Chef Turned Farmer: Charles’ Story

My Journey: Becoming a Farmer
Written by Charles Catchpole

Gitigaanes, Little Farm

How it all began: Twitter! One evening my wife was surfing Twitter and came across a tweet that Flemo Farm was looking for an Urban Indigenous Farmer. “What do you think?” she asked. “That’s cool!” I replied. A pause and she repeats “Well? What do you think?” thinking maybe she didn’t hear me I said “I said that sounds cool!” A third time “Well? What do you think? Are you going to apply?” I spun around puzzled by the question I asked “Why would I apply? I am not a farmer, I am a chef.” She proceeded to look into it and arranged a call with Carl Leslie. He encouraged me to apply as well. Reluctantly, after a LOT of persuasion, and little confidence in this I applied. When we got the email and call from Carl that I was accepted as one of the community farmers I was excited and nervous and repeated in my head over and over ‘What have I got myself into?’ 

Next came the planning and the research and reading, lots of reading. Choosing what crops I wanted to grow, choosing the varieties of those crops. Learning about the seeds, their history, their story. A story I need to tell [on their behalf]. 

Full of excitement and nerves I was proud when we all started being hands on at the farm. The rewarding feeling of touching the ground, hands in the soil, placing those seeds in the ground, the smells, the anticipation of what’s to come. I recall thinking this new venture needs to be documented, needs to be remembered, needs a name! Gitigaanes was named by my wife’s Auntie Florence as she explained it comes from two Ojibway words ‘giti’-little, ‘gaanes’-farm. Miigwetch Auntie. The Gitigaanes logo was a painting done by my late father-in-law, Henry [Najeensh]. As this was all developing I couldn’t help the overwhelming feeling of “This, this right here, this is what I am supposed to be doing.” I had found a calling I didn’t know I was looking for. 

As the season went on I learned something daily at the farm, from the crops breaking ground — identifying what’s good, what’s a weed — to watching them grow and flower. Learning how to prune, protect from pests, monitor water intake, harvest and store… so much more. My journey to becoming a farmer was under way. 

Flemo/FoodShare

Stage 2: Then comes the next opportunity: the job posting for Flemo Farm Senior Assistant Trainee. Once again I was reluctant to pursue this, I didn’t know if I was ready to make the commitment to be a full time employee of the farm as well. Again after much persuasion I applied. So now I am also an employee of FoodShare and Flemo Farm! I was excited to learn about other crops. My first week I planted and transplanted approximately 1200 seeds and plants. New things that I would never have imagined planting myself: okra, eggplant and more. I was learning more than just about the plants and seeds. I was learning about the setup, the infrastructure, the irrigation system, the equipment (putting it together), building of supports in the field, soil management, preparation for end of season, full circle, the building blocks of a farm. 

Community Farmers

As one of the community farmers I was fortunate to meet and become friends with the other five. If it wasn’t for Flemo Farm I doubt our paths would ever have crossed. I got to know their stories, their ideas, their farming techniques and their backgrounds. They too have a story to tell and I was happy to be part of it. As an employee of the farm one of my duties was to spend time working with and helping with their farms.  Yet another blessing. It was fascinating to see the different growing strategies. The different crops that I got to see grow and tend too as well — bitter melon, Asian long beans, ginger, turmeric, hibiscus/roselle/sorrel/Jamaica, bok choy, gourds — so many plants that I am familiar cooking with but now also know how they grow. More new found knowledge. Miigwetch (thank you) Alisha, Alysha, Lal, Shamima and Zakera. 

Staff Connections, Volunteers and the Community

The Flemingdon Park Community: 

In the beginning weeks of the farm it was a daily occurrence that I would have people walking by, stop and talk to me asking what was going on and excited to have this happening in their neighbourhood. One day I even had a TTC driver on his break pull the bus over and tell me how everyday he drove by he took pictures to send home to his mother because the farm reminded him of home and his dads’ farm as a kid. This farm is clearly appreciated by the community. As the season went on people would walk by, stop and say “Hi, Charles!” Even though I don’t live there I have a connection to the neighbourhood now and feel I am accepted and part of it. 

The Volunteers:

I can’t imagine the farm without this wonderful group of smiling faces. Local people who had an interest in agriculture. They were eager and enthusiastic and put in so many hours of their own time because they wanted to. Helping from weeding, planting, pruning, harvesting whatever was needed they did with a smile. Not all of them but a special mention to a few: Joyce, Seyed, Libby, Ping and ‘my team’ Aaisha & Umar.

The Staff:

Sarah and Rawan- I had so much fun over the summer working with them both. Two young, vibrant community members. They both brought a young energy to the farm; lots of fun and lots of laughs. They helped with pretty much everything and I hope they are back this upcoming season. 

Javad- Thank you for organizing the market and looking after the distribution of the harvest.

Carl- Thank you for believing in me before I did. This journey wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for you. I know at times I asked too many questions, and maybe got on your nerves a little. Your guidance and passed on knowledge I now possess and have forever. I wouldn’t call myself a farmer until the full season was completed. You’re not a marathon runner until you finish the race. You’re not a farmer till you have completed a season. Finally, I AM A FARMER.

Lastly, Germaine, my wife- thank you for nudging me, thank you for your strength and thank you for being on Twitter.