Flying Dust Market Garden growing

Trainee Salina Merasty-Morin shells freshly picked peas from the Riverside Market Garden on the Flying Dust First Nation. Workers were busy preparing the weekly order for the Meadow Lake Co-op.

By Rhonda Cooper

Consumers looking to buy local produce now have a viable source from which to buy.

For the second year, Flying Dust First Nation’s Riverside Market Garden vegetables can be found in Meadow Lake locations.

The garden has grown exponentially in size, from the two acres planted in 2009, it expanded to six acres last year and currently encompasses 12 acres.

Seven of those are dedicated to potatoes and the remaining five to mixed vegetables and fruit. Plans are in the works to add another eight acres of potatoes to next year’s crop bringing the total to 20 acres.

“The idea had been kicking around the office for a number of years,” said Susan Merasty co-manager and one of the founding directors of the garden.

The five founding directors brought Len Sawatsy on board to get the project up and going.

“I teach the Green Certificate courses and am the co-manager of the garden,” he said.

Sawatsky helps to secure grants for the project as well as offering planting and harvesting advice regarding the produce. The garden is working towards being deemed organic.

“You must farm three years without any use of chemical before the organic certification can be given,” said Sawatsky.

The group is well on its way to achieving that goal, as the land that is now cultivated for produce was once chemical-free hay land. The board is already exploring the idea of adding some small livestock like chickens and sheep to the project, as a means of obtaining organic fertilizer.

Marie Prebushewski, a co-operative developer for the west side of the province was approached by the group while she was working in Big River establishing an artisans co-op.

“I came on board in 2010,” said Prebushewski. “By June 2011 we had all the by-laws in place and on June 28 they received their certification as a worker co-operative.”

The group’s desire and drive have impressed Prebushewski. Their goal to remain organic has led the group to look at future expansions that will help them grow their business.

“They have big ideas,” she said.

Since the first year the garden has continued to grow and add new items. The west side of the land is being developed into an orchard where fruits such as apples, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, hascap berries and saskatoons are grown.

This year, a half a dozen rows of flowers, which are picked and bundled into bouquets then sold were introduced. This was also the first year for cauliflower and broccoli and should some cold frames get built during the off season, green peppers will be part of next year’s crop.

Creating a source of healthy, readily available food for members of Flying Dust First Nation residents was only part of the equation. The garden offers training and seasonal employment for those who once relied on social assistance.

The practice of sharing food with other members of Flying Dust who are in need will continue to be part of Riverside’s mandate, but its top goal is to ensure the project is financially sustainable.

Amber Jodoin, produce operator at the Meadow Lake Co-op Marketplace began placing orders with Riverside Market Garden last year.

“Lots of people asked if we have locally grown stuff,” she said.

Because of the wet spring vegetables are late this year and the Co-op just received its second order last Thursday. Jodoin noted the beans are probably their bestseller while the lettuce is not quite as popular.

“I think it’s because so many people have their own gardens and they grow their own,” she said.

Some of the other produce the store buys includes swiss chard, peas, herbs, potatoes and carrots. These items are identified with flags and signs that say ‘Locally Grown.’

As the garden grows in size so do the employment and marketing opportunities. Merasty would like to increase the garden’s workforce by 10 each year, providing work for more Flying Dust First Nations residents.

A larger workforce will be necessary if negotiations with a major wholesale company serving the prairie provinces, northwest Ontario, Nunavat and the Northwest Territories are successful.

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