Growing growers at UBC Farm

Growing up on a 220-acre farm in Delta, Jared Singh knows good soil from bad. But less familiar is the notion of towing mobile henhouses from field to field as part of crop rotation to enrich the soil.

“I’m learning that animal manure can be used to create valuable, high quality compost,” says Singh, who since March has been involved with the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm.

Singh is one of 10 students in the Sustainable Agriculture Practicum Program that provides hands-on experience, from natural pest control to cleaning produce for food safety. They grow vegetables on a small personal plot of land and cultivate the larger UBC Farm fields. During the eight-month program, they also delve into business aspects such as different distribution models and networks.

“That’s why I came to UBC. I want to figure out how to make a living while doing it sustainably,” says Singh, whose family owns Hakim and Sons Farm Ltd. along the Fraser River.

Singh says the family’s agricultural roots go back four generations to the early 1900s, when his great-grandfather emigrated to B.C. from India and worked as a farm labourer. His grandfather started a dairy farm but subsequent generations sold off the herd and focused instead on growing vegetables. Singh’s father, now retired, specialized in potato production.

Singh, 24, took some time to decide to become a “career farmer.” After high school, he worked briefly in construction and took some horticulture classes at a nearby college. However, the appeal of increasing food security and land stewardship has grown exponentially, he says. “Farming makes sense since I have the acreage. Besides, growing food is such a direct way of giving back to society. Both my parents are really excited and want to help out.”

With his first growing season in 2013, Singh plans on starting small with a few acres of carrots, lettuce, spinach and broccoli. His long-term goal is to obtain organic certification while testing out various distribution channels, such as farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA)—where customers subscribe for regular deliveries of just-picked produce.

“Delta is a very small community where we all know each other, so I think community-supported agriculture might work really well here.”

Piloted in 2004 and officially launched in 2008, UBC’s Sustainable Agriculture Practicum Program has graduated four cohorts—a total of 35 students.  More than half have gone on to start their own farms. For example, Sarah McMillan and Simone MacIsaac hit it off while doing their practicum in 2008. A year later, they set up Rootdown Organic Farm, a two-acre property near Pemberton.

“That first year was really scary,” recalls McMillan. “We discovered that the soil hadn’t been farmed before and lacked a lot of nutrients. Another surprise was dealing with the pests in the region like the flea beetle which was devouring our brassica (cabbage family) plants.”

A piece of advice she gives practicum students is to take a notebook into the UBC Farm fields and write everything down. “My notes helped me a lot. I was constantly referring to them.”

Now entering their fourth growing season, Rootdown is more solid, says McMillan, with two apprentices and innovations like the “pig share” program. McMillan and MacIsaac are raising 16 Tamworth pigs, a breed known for its high quality meat. For a $150 deposit, customers invest in half or a whole pig which will be raised and then slaughtered in the fall.

“I sent an email to our regular customers and within 24 hours, the pig shares were sold out. I never imagined it would be so popular.”

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