Food is political and should be rooted in justice. That’s the message that’s at the core of the work of 23-year-old urban farmer Cheyenne Sundance.
Sundance Harvest, started by Cheyenne when she was just 21, was created based on a void she saw for farms operating in an ethical lens in the for-profit farming industry. “What farm would I want to see when I was younger? What farm would I want to work at and learn from? And I literally just created it from that,” she says of her Toronto-based urban farm.
Her farming career began after she turned 18 and worked on a socialist farm in Cuba. Working with many Afro-Indigenous and Black Cubans, she was introduced to the ideas of food justice and sovereignty. “Access to food is affected by someone’s health status, socioeconomic status. There’s data from U of T that correlates food insecurity and food injustice to Black and Indigenous people being the most systemically affected. So I started understanding those things and noticing these trends,” Cheyenne says.
Can you tell us about how Sundance Harvest came about?
I could not find a farm that existed in Toronto with those same values, that also respected the workers, paid them a fair wage and was actually trying to further food justice.
I wasn’t really thinking so much about “Is this the most profitable farm?” because for Sundance Harvest, it’s my full-time job and has been for a year and a half, but I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just having a farm that exists in a vacuum. I want to have a farm that is planting the seeds and all these other small farms are grown from my farm and that’s why I started a program called Growing in the Margins as soon as I started Sundance Harvest.
I didn’t want to be a farm that relies on grants and I didn’t want Sundance Harvest to be a not-for-profit. I wanted to make sure my farm was profitable, so I have a CSA three seasons of the year and I also sell at farmers’ markets year-round.
Mentorship is at the core of your work. Can you tell us more about the farming education programs you’ve developed?
[On Growing in the Margins] It’s a free urban agriculture mentorship for youth who are BIPOC, queer, trans, two-spirit, non-binary and also youth with disabilities. Youth who are marginalized and low-income within the food system have the ability to take [the program] Growing in the Margins for free. They either want to start their own farm, have a career in urban agriculture or start their own food sovereignty movements and I teach them everything I know about the basics of starting a farm. Growing in the Margins is not for gardeners, because it’s primarily focused on mentorship.
[On Liberating Lawns] When COVID hit, the city of Toronto was not opening community gardens and I am part of a group that was trying to lobby to have them open them. If we hypothetically can’t get community gardens to open, what are ways that I can have people grow food? The easiest way is private land. Working with the city is like watching paint dry, so I decided to start Liberating Lawns, which basically matches up landholders with growers. My next intake is this fall, in September.
What are some of the challenges you faced with racism/sexism/ageism within the food system and how did you address them?
One is big corporate farms that operate on colonial and white supremacist ideals. There is a corporate farm in Toronto — also a couple of the non-profits — that is actively harming the food justice movement. It was so hard starting Sundance Harvest. Finding land and basically competing with corporate farms who have really wealthy investors and backers to help them get these large properties that I don’t have the privilege to because I don’t have those connections. I would also say corporate gentrification of urban farming in Toronto which exists and is happening very rapidly [and] is really scary because a lot of community land is turning into corporate farms, probably in the next couple years.
It makes it really hard for someone who’s in a position like I am, who does face intersectionality oppression. Because I have no wealthy parents, I have no investors, I don’t have a degree. I don’t really have anything to start my farm off of. What would really help in the future would be grants, subsidies and the city zoning for urban agriculture, because there’s currently no zoning for urban agriculture. One of the biggest hurdles was the total lack of support [from] the city. [Access to] land is also one of the biggest issues.
What advice can you offer to Canadians interested in growing their own food?
One of the easiest ways to start gardening is to do container growing. [It’s] super easy and you don’t have to worry about making sure you have the right soil and if it’s draining enough because that’s a whole other issue.
For people who are Black or Indigenous, the best thing I can say is to reach out to other people who are Black and Indigenous or both in your area who are doing the work already because they’ll know who to connect, who to talk to, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked. I’ve found that creating a community has really helped me in expanding Sundance so quickly. I started Sundance Harvest a year ago. I doubled the size of my greenhouse to a production that is 2,600 square feet and bought a 2.5-acre farm. I’ve done all that in a year. It’s really helped me connecting and getting tips, because farming while Black, it takes a lot of lived experience to do it right.
What other actions can non-farming Canadians take in their everyday life?
The first and most obvious one is purchasing your produce from a CSA. It’s a produce box you get each week. When someone buys a CSA, they usually buy it in the springtime and what that does is gives the farmer money upfront to buy seeds and equipment. If you can purchase a CSA, it’s great to buy one from a POC. Purchasing from a CSA helps small farms — and the more small farms we have, the more youth that can be trained on those small farms and they’ll get experience and start their own.
The second is to look into your neighbourhood (or town or city) and see what’s being done about urban agriculture. If you can, volunteer at a local non-profit that does urban agriculture and ask them, “What would you like to be seeing?” Once you know that from the people that are in the industry, write to your MPs or your city councillors and say that you value urban agriculture.
What are your favourite crops to grow and why? Do you have a favourite recipe you make from your produce?
I’m going to say the easiest one – kale. Kale is the easiest crop to grow, same with Swiss chard. I like making a kale Caesar salad. I swap out Romaine for kale because it’s way more nutritionally-dense. You can marinate it overnight and have it as a cool dinner party dish. With Swiss chard, I love substituting it for lettuce in sandwiches because it has a thicker crunch.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos courtesy of Cheyenne Sundance