Young and New Farmers in the Struggle for a Decolonial Food System

Black and white photo of cupped hands holding seedlings

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.

The Inaccessibility of Food Accessibility

by Julie Nowak

I’ve wanted to get into foraging for a while. It’s a wonderful way to connect with nature, help eliminate edible invasive species, and, of course, provide me with free food to eat. This is very pertinent, as I am disabled and without much of an income. While I’ve known about a couple plants I can forage, I need more hands-on learning to be able to really make foraging a consistent part of my diet. There is a monthly foraging meet-up in Toronto I’ve wanted to check out for almost a year; I haven’t been able to attend because it takes place in the evening, when I am at my lowest energy. Plus my social anxiety often prevents me from attending group events. I finally made it out to the last meet-up, however, which I was very excited about. We learned about edible roots like burdock, dandelion and garlic mustard. I quickly realized how much physical effort was involved, as I spent about fifteen minutes of exhausting, vigorous digging to get a little piece of burdock. It was a tasty treat to eat, but I knew I would not have the physical energy to visit the forest and dig up these roots – or at least not regularly enough to actually make a dent in my food costs.

The food justice movement is supposedly centred on accessibility – specifically food accessibility – with much dialogue around ways for individuals and communities to have increased access to food. While the long-term goal is to create a more equitable and sustainable food system, the short-term goals often focus on ways individuals and communities can more immediately access food – financially, geographically, culturally, etc.

Various approaches and strategies are touted as creating radical change and food access. Activities such as gardening, foraging, dumpster diving, bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, serving free food, cooking from scratch, preserving and bulk buying are highly praised within my activist circles. While I support these approaches, and participate in many myself, I would not put them in the category of “radical change”. There are several reasons for this, but I would like to focus on one in particular: inaccessibility. These quick-fix approaches require a multitude of things that many folks do not have: certain abilities, skills, time, energy, flexibility, space, upfront money, safety, privilege.

For example, I used to dumpster dive and barter frequently before I became disabled. Now these activities are too time and energy-intensive for me to do regularly. Other folks may not have the time or energy because of life circumstances, such as working two full-time jobs, single parenting, or being sick. Cooking, preserving and bulk buying require access to a kitchen and storage space, which many do not have. Gardening and foraging usually involve bending and physical labour, and gardens and forests are often not wheelchair-accessible. Many individuals (myself included) cannot usually accept free prepared food because of dietary restrictions.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote and participate in these activities. But we need to stop presenting them as something everyone can do. We are also delusional if we think we are fundamentally changing the food system through these particular efforts. Thus, I propose three ways to reframe the movement. First, we need to focus more heavily on the mid and long-term goals of shifting structures, such as policy change, poverty reduction, improving food sourcing, eliminating food deserts and building local agriculture. Second, we can simultaneously be implementing short-term initiatives, but we should creatively find ways to make them more accessible. Third, we must bring more voices into the food justice movement in order to be more inclusive and properly address inaccessibility.

These three propositions are not easy tasks, so let’s start by breaking down how to make initiatives more accessible. Here are just a few specific ideas of how you can make changes in your organizing to increase accessibility:

  • In community gardens, create wheelchair-accessible pathways and include raised beds so those needing to sit can participate.
  • When serving prepared food, cater to dietary restrictions (i.e. vegan, Halal, gluten-free, nut-free, alcohol-free, etc.) and clearly label ingredients. Consider providing options, such as serving several dishes with differing ingredients or using a buffet/build-your-own meal set-up so individuals can choose their own ingredients.
  • To increase access to cooking, preserving and bulk buying, provide kitchen and storage space. Also consider doing these activities collectively in order to lessen the upfront financial cost.
  • When accepting bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, offer sliding scale options. For example, require fewer (or zero) hours of work from someone with limited ability/capacity/time.
  • Share the bounty from your various endeavours (e.g. gardening, foraging, cooking, preserving) with those who cannot access these activities.
  • Before and during the planning of events and projects, seek out input from a variety of folks in your community to find out what initiatives are desired and how best to implement them in an accessible way. If you don’t have marginalized folks involved in your planning, you need to figure out why you’re not accessible to them.
  • Work creatively to come up with alternative ways of doing something. Inaccessibility and ableism are, in part, the result of a lack of thinking outside of the status quo, so get creative!

Accessibility means different things in different contexts. I’ve touched on just a few aspects of what it can look like in the food justice movement. Remember, though, that accessibility is an ongoing process, not a clear set of laws. If you view these suggestions as annoying rules to follow, you are missing the point. The purpose should be focused on people, not checklists. I admit it can be overwhelming to be faced with requests and recommendations, and I often feel incapable of accommodating everyone. Keep in mind, however, that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Attempting some (or even one) of these efforts is better than nothing. Of course, we need to strive to do more, be self-critical, and listen to feedback. That being said, don’t let the fear of imperfection prevent you from trying. It’s impossible to achieve one hundred percent accessibility, especially when there are conflicting needs. Yet we can continually work at it, doing our best to structurally make space for this evolving process.


 

Julie Nowak
Julie Nowak is a Toronto-based food justice organizer, educator and writer who focuses on the intersection of food issues, body image and disability. This stems from her personal experience of finding healing from disordered eating through therapeutic farming and involvement in food justice, as well as living as a disabled person after a brain injury. Julie enjoys gardening, vegan seasonal cooking, and walking in parks. You can follow her at www.seasonalbody.org

Claiming Our Clean Food Sovereignty

An Interview with The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective

by Adabu Brownhill

Adabu: Who established the organization? When?

BFFGC: The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective came out of the oppression of the Black Creek Community Farm located in the Jane & Steeles area, where infamous Jane and Finch is just south of the farm. The Collective was established by the Afro-farmers and local community members to address and dismantle racism and oppression as it pertains to our food system as well as the generational food oppression coming out of slavery. We are one of three local cross-cultural food access hubs in partnership with FoodShare Toronto funded through the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Access and Equity Toronto. We are still learning about some of our culturally appropriate foods from Africa and our vast afro food culture, we are also working to connect with other afro farmers in the diaspora from the Caribbean to share farming and food knowledge as it pertains to the afro-people’s experiences in the diaspora. The organization got started in 2013 officially after the Intensive Leadership Facilitation Training (ILFT), working to dismantle racism and food oppression in the food system as it pertains to the community. This training was done by “Growing Power” from Milwaukee and Chicago through the partnership with Foodshare Toronto local Empowerment Group (LEG), “Growing Food Justice For All Initiative.”

 

A: What is the main goal or vision of Black Farmers and Food Collective?

BFFGC: One of the main goals of the collective is to ensure that the “clean” (organic) food we grow gets distributed through collaborative partnerships such as pop-up communal markets in fresh food oppressed communities that are affordable and sustainable. Also encourage communal growing so food-insecure and oppressed members of the community can and will have access to clean and affordable local, culturally appropriate food that can be grown in Canada in the short growing season through collaborative efforts and participation.

A: Who is mainly involved with the organization? Do you have many participants from the Black community?

BFFGC: We are farmers, food growers, small food business owners and food-insecure families and individuals –eight members thus far. Our Collective presently are all Afro-people from the Caribbean, Canada and Africa. We get volunteers from right across the ethnic board. People have been stoked by what we’ve been able to accomplish this year, its magnitude, and the variety of crops we’ve grown.

A: Do you have garden space that you use to grow food? How does that work?

BFFGC: This year we rented a half acre of land from Fresh City Farms – a local organic farm that operates out of Downsview Parkc at Keele & Sheppard Ave, West. We had written formally to the Black Creek Community Farm steering committee in 2014 and made a request for an acre of the land to do the work we are now doing but our request was laid under the rug and locked away! We are now working towards our own farm and growing spaces in the city with future community collaborations wishing to address food security and food justice issues as they pertain to affordable and sustainable and other racialized communities.

A: In my experience agriculture in Ontario is extremely dominated by white people. What are your views on this? Do you feel that Black Farmers and Food Collective address the issue of environmental racism?

BFFGC: Yes, I agree with you but once upon a time we had productive and stable farming communities; this was how we fed ourselves and shared food with each other– trading through commerce and land ownership. After our younger generations left their communities for the big cities they abandoned their roots in the agricultural sector and assimilated into the wider food culture which has impacted us in a very negative way through many types and diseases and sickness. Historically we were also driven off land and much of  this lands  was used to redevelop middle to high-income communities, unfortunately just like like all the other oppressive tactics perpetrated against us these issues were swept under the rug! As a collective member I have the right to live, work, contribute, play and invest in myself and my community just as any other ethnic groups in Ontario and I can do it anywhere in any community I choose. This is what we do presently, we share space with such a high profile farm in the local urban sphere. Our encouragement to community is to empower them through a variety of engagements. We work with our community as they come and we meet them where they are presently but we ensure we leave them more empowered than how we found them through the work we are doing to dismantle racism and oppression and to empower ourselves and the community.

A:  Can you tell me about what kinds of things volunteers can get involved with?

BFFGC: Yes, we welcome volunteers to help us in capacities that they are knowledgeable or want to learn with us. We are still grassroots but are working towards developing and becoming an independent local cross-cultural food access innovation hub for Afro-people and other community members who wants to support our work and experiences.

For more information, check out www.blackfarmersto.wordpress.com


 

Adabu Brownhill
Adabu Brownhill (DurtyDabz) is a Black/Mixed, Queer, FemmeBro dedicated to fighting for Mother Earth and the Liberation of Black & Indigenous Peoples and All People Of Colour. She is a badass DJ as well as a passionate gardener. She strives to decolonize agriculture in Ontario and create farming/gardening spaces that are fun and kool for racialized folks. She dreams of a farm where People Of Colour be chillin’, bumpin hella beats, planting seeds, harvesting herbs and eating gourmet meals while making jokes and enjoying each other’s company. She draws inspiration from radical underground artists such as Junglepussy, Destiny Frasqueri (Princess Nokia), Jay Boogie and Le1f. Her favorite foods are spicy meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Shovel to Fork: Organic Farming

By Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte

There is no doubt that eating a natural and pesticide-free meal three times a day is a healthier option than devouring that juicy one-dollar Big Mac from McDonald’s. While I myself grew up with healthy options available to me, the discussion around organic agriculture and cuisine became a passion of mine when my daughter was born. I did my research on which products were from organic sources by the stickers they bore or the companies they came from; I spent countless hours blending sweet potatoes or plums into an edible mush simply because I knew what chemicals were put into them. While making my daughter’s food in bulk seemed to save money, the fact of the matter was that spending an extra five dollars on a box of strawberries was drastically outside my budget as a new mother. I needed a new solution that would meet the needs of my daughter, my values and my pocket book. With the help my father who has a particularly green thumb (not literally), we started our own organic garden from heirloom seeds and trusted plant nurseries. We grew vegetables, herbs and an ever-blooming source of strawberries—many of which were put in the freezer to use over the winter months. Not only was this more affordable and sustainable, but it was grounding, beautiful and filled with all sorts of healthy connections that extended outside of just our nutritional health. The food tasted better too. It tastes real.

Granted, there are now more grocery stores and food supplement locations that are opting to include an increase in organic products for their customers, their prices continue to fall outside the budget of many low to mid income families. Organic gardening and organic farming can be a more sustainable and cost-efficient option for healthy food security. Community-wide organic farming can also create the opportunity to build relationships with the land and our culture as well.

How does organic farming build relationships to the culture? It starts at the beginning of life. It starts by honouring the natural world and our own bodies through ways we work with the land (not just on it). The land teaches us about ourselves through the investment we make to maintain our gardens. This relationship to the process then reflects our relationships to others. Like other healthy relationships, a good relationship with our gardens starts with care, patience and a drive to be understanding. We made sure certain plants received partial sun and that others received full sun. We are aware of companion planting and can determine which plants empower each other to grow and which ones could not function together. To protect our little seedlings, we plant certain flowers and herbs around our gardens that naturally warded off animals and insects and we continue to prune, weed and water them as they grow. We put a lot of our selves into our food and medicines. Sounds a lot like building a community doesn’t it? Our ancestors knew a lot about the land and how to care for it as a community; the land in turn knew how to care for us as well. It was a relationship between entities and not an entitlement to humankind. There was gratification and thankfulness throughout the process and past the harvesting season. For myself, there is that same gratitude from shovel to fork, knowing that our spaghetti sauce was made from home-grown tomatoes or that our salad was tossed with cucumbers and lettuce picked by our children.

 

The most satisfying aspect of it all was seeing my daughter, as a two year old, pick out the wild garlic or the pole beans and know that it was for food and for medicine. She loved them; she really did. I was and am proud to see her develop a strong and ancestral relationship to the land through holistic health. In this way, organic Farming can be cultural security as well. Organic farming has potential be the start of a community-wide reconnection to the land. In building a relationship to the land we are building a relationship to ourselves; our identity (from ceremonies to the ohenton kariwatekwen) is tied directly to land. In many ways, we are the land. This connection is not only essential to our identity; it expands to influence all other aspects of our indigeneity as well.

I believe, that in order to truly fight for our identity or even to negotiate land claims, we (and the generations to follow) need reconnect to our bodies in a real way. In reality, how can we hope to fight for land claims if we have never touched the land?

Organic farming can be a way to not only increase food security and address our major health concerns (diabetes in particular), but it can give our community a large-scale opportunity to live our identity rather than label it. I see it as community-wide healing, restructuring, and grounding. Granted, organic farming can be a time-consuming investment that may not fit into the lives, deadlines and obligations of everyone. But maybe taking that time to slow down is exactly what we need to stop moving so fast and learn to look again through the eyes of our ancestors.


 

Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte
Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte is a young mother, artist, art educator, and art therapist candidate from the Kahnawake Mohawk First Nation community. She is currently completing a MA at Concordia University in Art Therapy, with focus on healing multigenerational trauma and attachment through visual media. Outside of her schooling, Megan is actively involved with the Kahnawake Youth Forum, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and the Indigenous Young Women’s National Advisory Board providing an arts-based approach to social change. Her main project, Skatne Ionkwatehiahrontie, is a young parents program that aims to support attachment parenting, explore sexual health and connect youth to cultural networks. Megan’s social work in these spaces also inspire her artistic development, having her art pieces reflect concepts of healthy relationships, indigenous ‘womanism’, as well as environmental, reproductive, and social justice.