Eight students launch innovative urban agriculture projects

Eight Durham College (DC) students made the most of the RBC Urban Agriculture Work Integrated Learning Program this year, giving them valuable hands-on learning experience and the opportunity to bring an idea to life.

The grant program is a partnership between RBC and DC’s Barrett Centre of Innovation in Sustainable Urban Agriculture. Students from a wide range of DC’s programs used their unique expertise and experience to launch innovative urban agriculture projects thanks to $5,000 in funding each.

“It’s great to see what the students were able to accomplish in such a short period of time,” said Brenna Bizley, partnership manager, Barrett Centre. “We really wanted to see how urban agriculture could play a role across different disciplines in different industries and different faculties. It was great to see students that we don’t interact with on a daily basis here at the Whitby campus or at our farm doing projects and implementing those in the community.”

Most of the project leaders have recently graduated from DC, and they will continue to develop their projects as businesses. That wouldn’t have been possible without the grant program.

“We were able to match each of our students up with an RBC mentor to support them, so they could really be set up for success after graduation and after the program.”

Here’s a closer look at this year’s projects, with Bizley’s thoughts on each.

Cassandra Carr, Horticulture – Food and Farming – “Rewind Your Food”

Not everyone has room for a big backyard garden, so this project focused on helping people grow food in whatever space they can find. Carr met with clients to discuss their ideas, and then helped them set up a workable growing space, from pots to raised beds, in-ground to hydroponic.

“I wanted to help people grow their own food because so many people don’t know how, and it’s such a simple thing to do,” said Carr.

Bizley – “Cassandra’s project worked directly with the community to help them learn about gardening in their own spaces, and it’s great to see the message of urban agriculture being shared with new community members!”

Natalie Cox, Horticulture – Food and Farming – “Durham College Farmer’s Market expansion”

Two-time DC graduate Natalie Cox lent her comprehensive horticultural knowledge to the cause of expanding and improving the Durham College Farmer’s Market. With her guidance, the Market added a stop at the Oshawa campus, and welcomed new businesses run by students and alumni. She also incorporated her passion for growing more culturally appropriate crops to serve one of the fastest growing Caribbean communities in Canada. 

“I love urban agriculture because it forces me to think outside the box and it really taps into my creativity,” said Cox. “It was a fantastic experience.”

Bizley – “Natalie’s project was an incredible way to see how DC could produce more nutrient dense and culturally appropriate foods, while also connecting with more vendors in the community.”

Paul Fritzsch, Horticulture – Food and Farming – “Urban Farm Solutions”

With Urban Farm Solutions, Paul Fritzsch transforms underutilized urban spaces into productive gardens. He and his team install, maintain and harvest the gardens, and then deliver the freshly grown produce to local non-profits and charities. His successful partnership with Colliers Canada has grown and donated over 250 kilograms of food to Community Care Durham.

“I’m able to see the food go from where we’ve grown it all the way to the consumer, seeing the difference that makes and the reaction that we get. It’s great to see it come full circle,” he said.

Bizley – “Paul’s project is a great example of growing a successful business within the urban agriculture industry, building on what was started while he was a student at Durham College!”

Hamez Hammad, Supply Chain and Operations – Business – “Online Sign-Up System for Community Garden Volunteers”

Those who really want a garden but don’t have room at home will be interested in this project, an online volunteer sign-up system for Durham Region’s community gardens. Hammad’s digital platform streamlines the volunteer process, automates communication, and schedules tasks. 

Bizley – “Hamez’s project is helping community gardeners accurately and simply track volunteers, which is a great way to help members spend more time growing food instead of coordinating schedules! We look forward to seeing how this solution can be shared with other community gardens.”

Bei Jia, Computer Programming and Analysis – “Home-Grown Harvest”

With this project, Jia created a website to provide content that will help families design their ideal gardens. Additionally, she provided materials and seeds to help them get started. She kicked things off in July with a successful event that welcomed more than 100 people, where she distributed planting kits.

“I hope to create my own seed brand in the future to provide detailed seed and planting technology services for the community,” she said.

Bizley – “Bei’s project was a great example of giving back to the community and engaging in new ways with urban agriculture.”

Matthew McCready, Horticulture Technician – “My Garden Plotter”

This unique project created a fun and accessible way to help people build their ideal garden. Inspired by his passion for card games, McCready created one of his own. After taking a survey, players can filter through a deck of plant cards to plot out their new garden. Every garden can fit in a 12-foot by 12-foot space, and the process accounts for important considerations like space and climate.

“It’s a very simple and approachable way for people to get a better idea of what they can put in their gardens,” he said. “People who aren’t tech savvy can sit down and do this with just a pen and paper and a deck of cards.”

Bizley – “Matthew is bringing agriculture to the urban community through exciting and dynamic learning opportunities, and I can’t wait to see the engagement that comes from this!”

Labiba Raisa, Graphic Design – “Community Seed and Seedling Program”

This project focused on an informative exchange and giveaway program for seeds and seedlings to help people grow a wide variety of food in whatever space they had available. Garden plants and crops included mint, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, zucchini, potato, onion, garlic, leek, pear, apple, strawberry, raspberry, pepper and more. Those with balconies and indoor spaces were also included with different vegetables, fruits and herbs.

“Our goal is to teach people about the importance of planting in urban communities, and increase participation in food production,” said Raisa.

Bizley – “Labiba worked so amazingly within the community to share vegetable seeds and knowledge with people who were interested in growing their own food. It’s great to see this project helping so many people across Durham Region to address food insecurity!”

Dawn Whitney, Welding Engineering Technician – “Earth Cellar Farms”

Whitney and three of her DC classmates launched Earth Cellar Farms, an urban farm with big plans. They produce a number of artisanal harvested products like sauces, jams and jellies, pickles and hot sauce. They also work in community gardens and hold workshops to teach others the fine arts of growing plants and crops.

Bizley – “It’s exciting to see Dawn’s project and business grow from a group of students starting a business while at DC to a successful urban agriculture business in the community!”

Plans aren’t finalized yet, but Bizley hopes to keep the program going next year and well into the future.

It was amazing working with RBC.  They were really supportive of urban agriculture and launching student ideas,” she said. “It was a really successful first year, and I’m excited to continue doing this in the future.”