Forum explores how to revitalize Indigenous agriculture
- NC Raine | December 21, 2018
A new forum in Saskatchewan is looking towards ways of revitalizing Indigenous agriculture in one of the biggest agricultural industries in the world.
The forum on Indigenous agriculture took place on December 18 and 19 in Saskatoon, which brought together over a hundred agriculture players, land managers, farmers, educators, researchers and community leaders to discuss some of the opportunity, strategies, and challenges for Indigenous agricultural success.
Melissa Arcand, Assistant Professor at the College of Agriculture and Bio-resources at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), said the goals of the forum is to share agricultural practices and information currently occurring on First Nations and identify areas that could be improved.
“We want to look at how we can better support individuals and nations who want to farm themselves,” said Arcand. “And we also look at how we can better support bands that want to continue leasing (farmland) and ensure that they are reaping more benefits of that arrangement.”
One of the major challenges is revitalizing agriculture in First Nations lands where farming has commonly become dormant. Data from the U of S indicates that agriculture was practiced on 1.75 million acres of land in Saskatchewan reserve lands, 80% of which was by non-Indigenous farmers.
“People don’t farm anymore in the same numbers. Because First Nations people who grow up in their reserves who don’t grow up farming, you don’t learn about agricultural yet you’re surrounded by fields being farmed by non-Indigenous people,” said Arcand. “There’s not a strong connection between community members and farming.”
According to the U of S study, reasons for less farming on First Nations include risings costs of operation, lack of start-up supports and education, financial challenges facing new farming generations, and lack of interest from younger generations. Arcand believes sharing history can help encourage young people to take up farming.
“I think sharing stories (with youth) that we did historically have a relationship with agriculture that predates settlement and colonization. That First Nations people lived on this land and had strong interaction (with it),” said Arcand.
One of those First Nations making a motivated push to revitalize agriculture in their lands is Cowessess First Nation, in southeast Saskatchewan, who are leasing out about 60,000 acres of land to farmers.
“The vision we have for Cowessess is that we can be an agricultural leader in this country and move it internationally with the amount of land we have,” said Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme. “But we have no more farmers.”
Delorme explained that they have begun to identify the challenges of beginning agricultural practice on their land, including a land ownership questions and a mentality left behind from their Indian agent.
“We have to address whose land is it. Is it private land, is it our children-yet-born land, is it the 4,277 citizens land? We have start to have these uncomfortable conversations,” said Delorme. “The Indian agent mentality still remains on Cowessess First Nation. When I was elected, I was amazed at the bottleneck – everything is the chief’s fault…so we are still trying to de-govern and decolonize ourselves now.”
Cowessess has laid out a plan to begin farming their lands, who say they want to establish of business similar to that of a Hutterite colony.
“We have little capacity and no machinery, but we have a vision,” said Delorme.
They will farm 2,000 acres until 2020, when they will move to 5,000 acres and begin being involved in agricultural by products. By 2024, Cowessess wants to expand into machinery. They acknowledge they will need support, but hope their undertaking can aid other First Nations in the province.
“We can’t do this on our own,” said Delorme. “We are still seeking a research council to help us understand all aspects so we can turn around and share it with other nations.”