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Organic Stories: Discovery Organics

in Current Issue/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Stories

Creating a Culture of Collaboration

By Brody Irvine

The organic movement is one based on the concept of collaboration. At a basic level, it is an agreement between nature and farmers to work together towards common goals of mutual benefit—nature provides nourishing food, while farmers work within the boundaries nature provides to nurture the growth of that food. This is an arrangement that is in constant fluidity, and one where creativity and communication are essential for long-term success. With that in mind, it is important to understand how valuable collaboration is to every scope of the organic movement, or dare I say ‘industry,’ that now exists.

Fundamentally, collaboration is at the heart of everything. It is the foundation of community, allows us to interconnect, and provides the network for how great ideas spread. As the Farmers’ Market provides a space for growers and artisans to sell their products, local eaters come to know and trust where their food comes from. Eaters take that knowledge to their neighbourhood grocers and the demand for local, organically-grown produce and products expands beyond the market tent.

Now we are at the stage where organically-grown produce is available at nearly every supermarket in North America, and the market for organics is growing worldwide. Setting aside the realities (or unrealities) of large-scale economics associated with conventional business models…we need to recognize this as a win! Everyone should be able to have access to food grown with the utmost care for ourselves and the planet, and we are closer to that goal now than ever before.

Randy Hooper (Discovery Organics), Rafael Rodriguez Valdivia (Red Adobe Organics), and Dylan Edmiston (Community Natural Foods) inspecting some of the open field corn trials in Atotonilco Alto, Mexico.

From the start, Annie Moss and Randy Hooper knew how important working together was going to be when launching Discovery Organics. Upon witnessing the tragic returns many local organic growers were getting within the local wholesale markets in BC, and the limits many growers faced to accessing those markets, they knew that something had to be done.

It all began back in 1998, when Annie and Randy found a small network of organic pioneers in British Columbia who could provide the volume needed for the wholesale market and were willing to learn and invest in standards around product grading, packaging, labeling, and branding. They then connected those growers with small, independent retailers, buying groups, and health food stores from Tofino, the Gulf Islands, the Fraser Valley, and all the way to the Prairies. It certainly took time and enormous effort, but it was all based on love, community, and working together for a greater purpose—from early morning drives out to Cawston to help Trevor and Debbie at Sundance Farm pack apples for last minute orders, to brainstorming with Bruce at Across The Creek on branding strategy for Sieglinde potatoes, to working with Choices Markets on marketing tools to raise consumer awareness around where their food is coming from and how it is produced.

From those early days of working with local growers to establish a wholesale market for BC-grown organic produce, Discovery Organics has looked beyond the borders of BC to find year-round sources of organic produce that are grown ethically and with integrity. Collaboration has been key to securing a consistent source of Fair Trade organic bananas, ginger, turmeric, and avocados, among many other produce items—and proving that eaters in Western Canada not only wanted access to all this deliciously-grown and harvested food but were craving it! Open and honest communication was the key to unlocking it.

Kabocha squash available in February 2022.

Working collectively is essential for progressing our mission of a future where we all eat organically, especially when adversity arises and times become challenging. We lean on each other for support, advice, and guidance. We help each other overcome what can feel like insurmountable obstacles. In 2007 one of our dearest friends and colleagues, Esteban Martinez, was met with such a problem and the collective action of our community helped get him through it. After working with Esteban for 17 years, he was Discovery Organic’s most important California strawberry grower.

“In the winter of 2007 there was a bank crash in the US—the great recession. The banks had lent far more money than they should have, and needed cash back and fast to restore their liquidity. In Watsonville, the strawberry capital of the US, at $15,000 an acre, banks had hundreds of millions tied up in loans to growers.” Randy says. “Esteban called us on a Friday night, crying. His bank had called his loan with no notice, and told him if he didn’t repay the $125,000 by Monday they would seize all his equipment. He wouldn’t even have started his season for months and had no income. We didn’t have any money and didn’t know anyone who could help.”

Randy goes on to recount that “the next morning, we were unloading a California truck, which happened to be driven by the driver who usually did our strawberry pickups at Esteban’s farm.” They told him the story, because he knew Esteban. “The driver liked Esteban—he would always come down to his cooler to load them, even at midnight. Later that afternoon Sukdeep and his trucking partner Sonny came to our yard, and then they handed us a bank draft for $125,000 for Esteban—money they had raised that very day amongst their Punjabi community in Surrey.”

Dave Wilson (Choices Markets), Andrew Vogler (Crisp Organics), and Carter Selmes-Blythe (Discovery Organics) touring the fall/winter crops in the Sumas Prairie in the fall of 2019.

At every turn, Discovery Organics works to build lasting relationships with growers, sellers, and transporters that have real tangible meaning, because working with friends is a lot more fun than working with strangers, and community has no borders. That spirit is evident within the greater organic movement, one where finding common ground is essential. It is sharing farm equipment in exchange for helping harvest apples in September (just make sure you wash the tractor before returning it!). It is sharing knowledge on integrated pest management in exchange for some cabbage needed to fill a weekly CSA order. It is learning about new weeding or harvest techniques over a six pack of beer or kombucha during a summer sunset. It is taking the time to call in on a neighbour during the height of harvest season and sharing a laugh, or a cry.

I’ll say it again, finding common ground is essential.

As we know it today, organic agriculture has its roots in the counterculture movements of the 1960s. Susanna Klassen wrote about this in the Fall 2021 issue of the BC Organic Grower, noting how the collaboration between the United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party raised awareness of the horrifying conditions and inequities that exist in our food system and inspired farmers and consumers to demand an ethical, holistic food production model.1 One that would nurture Mother Earth with care, and treat those working her soil with respect. That message still rings true, and still needs constant telling.

Doing the telling, putting in the work, communicating together to create a better world—that is our vocation and we have so much more to learn. Indigenous land values need a larger voice within the organic movement. The dignity and rights of farm workers need more attention and action through government support, and can start with farm owner integrity. Regenerative agriculture conversations need to include organic principles, and the climate solutions provided by these methods need to be championed and shared amongst all food production models. Collaborative efforts amongst growers, processors, educators, wholesalers, retailers, government, consumers, and more will help us include those issues in our future food system models.

We have come a long way and have a long way to go, and that is kind of the whole point. Communication begets collaboration which begets progress. We are all part of a greater food web, that starts with the soil and transcends into sharing a glass together (virtual or real)—and as much as we need to be there for each other during the hard times we must celebrate together too.

discoveryorganics.ca


Brody is a purchaser at Discovery Organics and specializes in grower relations and development. Starting in 2011 working for a small organic home delivery company in Edmonton Alberta, Brody was bit by the produce bug and has been enthralled with the organic food movement ever since.

Feature image: Employees of Discovery Organics getting a field tour from Bruce Miller at Across The Creek Organics in Pemberton, BC.

All images: Credit: Discovery Organics.

1Read Susanna’s article here: bcorganicgrower.ca/2021/09/fairness-as-migrant-justice

Fairness as Migrant Justice

in 2021/Fall 2021/Organic Community/Organic Standards

By Susanna Klassen

The organic sector has many roots, and has been strengthened by a diversity of movements and ideas. Though rarely acknowledged, the sector was given a significant boost in the late 1960’s when hundreds of thousands of Mexican farm workers mobilized millions of consumers in the United States to boycott the conventional grapes and lettuce they were working to produce.(1) The boycotts were organized by the United Farm Workers under the leadership of Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, and others, in collaboration with allies like the Black Panther Party. The protest was a response to the hazardous working conditions caused by unsafe applications of toxic pesticides. This was around the same time that the organic food movement was starting to gain traction among both farmers and consumers, and the boycotts bridged struggles for farm worker justice with the interests of health and social justice-minded consumers—a boon for the organic market in North America.(2)

We often hear about the influence of organic pioneers, such as Sir Albert Howard, and how their commitment to soil health helped shaped the organic sector. However, there are other movements, including the struggles for justice and labour by agricultural workers, without which organic agriculture would not be what it is today. The Canadian organic sector is anchored to some of these social justice roots through the organic principle of “Fairness,” which includes explicit reference to farm workers, and is “characterized by equity, respect, justice, and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.”(3) But, despite the inclusion of the Fairness principle in the introduction to the Canadian Organic Standards, the standards themselves do not contain a single requirement relating to social fairness, including for workers.

Today, the wellbeing of farm workers has once again been elevated in the public consciousness. The devastating impacts of COVID-19 shone a light on many of the ugliest parts of our food system, including insufficient access to protective equipment, deadly incidence of disease, and xenophobia experienced by essential farm workers, many of whom are racialized migrants.(4) The climate crisis also continues to threaten the health and safety of farm workers—look at the recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest—and has already been deadly.(5)

Migrant workers are uniquely vulnerable due to their precarious and temporary status in Canada. Since migrant workers’ ability to work and remain in the country is tied to a single employer, they cannot easily leave unjust, abusive, or dangerous working conditions the way that workers with residency or citizenship status can. Despite regulations that are meant to guarantee minimum standards and conditions of employment, migrant workers’ access to these limited rights and benefits is effectively curbed by the risks associated with exerting them. Meanwhile, poor enforcement and follow up by regulatory bodies means that employers often break rules and cut corners at the expense of workers.

While not all organic farms hire paid workers, increasingly, more labour-intensive organic farms do hire temporary foreign workers through either the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), or the Primary Agriculture stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). While we don’t know how many migrant workers are employed on organic farms, we know that organic farms in Canada use more labour than conventional farms in general. There is not good data specific to migrant labour on organic farms, but preliminary analyses of a survey I conducted of BC vegetable growers and publicly available data suggest that organic farms utilize migrant farm workers at a rate that is similar to conventional farms.

Numbers aside, it is clear that organic farms are not exempt from the structural inequities faced by migrant farm workers. Instances of abuse, neglect and unfair treatment of migrant workers have been documented on organic farms in Canada. These include several complaints of underpaid wages and poor conditions at Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm in BC, or the tragic death of two migrant workers at Filsinger’s Organic Foods & Orchards in Ontario. While these examples may seem extreme, many experts have pointed out that unfair conditions for migrant workers are not the result of a few “bad apples,”(6) but rather a system that disempowers and devalues migrant workers in favour of a flexible and dependable labour force.(7)

In recognition of these realities, and the lack of any requirements in the Canadian organic standards to enact the organic principle of “Fairness,” several organic community members have been asking what can be done to improve fairness in organics as it relates to labour. These efforts have included a petition to the organic standards review process for social fairness standards put forward by Organic BC’s own Anne Macey, in collaboration with Janine Gibson and Marion McBride.(8) While these proposed standards were not voted on by the Technical Committee (which governs the standards revision process) in the 2020 revision process, the committee has committed to discussing it again in 2025.(9) Additionally, several directors of the Organic Federation of Canada are already working on revising the proposed social fairness standards, which include but are not limited to standards relating to farm workers.

Another approach to embodying the principle of fairness, however, is to look to migrant workers and migrant advocacy organizations themselves and ask how the organic community could contribute to migrant justice demands in Canada. Together with other experts and advocates, and in light of exacerbated inequities caused by COVID-19, these groups have called on the federal and provincial governments for structural changes to the TFWP, including:

  1. Regularized/resident status for all migrants upon arrival and an end to repatriations;
  2. Granting of open work permits to migrants;
  3. Improved protections and benefits;
  4. Improved procedures to follow-up on complaints from workers;
  5. Stronger mandates and supports for employers;
  6. Improved inspection regimes;
  7. Improved access to information for workers; and,
  8. Improved representation of migrant organizations in planning and implementation of supports.(10), (11)

Another important issue that has been raised by groups like Fuerza Migrante (including during a session about Fairness and Solidarity with Migrants at the 2020 COABC conference) is the lack of worker voices in, and knowledge about, their own employment contracts. It is important to note that the changes that migrants and migrant advocacy organizations are seeking are much broader than the organic sector, and most are focused on structural and systemic changes to the temporary foreign worker programs, including how they are regulated and governed.

The theme and purpose of this fall issue to “harvest wisdom” from beyond the BC organic sector presents a valuable opportunity to contemplate how the organic community fits into a larger landscape of demands for change within and adjacent to the food system. Aided in part by the values-based grounding to the principle of Fairness, it seems that the organic community has made progress towards viewing labour generally, and migrant workers specifically, as inherently part of organic agriculture. But as of yet, migrant justice demands (including improved representation of migrant justice organizations in planning and decision-making) are not yet centred in the sector’s approach to Fairness.

Perhaps the sector can continue to explore what can be done to achieve Fairness through organic standards in addition to considering how they might advance migrant justice priorities. Treating migrant justice as the core of the Fairness principle seems like a good place to start.


Susanna is a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her PhD research is about the contributions of organic agriculture to food system sustainability with a focus on labour and agroecological diversification. This article draws from a collaboration with Fuerza Migrante, a migrant worker collective, and a forthcoming publication by Susanna, Fuerza Migrante, and Hannah Wittman called “Sharing the Struggle for Fairness: Exploring the Possibilities for Solidarity & Just Labour in Organic Agriculture.”

Feature image: Credit: Fuerza Migrante

References:

  1. Araiza, L. (2009). “In Common Struggle against a Common Oppression”: The United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party, 1968-1973. The Journal of African American History, 94(2), 200–223. doi.org/10.1086/JAAHv94n2p200
  2. Obach, B. K. (2015). Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States. The MIT Press.
  3. ifoam.bio/why-organic/principles-organ ic-agriculture/principle-fairness
  4. Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. (2020). Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada.
  5. aljazeera.com/economy/2021/7/15/what-choice-do-we-have-us-farm-workers-battle-deadly-heat-wave
  6. Hennebry, J. (2010). Not just a few Bad Apples: Vulnerability, Health and Temporary Migration in Canada. Canadian Issues / Thèmes Canadiens, Spring, 73–77.
  7. For a more in-depth article about temporary foreign worker programs and the organic sector, see the following piece from the BC Organic Grower by Robyn Bunn, Elise Hjalmarson, and Christine Mettler, collective members of Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) Okanagan: bcorganicgrower.ca/2017/04/tem porary-migrant-farm-workers-in-bc
  8. Anne Macey wrote an article for the Canadian Organic Grower about Fairness in Organics, which you can find here: cog.ca/article/opin ion-fairness-organic-agriculture
  9. CGSB. (2020). Organic production systems: General principles and management standards (National Standard of Canada CAN/CGSB-32.310-2020). Canadian General Standards Board. publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.854643/publication.html
  10. Migrant Rights Network. (2020, May 7). Status for All – for a Just Recovery from COVID-19. migrantrights.ca/statusforall
  11. Haley, E., Caxaj, S., George, G., Hennebry, J., Martell, E., & McLaughlin, J. (2020). Migrant Farmworkers Face Heightened Vulnerabilities During COVID-19. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 1–5. doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2020.093.016

Footnotes from the Field: Fairness in Organic Agriculture

in 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2020

Anne Macey

Originally published in The Canadian Organic Grower, Spring 2018, and updated by the author in May 2020, with thanks.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has established its Principles of Organic Agriculture. Within those, IFOAM includes a Principle of Fairness, which states “Organic agriculture should be built on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.” The IFOAM text elaborates further, saying this principle “emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties—farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders, and consumers.”

Many of us have always thought of organic agriculture as a food system that includes social values, yet nothing in our standards speaks to social issues. The focus is very much on agronomic practices and permitted substances. Animal welfare is addressed, but when it comes to people and relationships, North Americans have resisted any suggestion that social justice standards are needed. The argument is that those kinds of standards are written for the global South where exploitation of the work force and poor working conditions are more common. The US and Canada have labour laws to protect farm workers.

I am not so sure, and in any case, fairness in the food system is about much more than treatment of farm workers. Fairness and basic rights include fair trade, fair pricing for the farmer, and fair access to land and seeds. It means fair wages for workers, decent farmworker housing, and more. I agree that incorporating social issues into standards could be problematic, but it is time we had a serious discussion about whether they are needed—and, if not, whether there is an alternative approach. How we can create trust and demonstrate that organic farmers respect their workers as much as the critters in the soil? How can we ensure farmers get a fair price for the quality food they produce?

Colleagues in the US (Michael Sligh, Elizabeth Henderson, and others) worked on these issues with the Agricultural Justice Project (see sidebar on Social Standards in Food Production), developing social stewardship standards for fair and just treatment of people who work in organic and sustainable agriculture. These standards currently fall into the realm of “beyond organic” with the stated purpose:

  • To allow everyone involved in organic and sustainable production and processing a quality of life that meets their basic needs and allows an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment.
  • To progress toward an entire production, processing and distribution chain that is both socially just and ecologically responsible.1

Here in Canada, two things got me thinking more about the need to introduce something on the topic of fairness in the Canadian Standard. The first was hearing about the poor housing with no potable water for migrant workers on a fruit farm in the Okanagan (not an organic farm), despite laws being in place to protect those workers.

The second is the debate about farm interns and apprentice rights on organic farms. With high labour requirements, many organic farms depend on WWOOFers and other short-term interns for their work force. But sometimes the relationship sours and the workers end up feeling exploited. While many farmers commit to providing a rich and rewarding experience for their interns, in other cases conditions are less than ideal. An intern’s expectation will likely include learning what it takes to become a farmer, not just how to weed carrots.

Maybe we don’t need to spell out lots of specific requirements in the standards, but we could at least make some principled statements about the need for organic agriculture to provide fair working and living conditions for farmers and their workers, whatever their status. For years this type of approach was used in the livestock standards, without the need to spell out exactly what was needed for compliance. We only articulated more specific rules when consumers became unsure about the ability of organic agriculture to address animal welfare issues and started looking for other labels. We could also include statements about fair prices and financial returns for farmers or buyers’ rights to a good quality product.

Unfortunately, since writing this article not much has changed. To bring the discussion to the table, I made some proposals for the 2018 standards revision process. The Organic Technical Committee set up a task force on the topic but no agreement was reached, although it might end up as an informative appendix to facilitate the review in 2025. In the meantime, following a discussion at the 2020 COABC conference we wondered if COABC should conduct a pilot project which, if successful, could be brought forward to the 2025 standards review. Perhaps a first step might be for organic operators to have a “letter of agreement” or similar in the first language of their employees and interns committing the operator to uphold the principles of social fairness regardless of any other formal labour contract that might exist.

The conversation continues.


Social Standards in Food Production

Domestic Fair Trade: The Agricultural Justice Project is a member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association along with a wide range of farmworker and farmer groups, retailers, processors and NGOs from across North America. These groups are united in their mission to promote and protect the integrity of domestic fair trade.

Farmer Direct Co-op, a 100% farmer-owned, organic co-op based in Saskatchewan, was a leader in domestic fair trade, as the first business in North America to earn that certification. Its membership includes more than 60 family farms producing organic small grains and pulse crops in the Prairie region.

Domestic fair-trade certification is based on a set of 16 principles, encompassing health, justice, and sustainability:

  • Family scale farming
  • Capacity building for producers and workers
  • Democratic and participatory ownership and control
  • Rights of labor
  • Equality and opportunity
  • Direct trade
  • Fair and stable pricing
  • Shared risk & affordable credit
  • Long-term trade relationships
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Appropriate technology
  • Indigenous Peoples’ rights
  • Transparency & accountability
  • Education & advocacy
  • Responsible certification and marketing
  • Animal welfare

Source: Domestic Fair Trade Association

Aquaculture: The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) includes social requirements in its standards certifying responsibly farmed seafood. “ASC certification imposes strict requirements based on the core principles of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), these include prohibiting the use of child labour or any form of forced labour. All ASC certified farms are safe and equitable working environments where employees earn a decent wage and have regulated working hours. Regular consultation with surrounding communities about potential social impacts from the farm and proper processing of complaints are also required by certified farms.”

Source: Aquaculture Stewardship Council


Anne Macey is a long-time advocate for organic agriculture at local, provincial, national and international levels. She has served on the CGSB technical committee on organic agriculture, the ECOA Animal Welfare Task Force, the COABC Accreditation Board and on the Accreditation Committee for the International Organic Accreditation Service, as well as her local COG chapter. She is a writer/editor of COG’s Organic Livestock Handbook, a retired sheep farmer, and a past president of COG.

References:
1. Agricultural Justice Project. 2012. Social Stewardship Standards in Organic and Sustainable Agriculture: Standards Document. agriculturaljusticeproject.org/media/uploads/2016/08/02/AJP_Standards_Document_9412.pdf

Organic Stories: Crannóg Ales, Secwepemculecw (Sorrento) BC

in 2020/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Spring 2020

Rest is Key to Innovate (and Survive a Pandemic)

Michelle Tsutsumi and Rebecca Kneen

Starting this piece during the onset of COVID-19 in BC created a curious opening for Rebecca and I to delve deeply into what improvement means for organics (both of us speaking from a smaller scale perspective, with the need to hear more from our larger scale colleagues). The presence of a pandemic spotlighted the precarity of our food system, the inequity within it, and the need to shift the system. We had no idea where things would be two weeks later.

Over the span of two weeks, there were significant pivots so that farmers and processors could continue to get their food and beverages to people (with a pinch of panic as the future of farmers’ markets became more uncertain). After several communities closed their farmers’ markets (or contemplated closing them), it was a relief to hear the provincial government declare farmers’ markets as an essential service on March 26.

Throughout the two weeks, I have witnessed the (direct market) organic community coming together to mobilize online platforms, change their CSA delivery methods, and coordinate new distribution channels, all from a foundational value of helping each other in hopes that we will all be okay through this. This deserves acknowledgement as a core part of organics that needs no improvement. The organic movement and community formed from a belief in interconnectivity and this will continue to serve us well as we adapt to a world, a way of being, that could be permanently altered by COVID-19.

Rebecca at market winding yarn onto a drop spindle selling beer and wool. Credit: Crannóg Ales

I am honoured to profile Rebecca Kneen in this issue to discuss how she, Brian MacIsaac, and Crannóg Ales have been improving their practices in ways that “extend deeply rather than extend widely.” Crannóg Ales is celebrating 20 years this year (let’s all raise a glass in congratulations to them!), so there is much to reflect on in terms of where they have been extending deeply. It is important to keep in mind that there is a long history of involvement with the North Okanagan Organic Association, COABC, and the Organic Federation of Canada, so Rebecca can also speak to what she has witnessed in terms of improvements in organics over time.

Crannóg Ales 20th anniversary glassware. Credit: Crannóg Ales

Let’s set the stage. Picture this interview taking place on our front south-facing porch (somewhat socially distanced), warmed by the afternoon sun, with Dropkick Murphys playing a spirit-raising St. Paddy’s Day gig on YouTube in the background. Even with a pandemic looming, it was a dream way to spend an early spring afternoon.

Where have you seen the greatest change in terms of improved processes at Crannóg Ales?

It took the first 10 years to get to know the land, mostly based on theory, and the next 10 years figuring out what that means with practices on the land. Coming to land as an adult means that a lot of observation is occluded, so it was a lot of trying stuff and then trying new stuff. In the beginning, our practices were what was financially viable, which equalled “the hard way.” Twenty years later, we are better rested, which leads to better thinking. One of our key principles has always been to limit our market expansion to fit the ecological carrying capacity of our land. Because of this, we have been forced to extend deeply rather than extend widely.

Sheep doing early season pruning for pest and disease control. Credit: Crannóg Ales

What does extending deeply mean to you?

Finding efficiencies and working in increased harmony with the land, letting permaculture principles guide us and making do with less in all ways. There is a balance point in having a growth cap, because the question remains about what scale the brewery, in particular, needs to be at to make a sufficient amount to take care of and support employees. One way we do this is providing extended health care to employees. Another way is to intermingle the farm with the brewery to supply good food for employees.

Extending deeply also interconnects with the way we are being in, and understanding, our relationships to land, water, workers, wild things, the whole around us. Are our relationships exploitative or mutually beneficial? We have been deepening relationships in terms of responsible stewardship, which sees (non-hierarchical) interrelationships rather than partaking in caretaking behaviours, which can involve power dynamics or someone making decisions for someone else.

How else does seeing things as being interrelated play a role in how you have deepened your way of being in the world?

Looking at things in terms of relationships has helped us to see a responsibility to, rather than for, employees. Interrelationships also seem to be part of organics as a movement, which, 20 years ago, focused on social and agricultural change. Making a living was a given, it wasn’t the goal. A shift in emphasis from an organic movement to an organic industry means that we are losing our ethical and ecological focus, which threatens the ability of our robust standards to withstand a strong push from industry toward non-organic practices (similar to mission drift in the nonprofit world, shifting to an organic industry could lead to practice drift).

Snake napping on a compost pile. Credit: Crannóg Ales

The way we manage certification is also being lost as the organic movement shifts to that of an industry. This has a large impact on regional or community-based certification (which is still an unusual model, but with increasing membership, interestingly enough), because they are seen as being less valid and less valuable than Canada Organic Regime (COR) certification bodies. In my view, farmer-to-farmer certification review leads to deeper relationships, better understanding and communication, and is just as strict as third-party certification. That being said, people are craving community, which is something the regional certification bodies do well (and also aligns with organics as a movement).

How do you see reconnecting with social change as part of organics extending deeply?

The organic community has long been taking responsibility, where other sectors have been outsourcing or offloading responsibilities. For example, organics has been a leader in terms of traceability standards, responsible packaging and reducing packaging waste, and emphasizing the need for social justice. Social justice becomes an issue of scale when looking at employment. If employment potential is increased, so does the potential for exploitation. Our identity as stewards, as well as values of social justice and fairness, have been grounded in the organic standards, and we are working on deepening these areas nationally right now. With most of BC being on unceded territories, there is an opportunity to deepen our organic perspective on social justice in terms of land and land ownership.

What are ‘next steps’ that you see as being important for social justice in organics?

Listening. And trust. These both entail a worldview or paradigm shift that is reliant on relationships. Reflecting on organics with a social justice lens will challenge our notions of ownership and relations to land. It will be an uncomfortable (but necessary) exercise in questioning our understanding of security and access to tenure. It will require us to work through assumptions and tensions, and let new ideas percolate. Here is an interesting thought exercise: if you hold debt or a mortgage, you don’t truly own the land. Do you really care if the owner is the bank or your Indigenous neighbour? If you do care, this is an opportunity to delve more deeply into the reasons why this matters (and to examine the paradigms of individualism, capitalism, and systemic racism which live in our brains).

Sheep eating hops vines after harvest. Credit: Crannóg Ales

After allowing this conversation to percolate and settle, it was interesting to note that what was being named as innovative and improving practices at Crannóg Ales are ancient practices that have been, and continue to be, carried out by Indigenous people and traditional sustainable farmers. These practices are seen in subsistence living through hunting, fishing, gardening, and harvesting medicines. Principled practices of observing and knowing the land, not seeing oneself as an owner of the land, tending to relationships, recognizing interconnectivity, being mindful of scale, and stewardship have been part of Indigenous ways of knowing and being for millenia.

Identifying social justice as being important to organics ties in with the need to stop erasing Indigenous ways of being from the land where we grow and prepare food, including access to this land. If any group or community can do it, it is the organic movement that can start to see the areas where Indigenous food sovereignty and organic agriculture align. In the face of uncertain, and changing, times due to COVID-19, we will need to recognize interconnectivity and help each other more than ever. It is easy enough to remember that what joins us together is the soil, so we can start there as our common ground.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” ~ Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

Resources to Explore Further:
Indigenous Principles of Just Transition
Opinion: Fairness in Organic Agriculture by Anne Macey (2018)
Reviving Social Justice in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture by Elizabeth Henderson (2012)
Food Sovereignty: Indigenous Food, Land and Heritage by Dawn Morrison
Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty


Michelle Tsutsumi is a mid-life switcher to organic farming. She is grateful to have learned from the Hettler’s at Pilgrims’ Produce in Armstrong and has been at Golden Ears Farm in Secwepemculecw (Chase) since 2014. Michelle is also an organizer and communicator, with an eye for process and a passion for systems thinking.

Organic Summit 2019

in COABC Blog

COABC’s Executive Director, Jen Gamble, was in Ottawa on Nov. 18 and 19 for the Canada Organic Trade Association’s Organic Summit. This annual two-day event offers an opportunity to learn what’s going on in Canada’s organic sector and network with industry members via presentations, roundtable discussions and workshops.

This year’s theme was “Organic is part of the Solution,” which delved into the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and the link to organic. To bring the theme to life, COTA partnered with Dutch organic specialist Eosta to dig deeper into the new report, Organic Agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Here are a few highlights from the event:

  • Dag Falck, President of COTA, spoke about Organic 3.0 and the need for clarity and balance in the messaging. The organic sector is in a position to share the learnings of 30+ years experience to widen the impact of organic practices and encourage those not yet certified to adopt sustainable practices
  • Andy Hammermeister from the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) made the connection between organic agriculture and Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water
  • Stats Canada representatives presented the new data they’ve been able to collect on the organic fruit and vegetable sector and how these numbers can help the organic sector leverage government funding
Dag Falck, President of COTA

One of the most memorable sessions was the discussion on how to bring Social Fairness into the Organic Standard. At the moment it is an information piece attached to the standard but the hope is that with further discussion, it will become embedded in the standard itself.

This has its roots at the COABC conference session when Raul Gatica of the Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association gave the participants insight into the plight of the migrant workers. From there, Anne Macey wrote a late submission to the standards review process, which we believe is an addendum now.  The discussion is continuing and our hope is that the organic sector will become leaders in agriculture on this issue.

Thanks to COTA for putting on such an important event. We’re already looking forward to next year!

Feature image: Tobias Blandel, Keynote Speaker

 

Ecological Farm Internships and the Law

in 2018/Organic Community/Winter 2018

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 4 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC. In 2017, the authors published a workshop report on Ecological Farm Internships that is available for download here: www.foodandlabour.ca/results-and-reflections.

This article is the fourth in a series that describes the increasing trend of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. In this article we explore some of the legal implications of these practices and the ensuing concerns from farmers and interns across the province. This article should not, under any circumstances, be considered legal advice and we recommend that the appropriate government departments or legal specialists be contacted regarding specific questions. Also, the laws surrounding farm internships in Ontario are extremely vague. We do not try to determine whether these internships are legal or not, as we are ill-equipped to do so as non-lawyers, but we do attempt to highlight the legal landscape as we understand it and the gaps and ambiguities that deserve further legal research

In previous articles, we established that ecological farm internships offer many things to trainees (e.g., knowledge and skill training), farmers (e.g., support for ecological food production) and the broader food movement. However, the legality of these labour arrangements in Ontario remains uncertain, especially after cases have been settled elsewhere in which unpaid interns were awarded back-wages. For example, in 2013, two farm interns in British Columbia claimed their work arrangement did not meet provincial employment standards and settled out of court for several months’ worth of back-wages. This case caused significant concern for farmers across the country using non-waged interns.

There have been increasing government crackdowns on (non-agricultural) internship programs throughout North America. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, between September and December 2015 employment standards officers found that of 77 workplaces that had interns, almost a quarter did not meet legal requirements under the Employment Standards Act (ESA). As a result, many Ontario farmers have been deeply concerned that their use of non-wage interns could be judged in contravention of the law. One farmer commented, “I worry sometimes because there are some farms who aren’t doing things properly with payroll and that’s the type of thing that could end with crackdowns that affect all of us”. A farmer and non-profit director explained, “Some farmers are surprised when I suggest that there’s a risk because they are technically breaking labour rules and relying on the good will of the intern and the internship going well to avoid litigation down the line”.

In Ontario, there are two main areas of legislation that impact farm internships. First, the ESA sets out the rights and responsibilities of both employees and employers and contains fairly clear guidelines to what makes an internship. In short, if you perform work that is of benefit to another person or business, you are considered an employee and therefore entitled to rights under the ESA such as minimum wage. One exception to these rules is for trainees; however, these cases have very restrictive conditions. According to the Ministry of Labour, if an intern receives training used by employees, they would also be considered an employee unless the following six conditions are met:

  • The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
  • The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
  • Your training doesn’t take someone else’s job.
  • Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.
  • You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.(www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/internships.php)

In addition, farmers taking on interns should be clear on whether they meet regulatory compliance guidelines in Ontario. Aside from the ESA, employers must be in compliance with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). As operators will know, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) administers the WSIA and delivers no-fault workplace insurance and all agricultural employers must provide coverage to their employees. The OHSA also sets out a number of rights and duties for employers and workers. Compliance includes providing mandatory information about health and safety on the farm and the right to refuse work if it is believed to be dangerous.

The second area of legislation is the agricultural exemptions to the ESA. In general, farm workers involved in primary production (e.g., planting crops, cultivating, pruning, feeding, and caring for livestock) are not covered by some employment standards including minimum wage, hours of work, overtime, general pay with holidays and vacation (of note, this is different for harvest workers and landscape gardeners). However, one farmer noted that when interns do anything other than primary production, they may be on shaky legal ground: “If they’re going to a farmers’ market and manning a stall and working independently, it gets murky”. According to the Ministry of Labour, anyone whose work is related to the harvesting, canning, processing, or packing of fresh vegetables or fruits, or their distribution is entitled to all minimum ESA standards (www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/factsheets/fs_agri.php).

The legislation varies slightly in each province. In Alberta farm owners and related family members are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, but not waged workers. In British Columbia, all agricultural workers are entitled to minimum wage and vacation time. It should be stressed that there is a considerable uncertainty around internship law and agriculture exemptions to labour standards and at this time there is no detailed account of how these areas of law intersect.

Surrounding these legal details, there is an ethical question that many farmers and interns have raised about the value of labour and fair compensation. A labour lawyer noted, “There’s quite a tension there. How do you ensure protection, because, say somebody dies or gets seriously injured on one of these farms? [Employment laws] came in the early part of the late 19th Century as a means to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and set a floor so people could live”. While there are many benefits that emerge from ecological farming, most farms are businesses and farmers derive various benefits as owners. Anyone doing work on a farm is contributing to the value of that business and deserves compensation. This is especially important for new farmers building the skills, knowledge, and financial (or other) capital to eventually start their own farm business. The best advice we have heard is to always pay minimum wage and ensure employers and interns are adhering to all provincial legislation.

There are a number of government programs farmers can access to help support new farmer training and internships. The following are three good options:

Green Farm Internships (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada): Part of the Agricultural Youth Green Jobs Initiative, this program offers up to 50% of the cost of hiring young workers (up to $16,000 per intern) for environmental activities, services, or research that will benefit the agriculture sector.

Career Focus Program (Service Canada): This program supports 4-12 month agricultural internships for recent graduates of a qualified post secondary program.

Rural Summer Jobs Service (OMAFRA): The program provides wage subsidies for rural and agri-food businesses that employ summer students ages 14-30.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website:

foodandlabour.ca


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces. 

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Food Justice and The Face of Ecological Farm Interns in Ontario

in Fall 2017/Organic Community

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 3 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

This article is the third in a series that describes the increasing numbers of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. As farmers welcome those seeking seasonal farm experiences as a way to share knowledge and skills and to meet labour demands, our research has been exploring the broader implications of these trends. In this article, we look at who exactly is being trained to farm through ecological farm internships and the potential impact on the future of food and farming.

Opportunities for non-waged internships are typically promoted on environmental-related websites and passed on through word-of-mouth. Despite being openly available, there is an extremely narrow demographic of individuals who take on these positions. Likely unsurprising to most farmers, the vast majority of non-waged interns in Ontario are young, white women (and some men) that come from relatively educated and affluent backgrounds. As one farmer exclaimed, “White, middle-class, female, educated, suburban, that was almost all of our interns. Out of the 21 interns we have had, I think we only had four men over the last three years.” The only major exception is interns working on urban farms who are almost exclusively young people of colour with diverse and sometimes poor economic backgrounds.

This demographic trend raises questions about who is being trained as the next generation of ecological farmers. When asked why so many non-waged interns were white, one farmer responded, “Well, have you seen the society I live in? It’s predominately white and these are the people who have the opportunity to be able to leave their home and not work.” Taking four to eight months away from paid employment and living in a rural community can be extremely isolating and demands a high level of economic and cultural privilege. Reflecting on the potential discomfort of being a person of colour working on a rural farm, an urban intern commented, “In many places, you would be the only person of colour amongst the army of white people.”

The apparent exclusivity of internships correlates with observations of food movements more broadly. For example, commentators have observed that many promising alternative food initiatives such as purchasing organic food boxes, shopping at farmers’ markets, and participating in community supported agriculture projects tend to be dominated by white people. Our study has suggested that many of the social characteristics of consumer-based food movements are being reproduced on farms through internship programs.

This highlights the barriers to entry and the subsequent education, training and other privileges that are part of the experience. Further, the limits to participation may hinder opportunities for building a more inclusive ecological farming sector that has the potential to impact the broader food system. Much like non-agricultural internships, structural inequalities ensure that the few jobs available go to those who can afford to work without a wage. This means that only specific groups of people are able to build strategic relationships and gain experience towards a particular career path, in this case farming. Many farm operators acknowledged this reality; for example, one farmer lamented, “Not paying interns limits the demographic of people who are able to work on organic farms and learn the trade.” The concern here is that ecological farm internships may be promoting a particular kind of farmer, further limiting the diversity of alternative food movements more broadly. Recognizing this problem, a farmer commented, “I’m not saying the farmers are racist and not selecting people of colour to be interns . . . It’s racism in its latent form, where people are just not comfortable going there.” The point highlighted here is that questions of race and farming are not as much about intentions, but about the effects and who is being trained to farm (or not) and in the places that training happens.

The industrial food system has a deep history of systemically mistreating people based on their ethnicity and ‘race’. In respect to agriculture, commentators argue that we tend to romanticize an agrarian narrative specific to white communities while ignoring the contributions and struggles of people of colour in food production. In North America, people of colour own less farmland, operate disproportionately fewer farms, and make less income from farm work. The solution is not simply to encourage young people of colour to move to rural communities to work as farm interns. As one urban farmer suggested: “It is not enough to just bring people of colour onto farms without recognizing the history and current situation of slavery and sharecropping.” These comments from an urban farmer suggest that addressing the exclusivity of ecological farm internship programs must begin with a conversation that acknowledges ways that the Canadian agricultural system has been established and maintained on the backs of unpaid and low waged racialized and gendered labour.

While there are no immediate solutions, farmers and interns had many suggestions of ways to tackle these challenges. First and foremost, it was suggested that farmers looking to train interns and engage more deeply with issues of labour justice should consider offering paid internship opportunities. This would ensure that a wider diversity of people interested in agriculture as a career path could participate in ecological farm training experiences and that labour is valued. People of colour aspiring to farm are highly likely to find themselves working and learning on urban farms so it is crucial that urban-based programs be as substantive as some of the ‘opportunities’ available outside of cities.

Training people from diverse backgrounds through paid internships not only expands the pool of new farmers, but also brings new ideas into the ecological agricultural sector and opens marketing opportunities to new populations. Finally, farmers suggested building partnerships with agricultural and food movement organizations that are tackling issues of social justice such as Black Creek Farm, FoodShare, Afri-Can Food Basket, and FarmStart. Through networks, ecological farmers can be part of robust social movements that address the structural problems of the dominant food system and society more broadly.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Squaring the Circle? Education, Work, and Farm Internships

in Organic Community/Summer 2017

Michael Ekers and Charles Levkoe

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in Ecological Farming in Ontario, Volume 37, Issue 2. This is part 2 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

Are agricultural internships and volunteer positions strictly about addressing farms’ labour needs or are they a new model of farmer education and social movement building that is taking place beyond the confines of urban centres and post-secondary institutions?

On the one hand, there is no doubt that forms of non-traditional labour are about work. There are many cases in which interns are working upwards of 60 hours a week on farms performing the labour that would normally be associated with a paid employee. On the other hand, farm interns often receive a tremendous amount of hands-on experiential education in everything from organic growing methods and farm finances to marketing produce and farm lifestyles (such as homesteading and rural living). Many, but not all, walk away from internships feeling invigorated and connected to a vibrant food movement.

Can the circle, that is, education and social movement building, be squared with the reality that internships are often work, and, at times, underpaid (or even unpaid) work? This has been a key question we have been examining through conversations with interns and farmers connected to the issue.

In our first article, we noted the relatively meager gross revenues of many farms that work with interns and volunteers in Ontario, but this is a trend that stretches across Canada and beyond. Cheap food policies, ever escalating land costs and labour intensive forms of farming make alternative food production a difficult economic proposition. As readers will know, a tremendous amount of work goes into planning, planting, growing, weeding and harvesting organic food and several people we spoke with suggested that interns and volunteers have become a replacement for the work that chemicals typically perform on conventional farms.

Financially precarious farm businesses are meeting their intensive on-farm labour demands through the non-waged work of interns and volunteers.

A farmer, who also works for a non-profit organization linking potential interns and farm hosts, suggested that internships are primarily about labour: “One thing that is common to all of the farms [using interns], if they are being honest, whatever they’re motivations are, they’re solving a labour challenge on their farms.” From this perspective, financially precarious farm businesses are meeting their intensive on-farm labour demands through the non-waged work of interns and volunteers.

While the question of labour clearly matters in the arrangements established between farmers and interns, the issue cannot be reduced to such a simply economic rationale. The benefits of an internship frequently far exceed monetary considerations and this is what contributes to the vibrancy of the experience for many workers and hosts, but not all. One farmer explained “The intern system is a really good one, and I think one that has value for both the farmer and the intern. Does the accommodation, good healthy food from the soil and the learning experience not have value too? What price can be put on fostering friendships and community? Intern and apprentice programs go far beyond what the intern provides to the farm.” Similarly, another farmer lauded the same benefits while stressing that “a paid position would be less likely to be a vehicle for change.” There is no doubt that internships defined by mutuality and reciprocity are a form of movement building and provide a valuable form of education, but does paying a wage necessarily detract from these facets of farm internships?

In many cases, our observations and our discussions with interns and farmers suggested that the most substantive internships were the ones that most closely paralleled what would be traditionally associated with work. When an internship looked like work, and felt like work for the interns, but was coupled with careful instruction, many non-waged farm workers reported receiving a robust education. When the internships were less structured and when the work was not overly demanding, such arrangements appeared to be more of an ‘experience’ rather than a nuanced and embodied form of education and work. This creates several interesting contradictions that are worth reflecting on.

Interestingly, many farmers stated their farm operations became more viable at a financial and functional level when they started to pay their interns and/or made the decision to hire paid workers.

Several farmers suggested that the relationship between education and work is a zero sum game in which dedicating more time to education means less work is accomplished. This, in turn, justifies the lack of pay because the benefits are non-monetary in substance. However, this is not necessarily the case if the internships that closely parallel farm work are the ones delivering a substantive and quality education to the interns. But this scenario also raises a thorny issue as farm owners and operators are open to the critique that ‘if it looks like work, it should be paid like work’. Nevertheless, some farmers have responded, “we don’t even pay ourselves, how can we pay our interns?” In contrast, others explained that “internships are inter-generationally unjust” and “that everyone should make a living wage”.

Interestingly, many farmers stated their farm operations became more viable at a financial and functional level when they started to pay their interns and/or made the decision to hire paid workers. Furthermore, they told us that expectations were clearer between interns and farm operators, workers were more productive and the farmers reported spending far less time re-training each new group of interns and volunteers while also mediating on-farm social dynamics.

These reflections leave several lingering questions. First, were the farms that transitioned away from interns able to achieve this because of their earlier reliance on non-waged workers? Second, have organic and agroecological farms that have moved towards paid workers been able to maintain their ‘alternative’ character, that is, community orientations and the commitment to social movement building?

In our next installment we will look more deeply into the social identity of ecological farm interns and the ways that this may have broader impact on the future of the food movement. If you would like more information on the project, to comment on these issues or contact us please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Footnotes from the Field: Root Cellar Art

in Footnotes from the Field/Organic Community/Spring 2017

Editor’s note: We’re taking a detour from the usual Organic Standards focus of Footnotes to explore the inspiration that can strike while working in the field. A farmer’s life is more than physical labour and paperwork—spending so much time in the natural world opens a window into art for many, including Cathie Allen, who wrote about her art for this issue.

Cathie Allen

“Stored away in the root cellar of my mind” is how Cathie Allen begins to discuss the subjects of her watercolour paintings. Like all full-time organic market gardeners, Cathie’s summer life is consumed by cauliflower, chickens, meals for the crew, and everything else that makes up a farm. Yet, these seasonal images linger, and are “stored away” (and sometimes reinforced with photographs) until winter, when they come back to life with brush and paper.

For the most part self-taught, Cathie acknowledges the inspiration she received from her Mom, who at 90 still paints; she was also strongly influenced by Karen Muntean, who provided instruction at the Island Mountain School of Arts in Wells, BC. Cathie’s work has been described as “fresh”, “keenly sensitive to detail”, with an “earthiness” that saturates it all.

Her recent works, the root series, are filled with good examples. “With these paintings, I wanted to expose some of the beautiful vegetables which mostly grow underground, often unnoticed. Especially nowadays with the huge disconnect between people and their food sources, much more than flavour and nutrition stand to be lost.” Her root series consists of 10 original watercolour paintings, featuring beets, summer turnips, leeks, potatoes, shallots, radishes, garlic, parsnips, carrots, and onions.

The painting with the horses, the one she calls “family portrait”, depicts the four black percheron horses working abreast, pulling a disc. It was these four horses who broke the five-acre market garden, half an acre a year. “Sadly, these four horses are now all buried here, but we have a replacement team to carry on with the farm work and provide me with future inspiration”, adds Cathie.

Cathie’s work has been displayed in Cariboo and Central Interior galleries, as well as being selected for display by the BC Festival of the Arts. She also painted the cover and chapter illustrations for a children’s historical novel, Moses, Me, and Murder.


Cathie Allen has been a life-long painter. She lives and farms with her partner Rob Borsato at Mackin Creek, on the west side of the Fraser River, about 45 kms north of Williams Lake, BC. They have operated Mackin Creek Farm, a five acre, horse-powered market garden, since 1988.

Indigenous Foodlands and Organic Agriculture, Fairness, and Social Responsibility

in Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Spring 2017

Rebecca Kneen

Most of us in BC live on unceded territory—territory that was appropriated by settlers from Indigenous peoples without treaty. We are beginning, finally, to explore the implications of this condition on our relationship with the land and our Indigenous neighbours.

We are learning that we live within a great contradiction: we want to improve our communities’ food sovereignty, but we are inheritors of theft. We desire to act for the benefit of ecosystems, but we are missing countless generations of knowledge that could and should inform our stewardship. How we begin to change the paradigm within which we live will shape the future of ecological agriculture and social justice.

The basis of Indigenous food systems is a non-exploitative relationship to land, recognizing that “we are all related” and that systems are interconnected. Whether categorized as hunter-gatherers, fishers, or farmers, the goal of the relationship was not production or extraction, but living in balance.

Organic agriculture strives to understand ecosystems and to live in balance while at the same time engaging in production for sale. Our history with developing the organic standards has always been a struggle to maintain that balance in the face of extractive agribusiness models attempting to co-opt organic principles. We’ve been pressured to allow large-scale monocropping, high-density livestock production, and systems that treat organics as “just a different set of chemicals”—and we’ve resisted.

As organic farmers, we are aware that we operate within the larger ecological context. Our water sources, our soil nutrients, our air all depend on systems outside our farm boundaries. While we swear at the coyotes and deer, we also know that like the salmon, they are critical to the biosphere we live in. What we have forgotten are the people who are also part of that larger biosphere.

IMG_2217 a

We live within biospheres that were tended by Indigenous people for uncountable generations. The saskatoon, salal, salmon were all cared for in order to provide food for the people and sustain the biome. If we are going to live here, we in turn need to learn how to live here properly.

The key principles of Indigenous food sovereignty will ring a chord in the hearts of organic farmers, as they embody the principles we have also set for organic agriculture:

  1. Sacred or divine sovereignty: Food is a gift from the Creator; in this respect the right to food is sacred and cannot be constrained or recalled by colonial laws, policies and institutions. Indigenous food sovereignty is fundamentally achieved by upholding our sacred responsibility to nurture healthy, interdependent relationships with the land, plants and animals that provide us with our food.
  2. Participatory: Indigenous Food Sovereignty is fundamentally based on “action”, or the day to day practice of maintaining cultural harvesting strategies. To maintain Indigenous food sovereignty as a living reality for both present and future generations, continued participation in cultural harvesting strategies at all of the individual, family, community and regional levels is key.
  3. Self-determination: The ability to respond to our own needs for healthy, culturally adapted Indigenous foods. The ability to make decisions over the amount and quality of food we hunt, fish, gather, grow and eat. Freedom from dependence on grocery stores or corporately controlled food production, distribution and consumption in industrialized economies.
  4. Policy: Indigenous Food Sovereignty attempts to reconcile Indigenous food and cultural values with colonial laws and policies and mainstream economic activities. Indigenous Food Sovereignty thereby provides a restorative framework for policy reform in forestry, fisheries, rangeland, environmental conservation, health, agriculture, and rural and community development.

(from the Indigenous Food Systems Network: www.indigenousfoodsystems.org/food-sovereignty)

IMG_3958 a

While the language may be a bit different from that found in the organic standard, the ideas of healthy interdependent relationships with the land, daily practice of stewardship, and the ability to be independent of corporate-controlled food systems (especially around seed production) are integral to organic agriculture.

The concepts of Indigenous Food Sovereignty are necessary for us to adopt if we are going to build a food system that upholds these values. Most of these values seem to be part of our organic values already, but we are now on a journey to find common language to express them and to understand that their framework is in itself restorative.

On the ground, in our daily practice of farming, there are many ways we can incorporate these ideas. As organic farmers, most of us already maintain buffer zones around at least part of our farms. We can fill these areas with indigenous plants, bringing back native vegetation and wildlife as we do so. We can provide corridors for birds and homes for beneficial insects, forage for bees, and at the same time begin to understand the delicate balance of living in the more natural ecosystem. Many of us have waterways and other “wild” areas on our farms. When we change our basic language from “wild” to “Indigenous foodlands” we begin to transform our understanding of those lands and the people.

We can begin to build relationships with our Indigenous neighbours by opening these areas to them for harvesting and care. We can open these areas as teaching grounds for wild harvesting methods, and maybe learn about protocols as we do so. We will need to do this with the knowledge and understanding that there will be serious emotional issues around inviting people back to land that was stolen many years ago.

We grow food to feed people. This is central to our idea of ourselves as farmers, but we can also think a bit differently about production. Not everything is bound to a financial transaction, and sometimes what we “produce” is relationships. By feeding elders, by teaching young people, by asking how we can build good relations and what the protocols are, we open the door to non-exploitative relationships.

While our hearts may speak the same language, there are many points of contention between production agriculture and Indigenous ways.

  • Land ownership, licensing of mineral, timber, and water rights, the privatization of land and water, and theft by patenting indigenous knowledge and plants all make it “difficult to reconcile outstanding Indigenous land claims and have dispossessed Indigenous hunting, fishing and gathering societies.”
  • The fragmentation and division of ecological systems into the sectors of various government agencies “limits the sustainability of the agri-food system which is interdependent on the healthy functioning of the neighbouring Indigenous food system…”
  • Agriculture as a whole exists within an economic model based on extraction, production, and “resources” rather than “deep ecological and spiritual relationships with plants and animals that provide us with our foods in a regenerative, life giving paradigm.”

(Above quotes from Dawn Morrison, “Cross Cultural Interface Where Indigenous and Sustainable Agri-Food Systems Intra-act,” 2015 Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty.)

We have to think hard about these issues, as they are central to our food system and our entire mode of thought about how we relate to land. Until we shift our thinking and our language, we cannot also shift our relationships.

If we are going to take responsibility for what we do on the land, we must also take responsibility for the system within which we function. We cannot sell food to fascists, dispossess people from their land, or behave as if we have no responsibility for social justice. Our responsibility for stewardship and sustainability does not end at the farm gate.

For more information on how to be an advocate for Indigenous Food Sovereignty in your community, check out the following resources:

Indigenous Food Systems Network

BC Food Systems Network

Wild Salmon Caravan


Rebecca Kneen farms and brews with her partner Brian MacIsaac at Crannóg Ales, Canada’s first certified organic, on-farm microbrewery. They have been certified organic since inception in 1999. Their farm is a 10 acre mixed farm growing hops, fruit, and vegetables as well as pigs, sheep, and chickens. Rebecca has been involved in agriculture, food, and social justice issues since she met her first pair of rubber boots at age three on the family’s Nova Scotia farm.

Photo credits: Rebecca Kneen

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