Report Back on the National Farmers Union 2019 Youth Convergence
by Adabu B. Jefwa
From the 4th to the 7th of March 2019, nearly sixty young and new farmers gathered for the “National Farmers Union (NFU) 2019 Youth Convergence” in Parham, Ontario, 60 km North of Kingston on unceded Algonquin territory. The NFU is a farmer-led food sovereignty organization and a member of the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina. This convergence was, to my knowledge, the first time in a generation that young and beginning farmers had come together in such large numbers, from across the country, to talk about the issues that matter most to them.
There was a lot of excitement in the air. I personally did not know quite what to expect. After a long winter of school assignments, I’d almost forgotten all about farming. For many, as spring was approaching, the convergence interrupted very important farm planning and seed ordering work necessary for the upcoming season. Nonetheless, people were enthusiastic and everyone seemed to have an aura of eagerness to connect with and learn from each other.
The purpose of the convergence was to gather self-defined young and new farmers to come together to talk about the challenges we face within the food system, specifically in Canada, but across the globe as well. Discussion topics included ‘The Political Economy of Agriculture’ and ‘Farming in a Changing Climate’. There was a strong emphasis on ‘Building Solidarity to Decolonize the Food System,’ which was a workshop that focused on how Indigenous and non-Indigenous farmers, hunters, gatherers, and supporters can challenge settler-colonialism in the food system.
This is what drew me to attend the convergence. Not only was it organized to address farm production issues, it also focused the socio-political elements that shape production, and farmers’ lives and experiences. The challenges that arise out of political, environmental and social realms seem very distant from the everyday struggles faced by farmers working outside in the field. Although the economy and politics shape farmers experiences, these topics are rarely discussed within most mainstream food and agriculture organizations. For this reason, I felt the convergence was extremely important. It created a space for participants to talk about the systemic issues that impact farmers, the land and all people. At the same time, the convergence allocated time for folks to engage in farm specific details, such as farm management and growing practices.
The presentation by former Ardoch Algonquin Chief and professor, Bob Lovelace, was of particular importance to me given my commitments to decolonization. Prof. Lovelace spoke about building alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. He invited us to ask questions and participate in small-group discussions about what actions we can take and how we envision making change to decolonize the food system. As settlers on colonized lands it is important for us to, first, understand and acknowledge the ongoing colonial history of Canada and second, put intention into seeking justice in partnership with Indigenous peoples. Prof. Lovelace outlined a five-pronged approach to building solidarity between settlers and indigenous peoples and emphasized that it all begins with Research. Without knowing the history of the land and people it is impossible to engage in effective actions for decolonization. He then spoke about the importance of the four other prongs: Community Education, Legal Action, Direct Action and Healing as a means of supporting Indigenous peoples struggles.
We had discussions about issues around young farmers access to farmland. From what I understood, Prof. Lovelace was against the whole system of privatized and commercial land because it constitutes a colonial relationship to land. Canada’s settler-colonial system of land ownership reinforces dispossession of Indigenous peoples. It is also bad for Canadians as many of us across the country, especially young people, struggle with land access due to the high cost of land.
In one especially dramatic moment, Lovelace asked the nearly 60 farmers in the room to raise their hands if they owned the land they farmed. Only three people indicated that they owned land. This is because of the huge barriers of cost, access to financing and lack of support for farming, especially organic farming. (And even when farmers ‘own’ land, it’s usually not ‘owned’ by them but by the bank!). Lovelace emphasized that alternative relationships to land are possible, and already exist within Indigenous systems. He also emphasized that cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers requires building trust and meaningful, long-term relationships. Only then, through true solidarity based on personal connections, not based in a self-satisfying identity of allyship, can a strong foundation be established for developing alternative systems that center around land and food sovereignty for both Indigenous peoples and Canadians.
A major contributing factor which made the convergence possible was the funding allocated to covering each participant’s travel costs, accommodations and food. Those from Ontario travelled by car while others took trains and planes from across the country. But everyone was reimbursed for their travel costs and no one was required to pay for the amazing meals that were served during the convergence. This made the convergence accessible for the many young and new farmers who are, by and large, struggling financially. On top of that, all of the dinners were locally sourced from farms around the area, including kegs of beer from a local brewery. Well nourished, and well accommodated, we were able to maintain high spirits throughout the duration of the convergence. This enabled a very open, vulnerable and cooperative space for folks to discuss the heavy topics we addressed.
The title ‘convergence’ was intentionally used to differentiate the event from a conference. A conference usually implies a formal, academic, lecture-based style of learning. The organizers, however, wished to create a more lateral climate in which everyone was welcomed, and encouraged, to share their knowledge and skills. This was accomplished by dividing the large group into smaller groups of 8 to 10 people. The groups were prompted to discuss amongst themselves then reunite for a sharing session whereby everyone contributed to a large group discussion. This allowed for people to share their perspectives and ideas and made for a comfortable space for people to work through challenging concepts without the pressure of 60 people listening.
The structure of the convergence made for an open and inclusive space that overall made people feel inspired and empowered to move forward in continuing the fight for food justice within the agricultural and broader food system. This was one of the wonderful outcomes of the convergence and reflects the need for these types of gatherings to occur more frequently amongst farmers with an inclusion of people who understand the importance and value of land.
This is not to say that there was no room for improvement. The convergence would have benefitted from a more culturally and racially diverse range of speakers and attendees. For me, struggles within the food system center primarily around engaging racialized communities and including racialized people in the fight for food sovereignty. Within Canada, it is extremely important to recognize and engage in Indigenous movements and struggles for sovereignty, but as a country built on white supremacy, it is also important to consider the ways in which racialized people and immigrants are included in activism for food sovereignty. Moving forward I urge for organizers, not only in the NFU, but within agricultural and food organizations more broadly, to put intention into including the voices of racialized people and immigrants, and especially migrant agricultural workers, for they play a huge role in the current agricultural system and hold a lot of knowledge that can contribute to envisioning alternative farm and food systems.
Farming matters because we all eat and we all rely on the land. We all also rely on caretakers of the land to regenerate a healthy, balanced ecosystem and provide us with the nutrients necessary to survive. Ensuring the sustainability of agriculture means deconstructing the current agricultural system based so heavily on corporate industrialization. It also means shifting to a more diverse range of alternatives that are suited to work in favor of all people across the globe. The NFU, La Via Campesina and many food justice organizations are working to make this shift possible. Gatherings such as the Youth Convergence that intentionally create space for building relationships between people who understand the importance of farms and land and are committed to preserving knowledge related to the land are necessary, and make it possible, to continue the movement for food justice and food sovereignty.
Adabu is a black queer student, farmer and DJ. She is committed to building a sustainable food system that is inclusive of black, indigenous and racialized people across the globe. She also believes in decolonization and building relationships through sharing knowledge and celebrating diverse cultures through food and music.