‘I think it’s totally shameful’: Former U of Guelph organic farm volunteers say property should be utilized during COVID-19

 A video showing the state of the farm in 2019 by Bravissimo Films. 

A change in leadership, a change in direction

In September 2019, it was revealed that the Honey Bee Research Centre would be moving onto the farm, potentially taking up 80 per cent of the certified organic hectare the farm sits on. 

Houle, along with former farm manager Martha Gay Scroggins, publicly criticized the proposed change. Scroggins said the university “steamrolled us” and that “there’s going to be no farm left.”

The university didn’t renew her contract for 2020. It isn’t clear who initiated her leaving. Scroggins, in her 60’s, has not replied to a request for comment.

To effectively replace her, U of G prof. Barry Micallef was brought in.

Asked for an interview, Micallef instead sent multiple detailed emails, stating that he was “extremely busy presently with the organic farm and in the interview process.”

According to him, he had his work cut out for him when taking over the farm. 

Micallef stated there were “a myriad of health and safety issues” that needed to be handled at the farm, and that Scroggins had let it go over the last two years. For example, he said there were about “1500 clay bricks” and “1000’s of rocks” that needed to be removed.

“We also removed 100’s of burlap sacs that were buried in pathways, in part because about 25 per cent of them contained oil-based paint in wax, which is not allowed in a certified organic farm and could have compromised the certified status,” he stated.

Since the farm is designated a research property, not a community garden, Micallef stated only two people are allowed there at a time, due to provincial pandemic protocols. So he and his wife have been working six hours a day, 6 days a week.

Micallef stated according to volunteer log books, more hours have been put into the farm this year than years past, by he and his wife alone.

He also relieved Houle of her position as volunteer coordinator, a few days after taking over officially on May 1.

Since his appointment, Micallef has tightened access to the farm. Drop-in volunteers are no longer permitted, and no trespassing signs dot the property along with signs noting it’s closed for COVID-19.

Houle said the signs regarding COVID-19 are just an excuse.

“Because we had everything up and running (in the spring). We had all the upper field ready. We had all the beds, compost to the cloud, everything was ready. And then this one came in like a wrecking ball and they got rid of us,” she said, noting community gardens were allowed to reopen weeks ago. 

On May 12, an elderly former farm volunteer rode her bike onto the farm to check on her work. She allegedly had her arm broken by a campus security guard while he handcuffed her for trespassing.

In his emails, Micallef said that he’s looking to hire a new farm coordinator. Once that’s done, he stated he can focus on planting the space, adding he hopes to increase production at the farm by five times, lower the cost of fruits and veggies at the market, and have a harvest ready for this fall. 

Houle said the land is “a goner” and they’ll have to either use pesticides or plow everything under.

She worries what Scroggins will think when she sees the state of the farm.

“I would never show her these pictures. It really is for her like a labour of love,” Houle said.

Likewise, she said she fears what will happen to the community that grew alongside the vegetables.

“But it’s the moral indignation that ‘Canada’s food university’ would be pulling this stunt.”

“They should be calling us and begging us to go plant that land. Even if they say, ‘we’ll make an exception. For this year only, you can think of it as a community garden.’ Make it happen. We would do it in a heartbeat.”


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