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Innovation in sustainable food cultivation can change the world

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As part of his studies, Tatenda Mambo is managing the Simon Farm project. The 21-acre plot of land is located south of Calgary near High River, and is on a five-year loan to the university by John Simon. Photo: Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Dr. Tatenda Mambo, PhD, grew up in Zimbabwe, where his parents grew a few vegetables as a hobby — kale, mustard, chard, tomatoes, squash, corn and peppers. Perhaps not surprisingly, as a child, Mambo had no interest in gardening. “My earliest desire was to be a musician, then a basketball player,” he says. “Funny how things turn out in life.” 

Mambo, 39, is a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Calgary's School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape's Sustainability Studies program. Since a key focus is to engage in experiential projects, Mambo is managing the Simon Farm project.

The farm, owned by John Simon on a 21-acre plot of land near High River, south of Calgary, is in a five-year partnership with university.

Now 94, John moved to Canada as a refugee after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He became a doctor and, in the early 1970s, bought an acreage near High River. For years it was his sanctuary of sorts, a place where he could hunt, fish and garden. A few years ago, he and his family decided it was time for someone else to benefit from the land. They envisioned their farm becoming a place for others to learn, connect and discover.

“This is a way for my father to give back,” Simon's daughter said. “He’s a real humanitarian and a strong supporter of sustainable architecture, so this just made sense.” 

The overall goal of the project — now in its second year — is to create an agro-ecological system where production activities feed into each other, functioning as a holistic ecological system. Fundamental tenets include biodiversity, nutrient cycling, closed loops, and environmental stewardship.

“Biodiversity is central to cultivating healthy soils. There’s a laundry list of vegetables we’re growing,” said Mambo. Some of these include lentils, zucchini, kale, garlic, beets, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers, a variety of potatoes and even hops for Alberta breweries.

The pandemic and recent budget cuts have, predictably, thrown a wrench into this year’s plans. The summer field school was not able to run and students were unable to volunteer on the farm due to social distancing concerns. Driving from Calgary to High River a few times a week, Mambo did much the work himself with help from the Simon family and friends.

One of the most gratifying aspects of the program has been its philanthropic reach in the community. This year, as with the previous year, produce was donated to the High River Food Bank. “It has been a blessing to have reliable, quality vegetables donated week after week,” said Chad Cole, the food bank’s manager. “We are only able to meet our community’s needs because of the generosity of people like Tatenda, and the team at the University of Calgary.”   

While there’s currently a small greenhouse on the farm, Mambo hopes the university will one day be able to build a larger greenhouse — one that relies on solar thermal technology for heat in winter. For now, however, he plans to continue his research, one harvest at a time.

“When we talk about food insecurity — particularly in reference to emergency food assistance —we often place emphasis on access to food, and much less on nutritious food,” he said. “My goal is to keep growing this project. We can do so much more.”

Article courtesy of UCalgary