Interview with Patrick Colvin, Permaculturalist, Engineer, Urban Farmer

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By Sean Yoon

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 4.18.17 PMA lifestyle that promotes healthy living by integrating nature into our daily lives, permaculture is an ongoing dialogue in our community. Last summer, Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society, or VACS began its permaculture project around Vancouver called placemaking, transforming public spaces like front boulevards into gardens. One of these spaces was a front boulevard site converted into a pollinator garden on 23rd and Mackenzie. 
Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 4.27.20 PMVACS has begun a new permaculture project for this year called Permaculture InAction. As one of the project’s leaders, Patrick Colvin was born and raised in a small city in Northern Ontario. He then went on to complete his bachelors of honours in engineering at Queen’s University in South Ontario. Throughout his degree, Patrick was discovering and wanting to address issues that are currently afflicting our society. In particular, he was concerned with the environmental issues arising from the chemical industry, which in many cases, has produced chemical waste destructive to our environment. The city of Sarnia in Southern Ontario for example, close to where Patrick studied, is a region that is host to numerous chemical facilities. And in Sarnia, there is a river called the St. Clair River that has a history of having chemical waste being dumped into it by local chemical facilities. The St. Clair River is currently still being listed as an area of concern because of chemical pollutants. 

“Permaculture is interesting because it provides an alternative way of thinking. It’s a different way of looking at what we do as a people on the planet. It brings together plants, our land and us as stewards of the land – it allows us to reimagine this world that we live in. For me there’s a lot to learn about and I feel like I can contribute in a meaningful way by doing simple things like working at a farmer’s stand, and by experiencing what urban farming is like. I want to see urban farming become something that people can actually do and earn a good living by providing food, gardens and healthy environments for people that they want to nourish.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 4.17.38 PMOne summer in between university semesters, Patrick discovered a way to go and live on organic farms – learning how to grow food and travel around Canada without spending much money because he worked for his stay and food. In one summer, he travelled to 6 farms around Canada, staying between two weeks to a month on each farm, eventually ending his trip in Nova Scotia. While Patrick was wondering what to do after graduating, in his last semester he secured an engineering position working with fuel cell technology, a green alternative energy source, where no chemical waste is produced when it`s being used. He worked there for two and a half years and while it was a well-paying job, it wasn’t fulfilling. The job didn’t have the human aspect, the communal aspect of life he was yearning for. 

“I was always looking for something that holds high hope for our future, something that I really want to educate younger people about. I had a good job. I was making good money, I worked with nice people, and I worked at a nice place. All the ingredients were there so I should have been happy, but I wasn’t. The pursuit of all those things isn’t going to bring me happiness. So there was a bit of motivation in finding an alternative that does bring me happiness and the other things will come or they just won’t matter.” 

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 4.39.12 PMDuring the fall/winter of last year, Patrick quit his job and was looking for volunteer opportunities in and around community centres, when he discovered a workshop done about food forestry at Kitsilano Community Centre. One of the women who did the workshop happened to be one of Patrick’s permaculture teachers, while someone else at that workshop mentioned that there’s a Kerrisdale permaculture garden project happening. So he looked that up and got in touch with Keiko, the director of VACS. And that same day there was a meeting for the Kits Collaborative Garden, and that’s where he met Gabriel Pliska, an urban farmer. Shortly after that they met up again and started looking at Gabriel’s farms together. Patrick has been doing work with him since.

“It’s been really rewarding to be involved in each of the processes. When I first started the first gardens I saw were around Cambie and 19th and we were doing some spring planting and harvesting on land that had already been established from previous years. Afterwards, we were off on another property learning some more stuff and a few weeks later, we’re building a new garden. So there’s been an open invitation to take a part in different things and I’ve learned a lot about how to plant things. I also learned a lot about the relationship between the urban farmer and the home owner, who’s offering the land for us to use.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 4.38.55 PMThere is so much potential for growing food. But what are the difficulties facing urban farming? Patrick responded by saying that the limitations for urban farming are not about availability of land, food production, or food transportation. The hard thing about urban farming and why people aren’t buying locally grown, healthy organic food is because there’s a much cheaper alternative that is low in nutrition, high production monocrop that needs sprays to live and an immense amount of water in its growing period, on top of transportation. It’s a phenomenal amount of water being used and so when you’re buying from the store, there’s a price tag on it, but that’s not actually the price of that food. The price of that food is much higher than that, but you don’t see it. You don’t see the price and you might never see the price, but for sure the next generations will see that price. As we poison lands and grow deserts, we lose available farming land and that’s a huge price, but it’s not reflected in the food at this moment. 

We need to eat where we are. It’s much healthier to eat out of our backyards and neighborhoods than to take water from California in the form of tomatoes, celery and lettuce. It doesn’t make sense. The world is running under a broken system and permaculture offers ways that aren’t broken and have been reliable for thousands of years. So the big challenge for us now is to integrate those into a broken system, or to say no more and begin a new one.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 4.40.37 PMFor the upcoming Permaculture InAction project, Patrick strives to inspire people to see how easy it is to build a garden by bringing people in as each step of the garden-making process takes place. To show people enough of the garden-making process so that they may have an understanding of how they can do it themselves. And through every workshop people will build confidence because they’ve been directly involved. The first step of the process will be a conversation held as a group with the home owner about how the garden will be designed. That conversation will be the first time that it is happening, and people will see it happening live. After, there will be a workshop where the group grows a garden together, which is going to be am exciting community event. The last step is going to be a harvest and there will be a bunch of food that we all grew. So Patrick’s hope is that people will come out and that a small community forms out of people who come out regularly. Also, once the workshops are done, there’s no reason the work has to stop. There are lots of lawns and boulevards, and lots of homeowners that want homegrown food but don’t really want to grow it themselves. 

For any questions or comments about urban farming, contact Patrick and Gabriel at: