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Ont. ag organization centres anti-racism

Ont. ag organization centres anti-racism

The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario hosted multiple sessions on the work and insights of BIPOC farmers and food justice workers at their virtual annual conference 

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

“This is such an important conversation, and one that is new to EFAO. We want to apologize for being late to begin this work,” Ali English, executive director of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) said to attendees of a session titled Working for Racial Justice in Farming. The panel was part of EFAO’s virtual annual conference, and featured Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) individuals working for justice in the food system in Ontario, and beyond.

EFAO representatives began sessions throughout the conference with a land acknowledgement, and encouraged attendees to learn more about the people who first inhabited the land where they live and work.

“How do we live and farm as good treaty people?” the opening slide asked.

In addition to sessions about ecological agronomic and livestock husbandry practices, EFAO featured BIPOC farmers and educators leading several sessions about the intersection of race, farming and food. The organization also hosted a BIPOC farmer consultation, asking how they could better serve underrepresented people in the ecological farming community.

Cheyenne Sundance, a young Black farmer, gave a talk about Innovation and Community in Urban Agriculture. She runs Sundance Harvest, a 1/3 acre, year round farm in Downsview Park in Toronto, with two propane heated greenhouses and 10,000 square feet of outdoor growing space.

“I was told that I should always have at least one acre or two acres to be a profitable farm, but Sundance Harvest is profitable by itself with 1/3 of an acre, and it pays me a fair salary, and also I pay my employees a living wage,” Sundance said. She markets her produce through a weekly CSA subscription box, an online farm store with additional products from BIPOC producers, and farmers markets, and uses a diversified social media strategy for brand recognition.

“There’s such a lack of diversity in agriculture and a lack of opportunities for us, I really wanted to centre our products in my store. And I’ve done a really good job I think of trying to support as many BIPOC producers as I can,” she explained.

“I always say that my farm is rooted in food justice because I do grow really great produce year-round, but I also grow new farmers,” Sundance said. She runs programming to address food injustices in the current system, including Growing in the Margins.

Growing in the Margins “is the pride and joy of Sundance Harvest,” she said. The program is “a free urban agriculture education program for youth who are marginalized within the food system.”

Many graduates of the program successfully go on to start careers in agriculture. 

To inspire BIPOC youth to pursue agriculture “representation is obviously very very important,” Sundance said. “Being very visible on social media has helped, not just me, but other youth of colour who don’t see themselves represented in agriculture and in farming.”

Representation “matters a lot to a lot of BIPOC youth. If I wanted to start my own farm, I know that I would face issues and adversity starting it because I’m a BIPOC, disabled woman. And I wanted to work for someone who had similar lived experience so they could mentor me and teach me,” she explained. “Sundance Harvest started because, very bluntly, I didn’t see myself represented in agriculture, and I really wanted to be a farmer.”

Panelists in the Friday evening session expanded on the subject of racial justice in agriculture as they answered questions posed by the moderator, Melana Roberts. Roberts is a federal and municipal food policy strategist based in Toronto, and serves on the board or as an advisor for many food policy and strategy organizations.

“Racial justice is a central part of farming in a more ecological way,” Roberts said. “An incredible Indigenous teacher and mentor once told me ‘you cannot mend ecological relationships until you mend social relationships.’”

Cheyanne Sundance was on the panel, along with:

  • John Bonaparte, a Mohawk of Akwesasne famer running Bare Bones Farms, an educational ecological farm, and member of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance’s leadership council
  • Michaela Cruz, a farmer who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines and now runs Healing Hands Farms focusing on Asian-heritage vegetables
  • Anan Lololi, co-founder of Afri-Can FoodBasket, urban sustainable food systems consultant and food justice activist, and
  • Gabriel Allahdua, a former migrant farm worker who now works with Justice for Migrant Workers

The panelists spoke about their work.

Bonaparte hopes “to grow the next generation of Mohawk farmers,” and create “a hub at my place not only for agricultural learning, but also cultural teaching,” he said.

For Cruz, connection and acknowledgement of the land she farms is important as she strives to grow for an underserved local organic vegetable market.

In her studies at the University of Guelph “there was never an acknowledgment of indigenous knowledge and innovation,” she said.

Allahdua’s work advocating for migrant worker rights is personal. Through the volunteer organization “we connect with migrant workers and our allies” and advocate against unjust labour laws and immigration laws that keep migrant workers vulnerable, he explained.

“Ultimately, my group is fighting for status for migrant workers,” he said. “If you have status it will take care of your labour issues, and if you have status it will take care of your immigration issues.”

How can we bring the needs and experiences of BIPOC individuals into more conversations in the food and agriculture space, Roberts asked.

“The image of a farmer in Ontario is not of a racialized person,” she said. “But the people doing some of the most difficult and important work in the food system are, in fact, people who are Black, people who are racialized.”

The panelists spoke to the theme of justice for BIPOC farmers and food workers, and also offered advice to marginalized individuals looking to get involved in food and farming.

“Try to find community in any way you can,” Sundance said.

Lololi spoke to how the broader industry can work toward racial justice.

“We need learning farms, we need incubator farms,” he said. “My work has not been as a farmer, but cultivating farming development, and I learn along the way.”

Though many organizations are disseminating agricultural knowledge “there’s always a lack of diversity,” he explained. “We need the support that EFAO has, whether it be education, research, knowing (about) seeds, knowing about soil health.”

Membership of organizations like the EFAO should reflect the population province, he said. “The culture of farming in Ontario is very Euro-centric, and that’s good, because folks from Europe (came here to farm). But now we live in a province where multiculturalism and diversity is of the highest order around the world.”

Increased diversity in food and agriculture would benefit everyone, he explained.

“The input of people of diverse backgrounds would make a much more healthy farming environment because we have a lot to bring,” he said. “We’re bringing a lot to the table. So, what we need is the education … show us the money so that we can get involved.”

The average age of farmers in Ontario is increasing, and “there’s a lot of new immigrants who want to farm,” Lololi said. But they need support to get started.

Additionally, “we have to have an anti-racism agenda for institutions like EFAO,” he said. “Before the underground railroad there was slavery in Canada… we worked this land without any pay. So right now, presently, what we need is to make sure we have the resources of education, and knowledge, and money, and access to land, and we will do fine.”

Panelists each gave calls to action for the agriculture community if they’d like to act in allyship with BIPOC farmers and food workers.

“Purchasing seed from ethical seed sources,” Bonaparte said.

To support BIPOC youth leadership in agriculture farm organizations should ensure they are vocally safe spaces for individuals with intersectionally marginalized identities, Sundance added. “The simplest thing I’m hearing across the board is representation … see BIPOC farmers for the amazing wealth of knowledge we have (about) growing food.”

To move forward in allyship, the agriculture and food industry must talk about racial issues, said Lololi.

“For me the most important thing is conversation … there is a legacy of colonization and folks don’t like to have this hard conversation. We have to talk about the past, we have to start with reconciliation and reparations,” he said. “Let’s talk about food and race, so we can get past that and do the real work.”

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