Toronto farmer is diversifying agriculture
New program provides youth with education to start their own farms, land to do it on
As the world stares down a climate crisis, more and more youth are growing interested in agriculture — but for lower-income communities, starting a farm can seem like a pipe dream.
Non-profit Growing in the Margins is working to fix that by providing youth with both the education to start their own farms, as well the land to do so.
Started in 2019, the free 12-week program caters to youth between 18 to 25 who are low-income and self-identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC), LGBTQ and/or a person living with a disability. The course is open to both drop-ins and in-depth mentorships, and takes place in Downsview Park — outside on the field and inside in greenhouses.
Cheyenne Sundance, the 23-year-old self-taught farmer behind the project, said she started it to both tackle inequalities within agriculture and address food insecurity among racialized people.
“(Many organic farms) aren’t run in an equitable way. Whether they use
unpaid interns exploited for profit gains or they have no staff that are people of colour,” Sundance said. “There was no interest in even talking about what diversity means in agriculture.”
To address the issue, she founded Sundance Harvest in 2019, a for-profit urban farm in Toronto. Around the same time, Sundance began teaching like-minded folks in the back of a church near Trinity Bellwoods.
“Now (the class is) better structured,” she said. “(Students) learn not just how to weed carrots or how to harvest spinach, but how to do business planning and crop planning, marketing and all they need to make a successful farm.”
Growing in the Margins offers classes like Tomatoes 101, Worm Composting and Fertilizers and Microgreens, among others. The next semester starts March 31.
Currently, the program is being funded by Alo Restaurant in Toronto, as well as by fundraising donations, said Sundance. She’s currently applying for charitable status.
Since the program’s inception, Sundance has personally mentored more than 50 people. However, the wait-list for people to get in is far larger, she said.
“When we think about traditional education for agriculture, the main thing that anyone thinks about is unpaid internships,” she said. “For someone who’s low income … there really is no opportunity for them to get a fully fledged education.”
According to urban farmer Jonah Krochmalnek, 30, owner and operator of Living Earth Farm in Toronto, it’s becoming more and more critical for youth to break into agriculture. According to a 2016 Statistics Canada census, the average age of Canadian farmers is 55.
“The age of the average farmer is a very scary thing for food security, just because they’re gonna retire at some point,” Krochmalnek said. “There’s just not enough people interested in becoming farmers … having programs like this help, because that’s kinda how I got started.”
After studying finance in school, Krochmalnek began volunteering with Fresh City Farms where he learned the craft, he said. He started his farm at 23 and has worked there full time ever since. Krochmalnek said the biggest challenge to youth who don’t have a farming background is finding a proper education.
Meanwhile, according to Sundance, the biggest problem facing low-income youth is the price of land.
Many farmers inherit land from their families, or rely on intergenerational wealth to afford it, she said.
“My father’s ancestors were slaves on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. How would they be able to build up that intergenerational wealth?” she said.
Sundance’s solution is to partner with incubator farms — pre-owned parcels of land split up between novice farmers, allowing them to get a start in the industry without having to pay for the property. Sundance is aiming to start her own incubator farm next year, but for the time being, she’s partnered with an incubator farm, Zocalo Organics in Guelph, and is presently working with another to create an incubator farm program.
Aliyah Fraser, 24, joined Zocalo’s incubator program after finishing Sundance’s mentorship program in November 2020. Her quarter-acre farm, Lucky Bug Farm, will open this spring.
“It’s kind of a happy medium between having a lot of infrastructure already set up, but still being able to do my own thing on my own crop and have control over what I’m doing,” said Fraser.
“The owner of that farm has been really great and understanding of the issues around BIPOC farmers and land access … she recognizes the systemic barriers that marginalized farmers face.”
For Fraser, who worked as an urban planner before leaping into agriculture, the idea of starting a farm was daunting before she met Sundance.
“Farming is a very white-dominated industry … I just didn’t think it was a possibility for myself until I saw Cheyenne doing it,” she said. “She gave me enough knowledge that I feel confident to start farming.”
Adjowa Karikari, 23, feels the same. After finishing the program in November 2020, she is now working as a farm education co-ordinator with Black Creek Community Farm in Toronto.
“Meeting Cheyenne and getting to learn from her was like a really amazing experience because it really empowered me to know that I’m able to do all that I want to do,” she said.
Karikari said she and many other youth were motivated to enter agriculture because of the climate crisis.
According to Sundance, COVID-19 has only hastened the social awareness of food sourcing.
“There’s (now more) people that are really wanting to support local farmers … they know where their food is coming from and they feel more secure about it.”
While not all the graduates from her program end up working directly with farms, Sundance said the knowledge gained could spark larger movements down the line.
“It’s up to the youth what they do with the education,” she said. “I hope to plant the seeds, but they tend the crop.”