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Organic farmers dish the dirt and dig in the soil

Chase Barnes got his hands dirty and learned a little about gardening and farming in Kanesatake thanks to an open house at the Nations Garlic/Dearhouse Farm hosted by organic agriculturalists Chuck Barnett and Valerie Gabriel. (Daniel J. Rowe)

Chuck Barnett and Valerie Gabriel’s hands are dirty. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. The couple lives in Kanesatake on Nations Garlic/Dearhouse Farm, and Barnett spends every morning with a cup of coffee monitoring a machine that makes dirt. He gave a demonstration of the process Saturday when the couple opened their home to anyone interested in learning about sustainable agriculture, soil creation, garlic, trees and anything else they do on their farm.

Chuck Barnett spends every morning digging in the dirt to create the best organic soil for his farm in Kanesatake. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)

“We had an open house today to basically open our doors to people who are interested in farming or to come and see the operation how it works, what it takes, to be able to start having an understanding of real-life agriculture,” said Gabriel. “How to implement agriculture so that it’s sustainable in your life, so that you can learn how to have a side farm on top of your work.”

Paula Hill is a Cayuga from Six Nations and works for the David Suzuki foundation. She made the six-hour drive with her two children to take part.

“Part of my work is doing Indigenous engagement, and it’s challenging to reach out to First Nations communities without building relationships and I thought it would be a good way to meet some people with common interests,” she said.

Hill was excited about the segment of the day where Barnett spoke about soil.

“That was the part my children and I were talking about,” said Hill.
Gabriel and Barnett strongly feel that developing more agricultural practice of every scale will change the socio-economic and food cultures.

“I love teaching sustainability because it takes the fear out of, ‘what if we didn’t have a government? What if we didn’t have grocery stores?’ and all of that,” said Gabriel. “So less fear, less hate, less finger-pointing, less judgement, less jealousy, more teaching, more love, more understanding and being more connected with the earth.”

While Kanesatake’s agricultural scene is thriving, according to Barnett, Kahnawake has work to do to rebuild its agricultural acumen.

“Kanesatake still has a very active agricultural scene here, it’s not a distant memory,” said Barnett. “But with each generation from Kahnawake, we become more and more removed from the agricultural experience and it becomes more abstract. There’s almost a generation, two-generation lapse from when we were actively farming to now we’re just gardening. That’s not to diminish gardening, but agriculture, farming and creating product is a full time job, you can’t walk away from it.”

Gabriel has been in agriculture all her life from when her uncle had a strawberry, raspberry, apple orchard, and hired young Valerie to pick crops alongside immigrant fruit pickers. She

“I say immigrant in a very loving way,” she said. “They were the ones picking fruit next to me for $2 a dozen, and they were good. They were fast, they didn’t complain and they appreciated every dollar that they made.”

Gabriel said she and other farms have a much harder time finding community members to work, and hopes more begin to embrace agricultural work.

“I try to have open doors and open days where people can come and see the farm and really, a very small percentage of my community would come out,” she said. “It was always this apprehension that if they put themselves out there it would mean that they would get judged, and it’s not like that. We love whoever comes in our doors.”

Thawennontie Thomas and his girlfriend Jessica Lazare and her son left impressed with the operation.

Thawennontie Thomas and his girlfriend Jessica Lazare took the trip from Kahnawake to Kanesatake to learn about organic farming, and hope more locals can jump on the bandwagon. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)

“It was an amazing experience,” said Thomas. “It’s an amazing business. I hope they can share more of their knowledge and passion with other community members in the near future.”

For Kahnawake, Barnett sees two limitations on Kahnawake’s embrace of full-scale agriculture.

“We have very poor soil, we’ve neglected the soil for 50 years, which is just about the same amount (of time) when we stopped farming,” he said. “We have to work on remediating the soil and we can do it. We can correct it within a generation.”

A fluency in agricultural language, Barnett added, needs revitalization much like another aspect of traditional Kanien’kehá:ka culture.

“Sort of like language, we feel like it’s so close, but it’s just beyond our reach,” he said. “It’s a humbling thing to say, ‘I don’t know this. I should know this.’ There’s no need to be ashamed. There was a gap. We can close that gap. It’s not too late. We can close it, but we have to want it.

“We have to want it beyond talking about it and meme-ing about it. Meme-ing is easy, farming is hard work. That’s the difference.”

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