production). And that contradictions are okay. Which leads to . . .

3) We are all full of contradictions. Recently CBC radio host Brent Bambury was discussing with director Errol Morris his documentary “The Unknown Known” on Donald Rumsfeld. Morris was reflecting that Rumsfeld seemed to have little comprehension of the magnitude of his decisions or influence during his time in office; that he seemed to frequently contradict himself without any awareness of having done so. Bambury goes on to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” He then rephrased this to: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and to know and acknowledge that you are doing so.” I guess that tells me I have a great mind, because I can never seem to move forward for the number of contradictory thoughts guiding my decisions! But recognizing the contradictions, and choosing which is more (or less) important to you, is part of life and successful learning.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

4)    Understanding is dependent on the perspective you choose from which to view an experience. For example, looking back on the last few months, I could choose to view them from a perspective either of success or failure. First, I learned a lot, made some wonderful friends, spent a lot of time working outside, ejected some logistical fallacies and developed a much greater sense of practicality. On the other hand, I didn’t gain any financial ground, and feel like I’m about where I started in terms of gaining security, stability, forward direction, and so on. Either point of view could be taken as equally valid. Holding those two contradictory possibilities in mind is important so that I avoid deluding myself into a false sense of security that “everything works out” (sometimes it just doesn’t); or into an equally destructive sense of failure that “nothing ever works out” (sometimes it does, it just takes a little longer, or comes about in unexpected ways). Reality is a slippery fish!

Looking back I recognize the optimism of someone with a lot of ideas – and ideals – and not a great deal of time spent putting those ideas into the ground. In all honesty, after more than half a year, I still don’t have any kind of feeling like I’ve “gotten it together” or am ready to offer anything like a usable product to the world – but I do have a more grounded understanding of my own knowledge and experience gaps.

Along with that understanding came a greater humility, and simultaneously a greater confidence in my willingness to try things, watch them fail, try again, and keep working on learning. Things happen more slowly than we’d like them to. Our ideas, and ideals, exceed our abilities. That’s the point.  Otherwise we’d be stagnating. Physically putting our ideas and experience to the test is ultimately – for me, at least – the only way to go.

Scott Weir

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Growing moral capacity through urban farming

Article by: Marta 

Passionate about sustainability, Scott Weir has started a successful urban farm in Calgary

Passionate about sustainability, Scott Weir has started a successful urban farm in Calgary

Starting an urban farm is not an easy task according to Scott Weir, but he has made it happen in a city where pursuing genuinely sustainable practices is yet to be taken seriously. Although Growing Gardeners Calgary Urban Farms started just one year ago, the idea and inspiration for it started much earlier. Founder Scott Weir says he’s always been inspired by the green movement and has been interested in hydroponics and building systems since he was only eleven, when he first got a glimpse of the technology at the EPCOT centre in Orlando, Florida. Since then, his interests have evolved and he now believes aquaponics is the way to go. After receiving a small grant to build his own aquaponics system, he started coaching others on building their own systems. He has developed course curriculum and websites, taught classes on the topic, and even presented the information to government officials. He says it addresses agricultural and societal hurdles such as “labour, water scarcity, waste, and cost issues.”

Our interview turned into a bit of a lesson plan for starting up your own business. Weir has a way of turning the conversation on you, so that it’s no longer about him; suddenly he’s teaching you the essentials of starting up a business so you don’t run into the same problems he encountered. There have been a lot of challenges with starting the farm, and Weir insists doing it alone isn’t the way to go: “the more support the better,” he says. He recommends that you “don’t buy anything new for your farm. Borrow or buy used equipment.” And, he says a key principle to the success of any entrepreneurial venture is to keep money for your business and money for your living expenses totally separate.

Weir hard at work on the farm

Weir, hard at work on the farm

Although Weir made it clear he’s had a rough couple of years starting the farm, he doesn’t want to discourage those interested in pursuing urban farming or gardening. “It can be difficult” he says, stating he put in eighteen hour days for months and noted challenges such as unexpected costs, poor land conditions, and crop failure, but he reflects saying “it’s one of those things where you have so much adversity before you, but also so much support behind you to help you succeed.” Now that the farm is seeing it’s last growing season, Weir isn’t worried; he says the land will most likely be sectioned off into growing plots for restaurant owners and the potential for growing will continue.

In the meantime, he’s had plenty of other commitments to keep him busy. He is a permanent board member of the University of Calgary Student Union Sustainability Board, the Parkdale Community Association Garden Community, and CJSW Radio Station. He has also been Vice President Operations and Finance of the UofC Students’ Union. He recently received one of three Calgary Arch Alumni awards given to future graduates the university deems “the innovators of tomorrow.”

He hopes urban farming continues to grow in Calgary, but more importantly he hopes that the “core values that go along with urban farming such as promoting organic and sustainably produced food and community involvement are integrated and supported on all farms that are local to us.”

If you’re hanging around the UofC campus, keep an eye out for Scott Weir. He’s happy to share useful information and knowledge gained through his many successful ventures. However busy, he always makes time to credit all those who have inspired him and helped him along the way. A future leader in sustainable practices, Scott Weir has the passion, focus, and credentials to keep us all on the right path toward meaningful economies and communities.

Mohamed Hage

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Growing abundance on Montreal rooftops

Article by: Marta 

Passionate about growing food and hydroponics, Mohamed Hage is revolutionizing the agriculture industry with his rooftop greenhouses.

Passionate about growing food and hydroponics, Mohamed Hage is revolutionizing the agriculture industry with his rooftop greenhouses.

Scattered throughout the city of Montreal are pick-up points, where Montrealers have access to rare varieties of vegetables that you won’t find at your local grocery store. They are fresh, have never seen a refrigerator, and were grown right in the heart of Montreal. These veggies have been grown through the mechanisms of hydroponic technology on rooftop greenhouses, thanks to a new company called Lufa Farms.

Eyes beaming, founder and president Mohamed Hage explains the inner workings of the farm and how it can bring people closer to their food and promote a sustainable lifestyle for those living in cities. It uses no new land, and harnesses heat energy usually lost through the rooftops of existing buildings as well as heat energy from the sun. It harvests rainwater and circulates nutrient-rich water within the greenhouse. There’s no waste, close to no fossil fuel inputs, a lot less packaging than conventional methods, and no synthetic pesticides are used in the process.

It’s no surprise that in 2011, after the grand opening of the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse, universities and people from a diversity of communities wanted to check out the agricultural transformation happening within Montreal. Lufa Farms now offers open house tours to those interested in the farm, giving consumers a direct link to their food.

Mohamed is revolutionizing the agricultural industry, reworking the system, and giving his clientele a chance to be involved in the process. Originally from Lebanon, he says his inspiration stems from the already self-sustaining village he grew up in, where growing sustainably and responsibly is “nothing new.” But, he sees farmers slowly getting roped into the same pesticide-promoting monoculture farming practices we’ve seen happen to our farms here in Canada and what’s more he says, “they’re not able to make a decent living.”

Rainbow Chard grown with hydroponics in Lufa's rooftop greenhouse

Rainbow Chard grown with hydroponics in Lufa’s rooftop greenhouse

Hearing Canadian and Lebanese farmers’ difficulties with today’s agricultural practices catapulted Hage into what seems to be his innate talent for coming up with sound and efficient ways of addressing our global agricultural hurdles. “There are solutions, and people want change,” says Hage. He sees Canada being a global leader in shaping “Earth 2.0,” where we tackle environmental and social issues in a responsible way and set an example for the rest of the world.

A self-proclaimed “lover of technology,” Mohamed has the credentials and knowledge to back up his passions. Having studied electrical engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, he says he’s always been interested in hydroponics and a plethora of environmental technologies. In his spare time, Hage can be found building solar panels or learning how to generate electricity from water.

Clearly a workaholic, Mohamed laughs saying “he feels bad when he goes on vacation” and, always humble, gives credit to his entire team, stating that he “surrounds himself with the best people,” describing his co-founders Lauren and Kirk as his mentors.

A leader in the green movement and the epitome of meaningful work, Mohamed Hage is facilitating change and paving the way for sustainable and responsible agriculture everywhere, starting right here in Canada.