Farmers in Farm
Growing Science

Growing Science

Growing Science

What does learning at UBC Farm offer students?

Assistant Professor Sean Smukler on experiential learning in the field.

People in the field
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What does learning at UBC Farm offer students?

Assistant Professor Sean Smukler on experiential learning in the field.

When Sean Smukler left his position at Columbia University in New York for UBC, the idea of having access to a research farm on campus was tremendously appealing: “I love this part of the world but it was the job description… I couldn’t pass it up.”

Smukler, assistant professor in Applied Biology and Soil Science in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, teaches undergrad and graduate students and is the principal investigator for the Sustainable Agricultural Landscapes (SAL) lab.

One of Smukler’s undergrad courses, Food and Environment 1: Intro to Agroecology, conducts its lab classes each week throughout the term at the UBC Farm — rain or shine. Course ‘gear’ includes waterproof boots, jacket and pants or poncho and a waterproof notebook. Beyond understanding basic ecological principles as they apply to agroecosystems, Smukler strives to imbue his students with the scientific ethos and attitude:

“Though a small percentage will actually become scientists, I want them to have that scientific background so that whatever they’re doing, they have that critical lens, and the skills they gain are applicable to whatever direction they’re heading in.”

The experiential education the students receive in the field is critical to understanding the complex science of food production. The biodiversity of the UBC Farm offers a natural learning environment with its wetlands, hedgerows, forest, woodlots, cropland, orchard and a multitude of small mammal, insect and bird species that you wouldn’t find on most farms.

Smukler is passionate about the importance of students getting out of the classroom and into the environment they are studying and not just passively observing it from the distance: “If you’re a doctor, you don’t just talk about cutting people open and removing a heart — you do it. You practice. Science is the same way. You have to do the thing you’re talking about for it to sink in.”

Gabriel Maltais-Landry is a NSERC-funded postdoctoral fellow working with Smukler and the SAL lab on experiments related to manure management, nutrient cycling and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With the collaboration of UBC’s Biometeorology and Soil Physics Group, Maltais-Landry is seeking to determine the amount of such emissions from soil that has been amended several amendments — horse manure, chicken manure (raw or composted), municipal compost, and specialty products (e.g. blood meal).

Of the three major biologically produced greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2) methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) — nitrous oxide has, per molecule, roughly 300 times the global-warming effect of carbon dioxide and agriculture is responsible for more than half of N2O emissions in Canada. It wouldn’t be understating it to say that research in this area could have global consequences.

Maltais-Landry’s experiments have revealed that N2O emissions are much lower from soil that’s been amended with horse manure or municipal compost rather than chicken manure. He is not quick to offer any ‘silver-bullet’ global solutions at this point but sees the value of this research “not just in terms of looking at how it can be applied directly to farms but also kind of understanding more of the basic biology behind some of these processes.”

The holy grail seems to be about finding the right “dosages” of these valuable, natural bio-fertilizers needed to create a replicable system that, explains Maltais-Landry, would “have the same yields as a regular system but reduce emissions, build organic matter and maintain soil fertility.” With another year left in his study, he hopes to get closer to understanding how this might be accomplished.

The tangible benefit of learning at the UBC Farm is the bridging of theory and practice.
— Véronik Campbell

Academic Programs Manager, Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm

Five ways to help the bees

Bees infographic

Buy local honey, preferably directly from beekeepers. This helps to support the local industry, which is by far the best way to ensure stable bee populations.

Plant bee-friendly flowering plants. (Suggestion: Try David Suzuki Foundation’s bee-friendly garden ideas)

Don’t worry about ‘weeds’ in your lawn!

In a hot, dry summer, fill up a bucket with water and float some sticks, grass or wood chips in it.

Avoid insecticides of all kinds.

Bees infographic

A Buzzing Research Colony

The bee hives at the UBC Farm are dripping in gorgeous amber honey but it won’t be hungrily spread on anyone’s toast anytime soon; the entire point of these hives isn’t to make a tasty breakfast but instead, to study the bees themselves in order to find answers as to why they are dying off at alarming rates around the world.

To better understand declining bee numbers and the various threats — disease, mites, pesticide residue, climate change — that are interfering with this precious species, Dr. Leonard Foster and the Canada-wide team he leads are conducting research on several hives of honeybees located a quick bike ride away in the heart of the UBC Farm’s 24 hectares. Foster says that although the urgent and immediate issue of declining bee populations is a research priority, there is also a critical need to “expand our knowledge” so that the potential for “cross-over applications” is possible.

In a world where there is so much uncertainty with our climate, being prepared to, as Foster puts it, “react nimbly when future problems arise” isn’t a bad thing.

The UBC Farm provides an opportunity for Foster and the IPM Lab to conduct research that would otherwise be logistically difficult to access. “In several subjects, the farm enables world-leading research that otherwise could not be done at UBC,” says Foster. In this aspect, the farm fulfills its mandate of being a ‘living lab’ for students and faculty.

In the first phase of the Bee IPM research, Foster says the results were “beyond our wildest expectations.” By using “markers” (specific molecules that predict, for example, whether a bee is better able to resist a certain disease), Foster selectively breeds those bees that already possess the genetic traits that make them stronger and more adaptable to the adverse changes that are already hitting hard.

Foster wants to be clear that this isn’t genetic modification: “It’s more analogous to any type of clinical test that might be done on someone’s blood. For example, high glucose probably means that you have diabetes. These markers can then ‘assist’ in the selection of disease-resistant bees.” The hope is that beekeepers will eventually have the tools to identify naturally disease-resistant bees and use them in breeding programs to introduce these traits into the beekeepers’ own stocks.

To spend any time with Foster and the bees at the UBC Farm is to see someone truly in his element, even if that means standing in a swarm of bees lopsided with pollen and not remotely interested in whether they are helping with world-changing research. But unlike his bee ‘colleagues’, Foster can’t pretend to be indifferent about his research subjects: “Bee research is a lot of fun! There are few other areas of research done at a university where the public is so engaged and passionate about the topic.”

Like tiny, fuzzy aerial workers buzzing through their day, pollinating fields, orchards and gardens, the bees at the UBC Farm are oblivious to their role as research subjects. They are, as an industrious species, just trying to survive.

Leonard Foster and the Bee IPM lab are working hard to ensure they do.

The Next Frontier

Like any good lab, the UBC Farm offers students and faculty a chance to test assumptions, evaluate hypotheses and create new knowledge. The difference with this particular outdoor lab isn’t the obvious — swooping eagles, towering firs, 80 varieties of apples, a sturdy yurt — but rather the organic integration of generational, economic, pedagogical and social ideas in practice that together, germinate in a kind of transdisciplinary think tank. School children in the Landed Learning program learn to garden alongside soil researchers; Indigenous youth smoke salmon close to the soothing buzz of Bee IPM hives; interns harvest the fields while local community members pick up their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes for the week; public workshops, farm tours and lab classes happen simultaneously in a kind of unplanned but mutually beneficial symbiosis. Similar to a beehive, everything at the farm is interconnected and influences learning, research and the community.

The UBC Farm’s vibrant interdisciplinary learning environment comes out of an organic process, one that, says Smukler, could be even more beneficial if it were taken beyond the context of the farm: “The real uncharted territory in science, the frontier, is the economist talking to the agronomist.”

This frontier is getting closer as the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems (CSFS) pursues its mandate to “integrate interdisciplinary academic, community, and production programs to explore and exemplify healthy and sustainable food systems.” Solving complex global food sustainability challenges require perspectives that may not have been together ‘at the table’ before but the Centre is focused on connecting with international researchers to strengthen “our connections with broader global issues like food security and climate change.”

“We want to leverage the ethos of the farm out into the broader world,” says CSFS Director Hannah Wittman. Her intent is for “transformational change” with the expectation that the research projects the Centre takes on should have a social impact. The benefits will not only be realized by UBC and its local community but by anyone in the world who cares about the future of their food.

People should recognize that the farm has this important opportunity to be a nexus between education, research, community engagement and the future of farming.
— Sean Smukler

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Land and Food Systems

Get Involved

Interested in carrying out research at the UBC Farm or have an idea for a project?

Visit UBC Farm for information on how you can propose a research project, collaborate with the farm or volunteer for a variety of farm programs and initiatives.

Story Credits

Special thanks to all of our story partners:

Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm: Hannah Wittman, Academic Director; Ryan Weemhoff, Sales Manager; Véronik Campbell, Academic Programs Manager; Shannon Lambie, former Communications Coordinator; Hannah Lewis, Community Education Coordinator; Jaylin Melnichuk, former Feast Bowl Intern; Clare Cullen, Operations Director; Sarah Clements, Flower Intern and Practicum Field Mentor.

Faculty of Land and Food Systems: Jennifer Honeybourn, Director, Communications; Sean Smukler, Assistant Professor; students of APBI 260 Food & Environment 1; Gabriel Maltais-Landry, Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

Other: Leonard Foster, Professor, Faculty of Medicine; Stacy Friedman, Program Manager, Intergenerational Landed Learning Project, Faculty of Education; Steve Golob, Chef, Place Vanier Residence.

Special thanks to the entire staff at the UBC Farm who have appeared in any of our photographs — thank you!

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Martin Dee, UBC Photographer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC Photographer; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Laura Stobbe, Communication Designer; Mark Pilon, Communication Designer; Jamil Rhajiak, Photographer; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Mormei Zanke, Assistant Writer. Additional copywriting — David Leidl, Copy Editor. Additional video direction and editing — Lu Zhang, Editor, Video Director; Lucas Hrubizna, Editor.

Thank you: The University of British Columbia Archives