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“Byen Pre Pa La Kay” in Haitian Creole means the work is continuous and ongoing. The saying encapsulates the work of farming, which is a constant struggle requiring ongoing adaptation and transition. It’s an experience that resonates particularly for Black people, who have always lived to re-create and re-invent ourselves. So, for Black communities in the Toronto area, community farms are places of pride, togetherness, love and care that are worth fighting for.
The Black Creek Community Farm (BCCF), established in 2012 on eight acres of land rented from the Toronto and Region Conservation Agency (TRCA), is a model for sustainable food security and urban farming. The community-driven BCCF is open to its members to grow food and access its food forest and trails, and to the public to buy produce that is surplus after sales to its membership. The farm includes a medicine wheel garden; an outdoor school for children to develop motor skills and to animate school trips; a fire pit for story-telling and community-building; an area for seniors where planting beds are adapted for mobility; and, most importantly, crops of culturally specific foods and native plants.
The culturally adapted services and general environment of the BCCF is model community members argue is needed throughout the city. As Ama Deawuo, until recently the Executive Director of the BCCF, says, fresh and plentiful food is available in well-off neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, but in comparison, communities largely populated by Black people do not have the access to the same level of variety and freshness of food.
Photo credit: Ama Deawuo, former Executive Director of the Black Creek Community Farm
The dense Jane and Finch area where the BCCF is located is an example of this situation, with little access to green spaces that serve the agricultural and recreational needs of its community. Sam Tecle, a steering committee member of the BCCF who grew up in the area, says the farm is a unique space in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the world.
It “symbolizes community, love, interdependence. It shows that we can show up for each other, that we can support and provide.”
Tecle describes Jane and Finch as “a global community” made up of recent newcomers to Canada, as well as earlier generations of residents from Ghana, Jamaica, Ecuador and Italy, among other places, but one that has suffered from neglect and disinvestment. The neighbourhood is a vibrantly talented community of care, one where residents support each other and reinvest in the community with the skills each can bring to the table, but it tends to be sensationalized by the media in ways that disregard these qualities and define the area as violent and criminal.
Yet for residents, it is home, and the youth speak out against these narratives.
As Femi Lawson says in “Vice visits Jane & Finch”: “[e]verybody has somebody who kind of influences them in some kind of positive […] way. And when you have a community of those people, it builds you.”
The multicultural and multiethnic Jane and Finch area has been hit the hardest in Toronto by the pandemic and has a long history of marginalization by provincial and municipal governments alike. But as community grower, Rastafari agriculturist, lover of nature, community advocate and long-standing community member, Peachtree Boucaud, who previously worked for the BCCF as their Farms Market Manager, reminds us, “We are the bees to our work. We are the connectors, the pollinators.” The City of Toronto and other official entities, such as the TRCA, facilitate green spaces for use by lower-income racialized communities. However, when paying attention to the history of peoples’ relationships to the land in the city, the reality of who maintains these crucial green spaces is more complex and starts with the people who cultivate these spaces and their commitment to supporting each other’s endeavours.
The reality is that Black and racialized farmers, and Indigenous land stewarding and healing initiatives, have preceded city-led projects. As a result, today, the urban farming landscape of Toronto includes well-established structures in the community such as the BCCF, community gardens, and grassroots projects that include open plots where people collectively farm. They all have different funding structures and visibility.
Boucaud boasts proudly that “a lot of those community gardens are really led by a lot of Black women.”
The question of food security and environmental justice is closely connected to a history of advocacy. “We are living in the spaces where this environmental injustice is happening!” says Boucaud, “but we’re not elevated in the conversation.” She rejoices at describing one of her favourite gardens, located at Jane and Weston road – “Ms. Charlyn Ellis is at Emmett [Avenue Community] Gardens, that garden is one of my favourite gardens, […] there’s bees there, there’s so much you can learn, you know? And the work of the people there at Emmett’s Garden goes unnoticed.”
The community holds the knowledge. Boucaud explains that in many cases Black farmers come to Canada with all of their skills, but are overlooked because no one ever asked them about their expertise. And younger generations like myself have learned to garden and farm from our foremothers and fathers. I learned to grow from my mother and by listening to my grandmothers’ stories of farming in Haiti.
Boucaud’s experience was the same, she tells me, “My grandfather was a grower, my dad grew all over his lawn, the City of Toronto sent him an award, but I never thought of myself as that because it was like, a natural thing you know, it’s not something you go and do, it’s already a part of what you do already. So I got to the farm, I started doing the work, I ran the Farmer’s Market, and that was a huge eye-opener.”
Farming is an important part of passing on generational knowledge and empowering disenfranchised communities to develop food autonomy.
Maintaining such a vibrant and community-oriented space is a result of ongoing efforts. Tecle says that “for the farm to be what it is, it is Ama, it’s the staff team, it’s the community that has had to push. […] So there’s a long history there of a fight between the city and community members too – […] that relationship had to be forged in order to keep the farm in many ways community-based.” Deawuo also shares her dreams of seeing the farm expand to having its own café entirely supplied by food harvested from the farm by farmer members and prepared by chef members.
Farming is not just farming, but a “labour of love,” says Hannah Conover-Arthurs, Program Coordinator at Ubuntu Community Collective, an organization that prioritizes food security and services and empowers single Black mothers around farming, including through an urban farm at Downsview Park, south-east of Jane and Finch. As a chef by vocation, she focuses on healing and food security, growing plant medicine, feeding mothers, supporting mental health – the whole spectrum of physical well-being, spirituality and connecting to the land.
Photo credit: Indigenous medicine wheel at Black Creek Community Farm
Conover-Arthurs also cites the educational value of farming – it builds skill, confidence and teaches you another perspective on life.
Her nieces and nephews “get to be part of the process” on their trips to plant and harvest with her because “it is also an education you can’t get anywhere else.”
Fatin Chowdhury, the Development and Communications manager for the BCCF, describes the community education around healthy food options and sustainability as a major accomplishment of the farm: “We have our urban harvest program, which looks at how to look at our food waste, how to preserve food, […] knowing more about our local food options. We have our farm education team – they do a lot of workshops that teach kids, youth, families about local ecologies, urban agriculture, urban farming, gardening. These are all topics that we really want our community to learn about and to apply in their own backyards.”
Many people in the Jane and Finch area, for instance, live in high towers with limited access to green space where they can grow food, be active and connect with people. In Boucaud’s words, “I live in an apartment […] I try to grow whatever I can [on my balcony], and spend the rest of my time in the community garden.” In community gardens, “people really find community and a space to grow,” she adds, “in addition to food in their household, and saving some money and some change into their pockets for them to possibly do other things with their family.”
The pandemic and lockdown started in March 2020, during the growing season, and initially included restrictions on tending community gardens, which threatened people’s physical and mental well-being. Many local residents are “relegated to small living spaces,” stresses Boucaud. But the community successfully and safely advocated and got the gardens re-opened. These spaces are much more than programs, says Boucaud, “they are a staple in our community.”
Community grassroots urban farms and gardens are spaces that bring people together and offer what Tecle calls “political education” and advocacy that contributes to a broader vision of justice for Black, Indigenous, racialized and marginalized communities.
Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm outdoor school
A place like the BCCF is “multidimensional,” says Tecle, “it’s much more than a farm.” He describes it as “a meeting space, an event space, an educational space, it’s a symbol, it’s a place of pride.” Speaking from experience and from past steering committee actions, Tecle describes how the farm has taken positions against the racist and ableist policies: “the farm itself has not been shy in taking up community issues, be it, when, you know, the local grocery store was […] putting the formula behind locked doors – or [saying] you can’t come in with the baby carriage or an assisted mobility device. The farm took a position early – these owners addressed it and policy was quickly taken down.”
Community urban farming initiatives that are supported by the City seem to be part of a dance.
“The city needs to focus on sustainability,” says Conovers-Arthurs. “We are constantly dealing with one-year leases and then renewed for two years. We are left wondering whether we can farm next year?”
The issue of land ownership and leasing presents a major barrier to Black farmers since they are more often reliant on public land rather than privately-owned property. What is discouraging, says Boucaud, is that the “land is not attached to the community,” so long-term planning, cultural spiritual practices on the land and growing, in general, pose challenges.
If Black people make an investment and work the land, “we are not investing just for 3 years! That’s our livelihood,” states Conovers-Arthurs.
These farms are substantial assets connected to peoples’ identities that provide essential services enabling the community to live balanced and healthy lives. “What we provide as a space, as a service, as an idea to the community is worth much more beyond what our funding is, but we have to constantly plead and beg and ask through grants,” as Tecle puts it. “We have no luxury of thinking about what we might build on the space, let’s say on the ground of the farm, in 5 years.” The call to action is for the City to shift the land management model, to think long-term. Assuring access to water, accessible bathrooms, planting beds with seats and other agricultural and accessibility initiatives are other important considerations that require long-term planning and investment in order to serve the broader community, notes Boucaud. And why not imagine that Black communities can be fully responsible for the land they steward, without oversight from the City?
The issue of food security predates Covid-19 with “4.4 million people including 1.2 million children under 18” who did not have access to sufficient food in Canada according to University of Toronto-based research “Feeding the City: Pandemic & Beyond.” The report confirms local community farming initiatives are the most accessible ways for more marginalized and vulnerable communities to obtain fresh, accessible foods, and raises the question of whether food security and sustainability for everyone, including for more marginalized communities, is a priority for governments. The demand is certainly there – as Boucaud points out, the waiting list to get into community gardens is very long.
A sense of personal and collective pride oozes from the words of the community members. Conovers-Arthurs describes the “inspiration, love and passion” that create a positive ripple effect in people’s lives while reflecting on the impact in her own life.
Tecle speaks of the overwhelming support from the community that translates into “an increased interest in farming, agriculture, [and] the education.” Chowdhury marks “the shift in who we are” in terms of the food delivery services the BCCF was able to provide to the community and the way in which the community further developed trust in the farm as part of their social safety network. And of course, Boucaud proclaims, “the joy we have in these spaces!” The BCCF has broken down barriers and silos for people often marginalized and boxed into their interactions with governments and has made the simple pleasures of life accessible to people and youth who have been confined in dense neighbourhoods – finally gaining a chance to experience what Chowdhury deems “critical green space in the city.”
Tecle likes to see that pride in the BCCF members when, during the annual dinner, “folks in community who are proud that people from outside are pulling up to the farm and getting this like very nice swanky experience and, you know, maybe they leave thinking ‘Jane and Finch is just not what they tell me it is’.”
Ultimately, community farming programming serves as a stepping stone – “it is an incubator” says Conovers-Arthurs. Boucaud adds, “you learn about the cultures of other people, how they grow, how they pollinate!” And Conovers-Arthurs explains how community programming offers people tools to progressively get their own land, start their projects and then their own businesses. She considers the ability to care for her own family members and instill the importance of the community as a “family unit” as a sacred thing. Becoming part of the Ubuntu Community Collective is a means for her to care for her mother, to support people healing from trauma and to create a place where “people see you for who you are.” It is a place where you can receive “support for your well-being, your freedom, your creativity, your healthcare, your transformation, your inspiration.”
Photo credit: Black Creek Community Farm Entrance
In the spirit of the idea that community builds you, Conovers-Arthurs says, “there are a lot of heartbreaks in farming, but when you have people around you and you see what people do, it supports you.” She feels her life was transformed by engaging in growing food, first through Fresh City Farms, and now hopes to one day be able to sustain herself through her farming.
Truth be told, farming is hard, but “there’s also a lot of joy” that comes out of community gardens, says Boucaud. The people are the backbone of farming in Toronto. Food security, well-being, and creating sustainable food pathways and connecting spiritual, mentally and physically healthy communities is a fight. Demanding sustainable strategies for wellness is part of the constant work for autonomy, identity, heritage, self-knowledge, sacredness, reconnection to the land and healing from historical, current and ongoing traumas, as well as for breaking from future harmful patterns.
As repeated by community voices, conversations about farming are multifaceted and intersectional. As Conovers-Arthurs says, “[t]he way we eat is a reflection of how we show up in the world.”
The pride, commitment to community and struggle of farming has always been worth it. So, as proud people would chant in Haitian Creole, “Nou pap kite peyi-a pou yo” – “We will not give up who we are.”
About Emilie Jabouin
Emilie Jabouin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication & Culture, working on her doctoral dissertation at Ryerson/York universities on Black women organizers and journalists in early 20th-century Canada. Emilie is also a storyteller and dance artist who explores the social and cultural histories and expressions of the African diasporas. Find her on Twitter at @emilie_jabouin.
Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.