Spring onions are growing at Macdonald College in Ste-Anne-de Bellevue and, within days in the greenhouse, tomatoes, peppers and asparagus will join them.
Although few suburban gardeners have started planting, horticulturist Mike Bleho has been busy since mid-March, tilling soil and gearing up for another banner growing season at the McGill University farm.
Last year, the bulk of the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed at four of McGill’s downtown student residences was grown on the 25-acre Mac farm dating back to the 1890s.
Since 2010, Bleho, the farm’s chief horticulture technician, and Oliver De Volpi, executive chef for McGill Food and Dining Services, have been working together on a sustainable agriculture venture called Feeding McGill.
Honoured last month by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and Deloitte Canada for its innovation and leadership, the win-win green initiative has meant fresher produce on McGill tables and a new and much needed revenue stream for the Mac farm.
“Nobody put two and two together before,” said De Volpi.
“We thought ‘Why don’t we get together?’ ” said Bleho, recalling the day he met De Volpi for the first time and the idea for the farm-to-table partnership was sparked. De Volpi was on a tour of the Mac farm and market.
Since then, some 40,000 kilograms of fresh farm produce has changed hands over the past three summers, including 60 per cent of the fresh fruit that went into the 10,400-pound Guinness Book world record fruit salad produced at McGill last August.
“It’s a mixed model,” De Volpi said of the business arrangement. “I pay Mike the going rate and he gets to use the money to create student jobs, do research and buy new equipment.”
In return, De Volpi said, the downtown food service department ends up with fresher produce for its needs — 10,000 to 12,000 meals daily half of them hot — as well as a say in the farm operation.
Last week, Bleho sat down with De Volpi and four other chefs to discuss this year’s crops and projected harvest times, mid-August just as students filter back to campus.
This year, McGill food and dining services will purchase close to $40,000 woth of fresh produce, including eggs — up from $5,000 in the first year of the venture.
This year, seven Mac students will be hired full time and another 25 part time to work the farm and man the Mac market, which will open Aug. 1.
“It’s very practical,” said Bleho of the hands-on experience the students from the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition obtain.
In addition to the fields and apple orchard, there’s composting, rainwater collection, integrated pest management — for example, wasps are being used this year to eat worm larvae before they attack pepper plants — and numerous other projects on the go.
Three new “high tunnels,” long, plastic covers that extend the growing season and protect the plants from pests, are going up this spring over the rhubarb crop.
“It’s a whole different class of produce,” De Volpi said. “I stand by it: The tomatoes are the best in the world.
“Everything is produced in a much more sustainable way,” he added, citing eggs a perfect example.
Until last November, McGill’s food and dining service department was paying $45-a-case for eggs it purchased from Burnbrae Farms, a large family-owned company with farms, grading stations and distribution centres in Ontario and Quebec. At the same time, the Mac farm was selling the eggs it produced to Burnbrae for $22-a-case.
De Volpi said he and Bleho realized if Mac farm obtained the necessary credentials to grade its own eggs per federal regulations, the $23-a-case difference could be funnelled back into the school — no small amount given the 350 dozen eggs McGill food and dining services uses weekly.
“It was a 2 1/2 to 3 week circle,” he said of the previous production cycle that saw the eggs go from the Mac farm to Burnbrae operations in Ontario and Quebec before finally arriving at McGill.
“Now we are paying the same price and we are getting our eggs as fresh as a day or two,” said De Volpi.”It was another case of putting two and two together.”