Robert Guilford operates an organic beef and grain farm near the town of Clearwater, Manitoba. Robert and wife Celia began the transition to organics in 1987 and by 1992 they were completely organic. Sustainable systems have been an important part of the Guilford farm, and the family has wanted to share this knowledge with others. For many years the Guildford have dreamed of offering courses on sustainable agriculture in and around their community.
The Transition to Organics
Celia Guilford spent two months in California to partake in a permaculture certification course, at that time the only permaculture course offered in North America. When Celia returned she and Robert saw the opportunity to make a similar course available in Canada. They approached a community college in Winnipeg with the idea of co-hosting the course, but unfortunately no one at the institution had time to commit to the course.
A few years later, a WWOOFer (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) working on the farm introduced Robert and Celia to Stéphane McLachlan, a professor at the University of Manitoba. Stéphane had been doing a lot of work with indigenous groups, but had also begun working with agricultural producers, and he quickly took an interest in the idea of hosting a rural course through the University.
Rural and Urban
In addition to the organic farm both Celia and Robert have off farm jobs, so the family knew they had to bring more people on side in order for their dream to become reality. So with land owners, farmers, and university students from Winnipeg, Celia, Robert and Stéphane formed the Harvest Moon Society. The Society is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and environmental education. The link that has been formed between rural and urban people has become an important part of the Society’s mandate; the group works to bridge consumers and producers, and to make urban residents aware of farming practices and where their food comes from.
“Your life keeps on going, it’s very much a spare time process kind of thing. Spare time is very rare these days, to say the least,” says Robert.
A Centre for Sustainable Education
Celia worried about hosting a few dozen strangers on the farm for a course, so in 2001 when the opportunity of buying the town’s former elementary school came about, the Society considered the idea of moving into the school. The Harvest Moon Society put in a $1 bid alongside one other bid for $10,000. The HMS plan was to develop the school into a Learning Centre for rural and environmental sustainability. After a long three-year bidding and review process, the school division granted the building to the Harvest Moon Society.
In a small town like Clearwater it did not take long for word to travel about the Guilfords’ plans for the school. The Harvest Moon Society held four town hall meetings to inform the community more about their plans and to get feedback from the community. The community was extremely supportive of the Guilfords’ plans, which would keep the school an active and vibrant place in the community.
The town of Clearwater is small but full of activity. Volunteer time is in high demand and spare time is rare. Between the two rinks, sports club, two churches, a cooperatively run restaurant, a community hall, and an agricultural museum (to name only a few), the community is kept very busy. When a new project is in development in town it isn’t always easy to find people able to commit a lot of their time, thus outside involvement from Winnipeggers has certainly contributed to the development of the HMS and the Learning Centre. The community has helped whenever possible. According to Robert, “it’s sort of like we have a credit for a couple days of the year. Everybody will come and help you, whatever you are doing, whether it’s the curling rink or the school or the hall.”
To date, the Harvest Moon Society has hosted an organic farm mentorship program, two University of Manitoba accredited courses, architecture design studio programs, and an organic crop and livestock farm inspector certification course through the Assiniboine Community College. In cooperation with a Winnipeg-based Ecumenical coalition and University of Winnipeg, the HMS hosted a component of the Manitoba Food Justice Camp. In collaboration with the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada the Society has hosted Organic Crop Production Workshops.
The organic mentorship program was the first course offered through the society and was run on the Guilford farm. There was no affiliation to an established university or college. A little funding was found through the Sustainable Development Innovations Fund (SDIF) but for the most part this course was pulled together with whatever resources were on the farm. Subsequent courses have been affiliated with other education institutes, and thus there has been a source of funding aside from the Society.
Economic sustainability in rural Manitoba is one of the principles of the Society. HMS is working to install an oil press in the school, whereby the oils will be marketed along with other products under a Harvest Moon label. Plans are developing to construct a commercial kitchen in one of the old classrooms. The kitchen will be a place to develop value-added products for sale locally and to the wider Manitoba Community. The Centre will also be a place for local producers to market their meats, and grains.
For Robert the project has given a sense of hope in revitalizing rural communities, and has created a sense excitement in communities. As a centre for economic activity, it is hoped that young people will see the potential of their rural communities, and that the Centre will draw new people to the rural landscape. As Robert puts it, “the way I see it, it’s not a big business thing; the way small towns are going to survive is a small business.”
The Harvest Moon Learning Centre will be developed into a place for tourism. The Society envisions a place where people can stop in to buy local goods, help out in the garden, have a cup of coffee and read about a related topic in the library.
A Space for All
The Harvest Moon Learning Centre has become a space where people can further develop their skills and share these skills with others. The Centre is a collective learning space. Stéphane describes the Centre as ‘a mosaic of people with a diversity of skills and experiences’. There is no central position for the Centre; rather it is a place for all people with an interest in rural communities and environments. The Harvest Moon Learning Centre is a place for people to plug into and share their skills.
“The center is open to all these ideas and open to change and allowed to evolve and become different thing to different people,” says Stéphane McLachlan.
Unfortunately this diverse approach of the society has led to difficulty in securing funding for the society. Communicating their vision to funding groups has been difficult as there are many goals and themes to the society.
The Harvest Moon Learning Centre is also home to the community nursery school, 4H club, and a young mothers group. The groups help with some of the maintenance of the Centre. A nominal rent is paid by the nursery school, and the group also covers the expense for building inspections for fire regulations.
To date all work has been volunteer and funding has come from government and other funding programs. The Society hopes to see the Centre become self-sustaining in the near future. Sources of income will be found through the direct marketing of farm products, the Harvest Moon Festival and the courses and workshops offered at the Centre. It is hoped that the Society will be able to hire staff to improve and increase the day to day activities and planning at the Centre.