Salt and earth

A Whole Village photo essay


Whole Village is an ecovillage and biodynamic farm founded in response to a perceived loss of genuine community, increased urban­ization of rural areas and impoverishment of farmland. A self-described intentional community, Whole Village is located on a 200-acre tract of land an hour north of Toronto’s city centre. The community is made up of 30 educators, professionals and farmers who live in a 15,000 square-foot co-operative residence and share sustainability as their ultimate goal. I first visited Whole Village in April 2007; over the course of the next 18 months, I lived on the farm in installations, working the land to earn my keep while photographing the community.

On the surface, Whole Village offers a solution to the frustrations faced by environmentally conscious urbanites. In contrast to the free-love and tarpaper-shack stereotypes associated with communes of the 1960s, Whole Village is highly organized and surprisingly modern. The farm’s main residence set a zoning precedent with a green design that prioritizes personal space while preserving communal eating and recreation areas. The consensus leadership model that helped administer the group’s farm purchase now ensures a level of social and financial accountability among community members. The way of life the com­munity supports is one that blends traditional family values with modern ecological practices. The result is what one member describes as being more like a “condo on a farm” than a contemporary commune.

Whole Village members Bev and Mary open the barn door after a morning milking session. Whole Village keeps a number of heritage breed livestock (animals bred for hardiness rather than increased milk or meat production), and there has been much internal debate over whether or not animals are to be reared for meat.
As an agricultural collective, Whole Village’s success can be measured largely by the community’s ability to meet its own food requirements. Food production fluctuates between 20 and 40 per cent of the total need – a figure largely determined by the quality of the growing season, but nonetheless impressive for a community founded only a few years ago.

Any produce that the community cannot consume or preserve is sold to members of the surrounding townships through a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program, an increasingly popular offshoot of the local food movement. Employing biodynamic farming practices that incorporate all the animal, plant and land components of the farm into a closed, self-nourishing system, Whole Village’s CSA program gives shareholders access to local and sustainable organic produce, as well as the opportunity to know where and by whom their food was grown – an elusive luxury within today’s model of decentralized, high-output food production.

Whole Village volunteer Taka sorts blight-stricken potatoes from healthy ones after a heavy rainfall. While Whole Village has made steady progress towards producing 100 per cent of its food requirements, alternating drought, downpour and disease in Ontario over the last few years have caused heavy setbacks.
While the success of Whole Village demonstrates that the environmental and social actions increasingly seen as necessary can in fact be put into practice, the project is not without challenges. If the elder generation has shown it is forward-thinking and environmentally progressive, the community’s youth struggle with the same stigmas faced by the flower children of the ’60s and ’70s.

Bob Bowers sits in front of the fireplace in the old farmhouse. One of the community’s oldest residents, Bob suffers from schizophrenia, and lives on the farm in the care of his daughter, Julie. A social worker, Julie has struggled to find a balance between employment outside of Whole Village and the many responsibilities associated with community living and elder care.
Home-schooled and largely isolated from their peers, the children may face the challenge of not being able to affect change on a system they have grown up largely removed from. A further challenge is the financial burden placed upon those middle-aged members who do not have the benefit of a lifetime of equity with which to put their values into practice. Land purchases and building costs may be the most obvious expenses, but hidden and ongoing costs related to simple pieces of farm equipment or complicated legal fees to navigate zoning restrictions can leave community members financially drained.

Mishka, 2, plays with Fiza, a volunteer with Canada World Youth, on the floor of the communal kitchen while his mother sweeps. Members of Whole Village share community housekeeping responsibilities such as cleaning, cooking and child care.
The pressures of contributing to community life, in addition to the need for many to seek full-time employment off-property, have led a number of members to engage in the difficult and heavily bureaucratic process of selling or withdrawing their equity. In the last year, several members have left the community, citing economic or social stress as their primary motivation, but an influx of seasonal volunteers and the increasing appeal of a sustainable rural lifestyle mean that Whole Village’s population is never depleted for long.

Whole Village volunteer Zack uses a hatchet to test the ice on the community's pond while McKenna, the farm dog, jumps for flying ice chips.
Ninety per cent of ecovillages and intentional communities don’t make it past the planning stage, or fail within the first year, and it is easy to see why: environmental ideals come in a variety of strengths and focuses, and the shared goals that initially unite members can later widen the rifts between them. While Whole Village has moved steadily towards its goal of sustainability, the success of the community rests as much on achieving social sustainability as it does environmental sustainability.

Jonathan Taggart is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and a founding member of the Boreal Collective, a Canadian assemblage of documentary photographers.  His work currently focuses on raising awareness of the challenges facing British Columbia’s Indigenous populations, both urban and rural. His April 2009 photo essay in Briarpatch, “Salt & Earth,” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in Photojournalism.

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