Program Supervisor Profile: Mel Sylvestre, Perennial & Biodiversity Coordinator, and Seed-Hub Coordinator
*Disclaimer: The Career Development in Land and Food Systems course is the updated title of the previously-named Career Development in Land and Food Systems Internship.
What is your position at the UBC Farm?
I am the perennial & biodiversity coordinator and the seed-hub coordinator.
How did you get involved with the UBC Farm? (When did you start working here?)
I arrived here five years ago so this is my sixth season starting. I was then a student in Land and Food Systems (LFS) in the soil science program. I started as a Work-Learn at the UBC Farm. I worked part-time until I graduated and after I graduated, I moved into full-time. Back then, the farm had a small team so there was a lot to be done. Now, we have many positions for volunteering, internships and Work Learn. So many opportunities for students to get involved.
What makes the UBC Farm different from other farms?
The community here is quite different. We attract a wide spread of people from students, researchers and community at large but on any other farm you would only have your small community popping by here and there. The fact that it’s a public farm makes it unique in terms of spread of people but also the spread of the tasks you may end up doing in the day. In terms of fields operations, three quarters of our work is probably is quite similar to what other farms do but then there is 25 per cent that you end up doing that you would never do on another farm, such as supporting the research and education programs that is constantly going on here.
What is your favourite/most important part of your job?
I think the uniqueness of this position is that I get to discover a love of teaching, which I didn’t know I had before. I always trained my staff but when I have genuine teaching opportunities, I really take pleasure to see people learning and see people absorbing and changing. That, I think, is my favourite part of my job, after the actual farming.
What does a typical day for you look at the UBC Farm?
In the summer, a typical day is very fast-paced. Plans tend to change on the spot so it is quite difficult know what the day will end up looking like. It’s really hard to explain day-to-day farming activities because it varies so much. For my team, I usually try to find 2-3 hours tasks, such as weeding or harvesting, and then move to another 2-3 hours task.
You also live as a caretaker at the farm, what’s it like to live here, at your place of work?
To live here is fantastic. I love it more than I was expecting. I think part of it is to be able to have both worlds. I love the countryside and I know ultimately, I will end up there. In the meantime, to live a partial countryside life while being in the city puts me at peace with my current job and lifestyle.. I think the best part is at the end of the day, when the gate locks and the construction outside is over, you can start hearing owls or birds flying around and just the quietness. This place is keeping me mentally happy.
What do you want people to know about the UBC Farm?
I want people to know how good our team is. The fact that we always work with each other and with the community around us. We’re not just a department where everybody has their cubicle or works in the corners. We eat together, we share. You really need to like people to work here.
There is also a good spread of age and interaction. We are surrounded with kids that bring us hope about the future, we have the elders that bring wisdom to the place and we have the working team showing us the importance of collaboration.
What internship position do you supervise?
This term, in the fall, I will supervise the Orchard and Seed production positions and in the summer, I will supervise the Field Intern position.
What kind of tasks did you assign?
For most of the summer, it was mostly seeding, weeding, building structures, transplanting and many other practical farming tasks. Moving into fall, there was a lot of seed production. With interns, I’m careful to offer a learning opportunity whenever there is a moment.
What do you look for when hiring an intern?
I’m looking for someone who is flexible and really wanting to learn. You can learn so much more if you are a learner-type. I want to see the fire in them, see fascination and have someone that has some initiative too.
What do you think the interns gain at the end of their internships?
I think a farm is a place of self-growth. You are learning about yourself but are also learning what you actually want to do. There are many opportunities for growing in ways you may not imagine. Some people come and realize they cannot do this and some are eager to take farming to next step and internships are great tools for that.
What message do you have for the next crop of interns?
Be bold! If you are curious about farming there is no other way of finding out than trying it out. You need to have the physical contact to know so be bold and try it out.
What’s your favourite thing that grows at the UBC Farm?
I have this love affair with tomatillos, just because they are so weird and I also love salsa. I have a connection with them that made me start saving seeds. So that’s why tomatillos are the first ones that comes to mind. It’s not that I eat a lot, it’s just a weird emotional connection.