Redefining Agriculture for a More Inclusive and Productive Future
Indigenous agriculture is making a comeback, and the future of agriculture in Saskatchewan is even brighter because of it. As governments and institutions slowly turn from a colonial past to a more inclusive and respectful future, Indigenous peoples are once again looking to agriculture as an opportunity for economic, social, and cultural growth. According to Shaun Soonias, director of indigenous relations at Farm Credit Canada (FCC), adjusting the definition of agriculture to be more inclusive of Indigenous gathering activities is a solid first step.
“Indigenous entrepreneurs will, of course, operate in those [agriculture and agri-food] spaces that people are most familiar with,” says Soonias. “But we also wanted to include options that would be identified or identifiable as Indigenous forms of agriculture. Those include things like non-timber forest products, wild rices, chaga, mushrooms, syrups—gathering activities that Indigenous peoples have practiced since time immemorial.”
At the time of the last census in 2016, the agriculture and agri-food system (AAFS) accounted for 6.7 per cent of Canada’s GDP or $111.9 billion and employed approximately 2.3 million people.1 Of those employed in the industry, 592,575 worked on farms, and 2.7 per cent of those or 15,765 individuals self-dentified as Indigenous.2,3 So, the return to agriculture for many Indigenous communities is a seed now being resown or just taking root.
Some communities are already investing in more recognizable forms of agriculture. For example, Thunder Farms, owned and operated by Thunderchild First Nation, is an 8,000 acre grain farm that hopes to expand to 10,000 acres. They currently grow wheat, canola, barley, and oats.
Riverside Market Gardens in Flying Dust First Nation started producing potatoes on two acres in 2009, recently increasing to over 172 acres, investing in industry-leading potato storage in 2013, and has since begun growing a wide variety of organic products. In 2017, they signed a contract with Thomas Fresh, a large distributor of potatoes in western Canada, supplying brands like Costco and Co-op.
Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation and the federal government recently announced an investment in a grain farm operation in that community that would grow the farm from 1,500 acres to 4,500 and eventually beyond as Cowessess positions itself to leverage the over 32,000 acres of land they have available.
“Our Nations originally developed and perfected many of the world’s great foods—60 per cent of the foods the world eats daily, globally, are derived from from the Indigenous agricultural efforts in the Americas,” says Soonias, referring to beans, corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, berries, and herbs, but also medicines, like salicylic acid and tobacco. “Ultimately, it gives me a lot of hope that we’ll see our communities revitalize and recapture some of these things.”
A recent example of how Indigenous communities can leverage traditional gathering and harvesting is a partnership between Air Ronge-based Boreal Heartland and Rebellion Brewing in Regina. Boreal Heartland is a Keewatin Community Development Association initiative that sustainably gathers teas, mushrooms, and herbs in northern Saskatchewan’s boreal forest. Rebellion Brewing is a well-known craft beer company in Regina.
The partnership resulted in the limited-time Flora Borealis beer, brewed with sweet gale, yarrow, and Labrador tea, foraged from the Boreal Forest. Rebellion is donating all proceeds from the sale of the beer to support mental health in northern Saskatchewan.
Boreal Heartland also has a co-branding partnership with Federated Co-operatives Limited, which distributes products gathered by Boreal Heartland’s Indigenous harvesters to hundreds of stores across the prairies.
And more opportunities like these are coming. A recent survey initiated by FCC reports 73 per cent of First Nation respondents are planning to enter or increase their participation in the sector in the next few years.4 Soonias suggests traditional agricultural institutions have a role to play in supporting the success of these initiatives.
“We can’t let a segment of the population with so much potential—both the lands and the people of those Nations—sit idle in the ag space when there’s so much opportunity,” says Soonias. “FCC has a big role to play, and we see Indigenous agriculture as a big growth area. We’ve got the financing; we’ve got the training; we’ve got the industry and network connections to support success in this space.”
Expanding the definition of agriculture means better access to funding and training that would otherwise be inaccessible.
“FCC and other sector stakeholders have a role to play in creating a space for most Indigenous projects to achieve their goals and aspirations in the sector,” says Soonias. “So expanding things like our definition of agriculture to include traditional gathering activities will support those kind of new and innovative projects.”
The survey also highlights that training and access to capital are top priorities of First Nation leaders hoping to increase their participation in agriculture. So, vital stakeholders—like financial, granting, and training institutions—can certainly help ensure success. But Soonias suggests it’s about more than simply training people to be farmers and funding individual projects. FCC, for example, aims to “transform how not only we lend to the community, but how we bring capacity in the community.”
This approach requires doing some homework so that funding and support institutions can approach Indigenous communities with understanding and respect. “There’s certainly the gap of knowledge and capacity to operate [within Indigenous communities] but there’s also a lack of exposure, knowledge and relationships between Indigenous communities and key stakeholders, associations, government programming and services,” says Soonias. “Many of those stakeholders are similarly unfamiliar with the history, the goals, aspirations, and the needs of the Indigenous ag sector. So there’s a big opportunity to harness, and I think to contribute to, the growing opportunity in Indigenous ag.”
1Aboriginal Peoples in Agriculture 2016, Statistics Canada, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/96-325-x/2019001/article/00001-eng.htm
2An Overview of the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food System, 2017. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/canadian-agri-food-sector/an-overview-of-the-canadian-agriculture-and-agrifood-
3Growing Security: Indigenous Agriculture and Agri-Foods Zoom Session Key Points May 19 to 22, 2020, Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, https://cahrc-ccrha.ca/sites/default/files/REPORTCAHRC%
4Understanding Indigenous Agriculture, Farm Credit Canada, https://www.edo.ca/downloads/fccindigenous-agriculture-report.pdf