When the pandemic began, we rushed the seed companies, hoping to take back some control over our food supplies. We struggled to find local sources of flour so we could join the thousands of like-minded folk who’d begun baking their way to fuller pantries and calmer states of mind. Many of us extended our gardens in the spring and have continued to reap the rewards and share produce with our neighbours through the summer. One thing we rarely talk about, though, in either urban or rural communities, is who grows the food that appears in our stores and markets. Why, when it comes to farming in Alberta and across the country, is there is such a lack of diversity?
For Indigenous people, Black people and all people of colour, historic barriers to land access in Canada have included repressive laws about personhood and the deeply fraught concept of land ownership, as well as scanty access to tools and training. The Canadian government’s 1889 peasant farming policy required Indigenous growers to use hand tools alone and cultivate root crops instead of the more profitable wheat (and this was after many Indigenous people had been displaced from their traditional lands). Black people moving north to farm at the turn of the 20th century, following the abolition of slavery in the US, encountered campaigns of letter-writing from European farmers and groups such as the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, who were concerned that the newcomers would cause problems in white farming communities. Immigrants of colour arriving from overseas faced pressure from the Canadian government to prove that they were people of means and thus not a burden on the system; this financial barrier prevented many from even entering the country, let alone setting up farms.
I write this in a rare moment of calm during summer’s rush, contemplating my own market garden and small farm as a woman of colour in this province. I write it as a grower understanding her value to her community during times of uncertainty: COVID-19 is limiting access to the foods we desire, and it behooves us to support and strengthen our local food economies to address this. And I write this in the full knowledge that a lack of diversity continues to be a major issue in farming, just as barriers to access affect how people of colour encounter all land in Alberta. When we contemplate the need for local food security and the long-standing barriers to land access for Indigenous people, Black people and people of colour in Canada as a whole, we become aware of a profound problem: namely, that the people most at risk from COVID-19 are those least likely to be able to directly support their communities in the form of food security.
And that is a major systemic issue.
How do we build more inclusive and supportive farming communities? This is a crucial question not only during the pandemic but in general as we move forward following the eventual release of a vaccine. Climate change is already causing escalating damage to the land that so many of us tend. Now, with COVID-19 restructuring many of our industries, we have a chance to rebuild our approach to farming to consider both climatic shift and the necessity of supporting a far more diverse agriculture that respects people of all backgrounds.
Consider this. How many of us are already struggling with crop losses (or perhaps even farm losses) due to climate change? How many of us worry about the health of the land we will pass on to our families, and the strength of the businesses we have spent years establishing? Most of us are here, whether on massive intergenerational farms or on small, human-powered acreages, because we have a deep and abiding love for the land. Isn’t it worth changing our practices when we can in order for us all to benefit from something better?
I’m looking out at the land I love and tend and thinking of all I’ve been taught from diverse farmers, seed-savers, beekeepers and foresters over the years. I’m thinking of the regenerative agricultural practices from around the world that I’ve adopted on the farm I call home, how they enrich my sense of connection to community and deepen my link to this place.
As food security weighs more and more on my mind, accompanied by climate change, I’m making the commitment to learn about and support other diverse local farmers. When we come out on the other side of COVID-19, I want to feel more empowered than I do now, caught in my fear as both a grower and as a woman of colour. We can empower each other by acting intentionally and supporting the knowledge, dedication and ingenuity of all those who desire to work on the land. And I’m certain that encouraging greater diversity as we rebuild our agricultural industry will mean that all of us grow stronger together.
Jenna Butler teaches environmental and creative writing in Red Deer and runs an off-grid organic farm near Barrhead.