Epekwitk Gardens & Preserves engages youth through land stewardship

The Epekwitk Gardens and Preserves project began five years ago when leaders of the First Nation community felt it was important to create an opportunity for their future generations. Reconnecting youth to their ancestral roots of stewardship and community was identified as a priority for the Band.

According to Chief Brian Francis, the idea of a youth-led garden transpired rather naturally for the group. “We are stewards of the land and we wanted to do something that reflected that. We were trying to create something for our future, and the youth are our future. We decided to embark upon a social enterprise that would bring about transferable skills for our youth and the community,” Francis said.

With plans to extend the garden located on the Scotchfort Reservation from four acres to 10 acres this spring, and to begin construction on new infrastructure within two years, the project is on schedule to become a sustainable enterprise within four years. Dray LaBobe, Brezlyn Knockwood, Stephanie Leslie, and Brandi Jadis are the vanguards behind this youth-led project which began humbly in 2013. “These guys are leaders, there is nothing like this happening east of Montreal,” said Stephen Cousins, organic farmer, former youth pastor, and coordinator of the Epekwitk youth-led garden project.

Stephanie Leslie//submitted photo

The youth of the Epekwitk Gardens are looking forward to the day when they can sell direct from a storefront location on the reservation. The new structure, proposed to be built within two years, will house a wash station, cold storage space, type one kitchen, a storefront, and will offer cooking and culinary classes for their community and the public at large. “We hope to be mentoring people to possibly be where we are at today. That is the end goal, that we move on and pass this to someone else and let them feel what we feel; which is tremendous success and gratitude for what we have,” Knockwood said.

Brezyln Knockwood//submitted photo

The team engages in farm duties during the growing season and planning and workshop opportunities during the winter months. The group oversees every aspect of the garden and its contents, from production to processing, distribution, marketing and sales, and even catering events. “I am interested in the marketing and social media aspect of the garden, while others are interested in the gardening part of it, we all play our own part,” Leslie said. Last summer Epekwitk sold their produce and preserves at the Farm Centre Farmers Market on Thursday evenings and catered multiple events for the public, even catering for the Premier’s office on one occasion.

Though they are not certified, Epekwitk Gardens employs organic principles on all of their crops, with the intent of becoming certified in the future. The group also experiments with subsistence strategies, including potato mounds, practiced by their aboriginal ancestors. In addition to crops, Epekwitk Gardens are tending to pigs on Cousins’ farm, and preparing for beef cattle and meat chickens this spring.

The Epekwitk Gardens project offers an opportunity to learn the hard skills associated with agriculture and enterprise, as well as the soft skills that are a direct spinoff of growing food in a community setting. Personal skills including confidence, communication, and self-awareness are incorporated into the project curriculum. The group works together intentionally, to create an environment of pleasure, fun, support, and overcoming their fear of failure. “Honestly, it builds up my confidence and makes me look forward to my life and not just sit around and dwell on things. A lot of us, if you look around, we wouldn’t be this way. It took a lot of years for us to get here,” LaBobe said.

Brandi Jadis//submitted photo

Cousins and the youth recognize that success and sustainability of the project come from the culture of care that they create. Jadis said, “We kind of created our own environment. We grew close with Steve and he grew close with us and it just kind of happened because it needed to happen. We are really a family.”

About Hanna Hameline

Hanna is a graduate of UPEI with a B.A. in Sociology. She has completed trainings in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Shambhala Meditation, and Maritime Yoga College 200-HR Yoga teacher training program. Hanna currently works as the communications coordinator for the PEI Certified Organic Producers Co-operative and has volunteered with PEI Food Security Network, ECO PEI, The Voluntary Resource Centre, and Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. She warmly invites you to contact her with any food lovin’ stories or ideas you would like written about.

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