Harvesting a future: A Chelsea farmer’s garden is your cup of tea

CHELSEA, QUE. — When Chelsea’s Kayoki Whiteduck missed a rugby game in Grade 10, he unearthed his future.

“My dad decided if I wasn’t going to play rugby and let my team down, I should do a little work around our yard.”

As the young Whiteduck began digging up a sumac tree, he and his father shared a conversation about horticulture and gardening. That chat would change his future. 

“That same day we went to a store and I bought a pack of watermelon seeds, a pack of string bean seeds, and a pack of cucumber seeds.  I planted them all that day and started my first garden,” he said.

Now age 28, Whiteduck has watched that garden, and his passion, grow.

“I have more than 100 different kinds of plants in my garden, from herbs to berries to vegetables.”

Whiteduck studied horticulture at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C. and was recently selected to the Canadian Agricultural Youth Council, made up of 25 members across Canada. But the young gardener attributes much of his love of plants to his heritage.

“I’m Algonquin Anishinaabe from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec. A lot of people in my community have a strong connection to the earth,” said Whiteduck.

“I personally have a strong connection with a lot of plants.  I love being surrounded by plants, going into the bush and finding different varieties and learning the names of all of them. It makes me happy just to be around them. It brings a sense of calmness. A sense of joy. I think it’s just good for the soul.”

Since 2016, Whiteduck has been growing herbal tea plants, and a thriving business, on his family’s property in the Gatineau Hills. His business is called Mitigomin Agriculture, the Algonquin word for ‘acorn from the red oak tree.’

“My product is Kayo-Tea. I started growing a mint garden. I had a small bed that I put about 9 different kinds of mint in, I harvested it all, dried them out, and come Christmas time, I needed some cash, so I sold about two hundred dollars’ worth of tea that year. We now have about 25 varieties of tea and counting,” Whiteduck said.

Kayo-Tea

At this time of year, the tea farmer is busy harvesting and processing his crop daily.

“It can be stressful you never know when frost is going to hit, and a lot of my plants are not hardy enough to take it. As any crop farmer will tell you, it’s a race against time,” he said.

“My niche is mint. I have about 13 kinds of mint that I sell from apple to ginger to chocolate to orange. I grow other kinds of herbs, too, including lemon grass, lemon verbena, bee balm, lemon balm, agastache and raspberry leaf. There are others I harvest from the wild, including stinging nettle and sweet fern. I also grow a lot of plants that are good for the pollinators,” said Whiteduck.

“A lot of the stuff that I grow is actually perennial, meaning it comes back every year, however, a few kinds I start from seed or cuttings. I plant it after the first frost, which is generally the first week of June.”

Once the plants are harvested, Whiteduck cleans and bundles them. They’re hung on drying racks for two to three weeks. When the leaves are crispy and brittle, the plants are crushed by hand and packaged for sale.

Whiteduck’s garden and plants are organic; his packaging eco-friendly; environmental sustainability a key component of his green enterprise.

“I try to produce as little waste with my business as possible. My bags are biodegradable. I want to do my business with the least impact on the earth as possible.”

While his teas are rich with flavour, they are also abundant with medicinal properties. Whiteduck says his teas can benefit digestion, sleeplessness, and ease cold symptoms.

“I’ve studied a lot of herbal medicine and took a course called ‘Western Herbalism.’ Every single one of my teas are good for you.  I’m learning new things every day about herbal medicine and horticulture.”

Tea

Whiteduck typically sells his teas at Farmer’s Markets and Christmas Craft shows. Because of COVID-19, most purchases will take place through his online store where customers can view and buy his handcrafted, Kayo-Tea products. They’re also available for sale at My Tiny Cupboard in Wakefield, Quebec.

Kayoki Whiteduck believes he’s planting a future. And like his tea garden, he’s excited to watch it grow.

“Nothing makes me happier than being in my garden, enjoying my plants, my hard work and fruits of my labour. Hopefully, in a few years, I see myself on my own farm, growing many different types of products. That’s the goal.”

You can learn more about Kayo-Tea and visit Mitigomin’s online store.

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