First Nations co-op proposes organic shift

By Paul Hanley, The StarPheonix
Date published: 
Wed, 2011-02-09

The Muskoday Organic Growers Co-op and Heifer International Canada think Saskatchewan First Nations could sharply reduce on-reserve unemployment by growing Saskatchewan's vegetables organically. At Muskoday First Nation near Prince Albert, organic production is already underway.

In 1999, the community launched an initiative to produce potatoes and harvested about 450 tonnes. The band-managed project obtained sufficient training grants to hire every employable welfare recipient in the community to work on the farm for six months. This was sufficient time to qualify for employment insurance, which in turn opened doors to further training.

"Only five per cent of these people went back on welfare," says Joe Munroe, a Muskoday resident and former police officer who is now First Nations field co-ordinator for Heifer International Canada. A funding partner for the Muskoday farming project, Heifer is an international NGO with 800 projects in 50 countries. Its mission is to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth.

"A dignified job was the first step," says Munroe. "Most of the participants went on to get further training and other jobs. It cost the government some money, but it was a lot less than the $90,000 a year it takes to support someone living on welfare."

For a variety of reasons, the project did not continue, but in 2005, several community members decided to revive the idea, with a twist. They formed an organic growers co-op and began to produce potatoes and other vegetables organically, aiming to supply local and regional markets. Their co-op structure gave the participants a sense of ownership and decision-making power that reflected the collectivity of First Nations culture.

With support from their Band and Heifer International, they are now growing around seven hectares of potatoes and just over one hectare of other vegetables. They have also started their first planting of fruit trees. The idea is to use mainly indigenous varieties and to avoid monocultures by interplanting crops. A couple hundred kilometres of shelterbelts planted in the past encourage biodiversity.

Project participants take part in training that will net them a Green Certificate through Saskatchewan's on-farm training program in agricultural production and management.

In a one-year period, 11 families will be trained in the knowledge and practice of indigenous organic gardening, agroecology and organic food entrepreneurship.

Marketing is a big issue for the co-op. Currently produce goes to the CHEP Good Food Box program in Saskatoon, to 25 community elders and to the Muskoday school lunch program.

Organic certification is advantageous because of premium prices. However, a much larger effort will be needed to find markets for a 25 hectare operation; that's the number of hectares required to make an organic vegetable farm entirely self supporting. Although the co-op's goal is to serve local/regional markets, there is a strong continental market for organic seed potatoes that provides an optional outlet.

As part of the Heifer program, the Muskoday co-op will also pass on seeds and training to another First Nations co-op group consisting of a minimum of 11 families. Munroe envisions this emerging connection to other First Nations growing to include food exchanges, with products like northern fish being traded for fruits and vegetables from the south. "The thinking is that eventually the First Nations along the Yellowhead Highway could collaborate to develop a significant indigenous organic food industry. We would have sufficient land and labour to produce all of Saskatchewan's seasonal vegetables, for example."

Increasing on-reserve employment remains a major goal for First Nations like Muskoday.

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