Food forests are an important pillar in a holistic approach to local food systems transformation.
CFTC’s Food Forests Initiative 2030, funded by TD Ready Challenge and other generous supporters, is helping to build a platform for better health and wellness in Indigenous communities. It’s boosting household and community resiliency, sharing Indigenous ways of knowing and being across generations and across communities, and setting people on the path to food sovereignty.
Food forests align well with traditional Indigenous approaches to agriculture and horticulture. When complemented by small-scale animal husbandry, co-operative gardening, community-led hunting and fishing, and land-based education, they help increase access to a diverse, culturally-appropriate diet for Indigenous families and make expensive and sometimes hard to obtain fruits and vegetables more readily available.
Ahtahkakoop takes strides towards food sovereignty
Entering year three, the Ahtahkakoop food forest has integrated a garden tunnel (greenhouse) and a community garden and started to provide fresh produce to families. The harvest in 2022 included cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. Produce was freely shared with the community, helping to defray the high costs of food and transportation to obtain it.
Thanks to a team effort, Ahtahkakoop’s food forest planted 400 raspberry, strawberry, and rhubarb plants and approximately 340 trees and shrubs in 2022. They include apple, sea buckthorn (the berries are used for medicines and attract and provide food for birds and small animals year-round), and lilac shrubs and trees, which are good for pollinators. These trees and bushes, along with the caragana and Colorado spruce trees planted, offer shelter and windbreaks, preventing erosion and helping to enrich the soil.
While they wait for the trees to bear fruit, many more community members are visiting the garden to “get their hands dirty,” according to Ahtahkakoop’s 2022 year-end food forest report, and still more are growing their own gardens. Community members were able to pick strawberries, raspberries, and tomatoes and word about the food forest and community garden is spreading via a Facebook site, social media, radio, and word of mouth.
The Ahtahkakoop 2022 year-end food forest report makes note of the important community-building benefits the food forests offer: “We have mental health and prenatal programs that bring people to the garden and the food forest to learn and spend time on the land. The garden is a tool to teach young mothers to create their own gardens. For our members who struggle with addictions, getting out on the land and learning to plant can help with mental health and healing. Students who struggle spend time in the garden, and Dorothy [food security coordinator] teaches them how to plant and work in the garden. It offers them a hands-on activity, centred on Indigenous teachings, that provides focus and community.”
“We have mental health and prenatal programs that bring people to the garden and the food forest to learn and spend time on the land. The garden is a tool to teach young mothers to create their own gardens. For our members who struggle with addictions, getting out on the land and learning to plant can help with mental health and healing. Students who struggle spend time in the garden, and Dorothy [food security coordinator] teaches them how to plant and work in the garden. It offers them a hands-on activity, centred on Indigenous teachings, that provides focus and community.”
AHTAHKAKOOP 2022 YEAR-END FOOD FOREST REPORT
Growing Muskeg Lake’s food forest into the future
At Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, horticulturalist Jordan is leading development of the next phase of the food forest, now entering year six. Jordan also highlights how important the initiative is in bringing the community together: “A lot of people remember having huge gardens or having animals and doing everything in a much more natural and traditional way. The food forest is a very productive system and it’s also a nice place to be. In Muskeg, there’s always a food focus. It’s very important for community building and health and relationships and often shows how we take care of each other.”
One of Muskeg Lake’s biggest improvements to their food forest over the past year has been to add clover and perennial grasses as ground cover, and plants called dynamic accumulators which help nourish the soil naturally and eventually reduce the amount of maintenance required. Jordan reports that these plants are finally starting to “outcompete the thistles and other weeds. This not only adds nitrogen to the soil and protects it, but also is helping the food forest look more like a park which the community can engage with,” Jordan said.
Muskeg Lake’s outdoor kitchen now has power and running water and, in the summer of 2022, they were able to restart some of the food-focused programming from this hub, including community workshops on canning and preserving the fruits and vegetables they have been harvesting.
“We have spots set up like [the] community kitchen and a gazebo where people can have events, hang out, and be in a space where they can also harvest foods and enjoy all the fun cultural events that come around,” said Jordan.
As the first food forest community, Muskeg Lake has engaged in a good amount of trial-and-error. The additional expertise that Jordan brings to the project is crucial to add to the original vision: “We do a lot of natural fertilizers, foliar sprays with fish and seaweed, because we don’t use any chemicals. We’re also still playing catch-up [to recondition the original site]; it’s an ongoing process. Each year, we add more plants and get control of the weed problem, increase the nutrition in the fertility of the soil, and get the plants a little healthier. It’s a lot healthier year after year,” Jordan said.
The Muskeg Lake food forest is a great learning space for students. “We try to involve them in the most fun things – I want to make sure they’re enjoying it before we introduce them to weeding and moving mulch!” Jordan said. “We get them started with planting and harvesting [which works well] with the school schedule. We plant in the spring and then when they come back most things are ready in the fall.”
Alien potatoes: A story from the field
I really like the imagination and excitement kids bring to the food forest. Last year, the students were involved in planting potatoes. One of the teachers had their own potatoes that they wanted to get into the ground. They were from their storage room so had already started sprouting. So these were potatoes with long shoots coming off them. The kids kept calling them ‘alien potatoes’ and they were pretty happy to be planting them.
We let the kids plant the rows of these alien potatoes. When we’re doing rows, I try to make sure we keep them straight to let the tools come between them. But since these potatoes already had such long stocks, they weren’t in a row at all. They were the first to come up because they’d had such a good start and when they did, they were all over the place. It was just a crazy jungle of potatoes. But it was the most productive part of the potato patch. It was up weeks before the others and the kids were so excited.
JORDAN, HORTICULTURALIST AND MUSKEG LAKE CREE NATION’S FOOD FOREST LEAD
Medicines, berries, flowers and food: Good things are thriving at Muskeg Lake
Last year’s harvest at Muskeg Lake included pumpkin, corn, squash, potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, lettuce, and cucumbers. Produce gets sent to the school for their school meal program, and some went to Meals on Wheels and to Kookum’s Cupboard, a food bank.
Jordan reports that the students were involved in planting strawberries and asparagus, the latter a new crop tried this past year. They’ve also added sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and 50 vines of a thicker-skinned grape good for jams, sauces, and wines. These grapes, smaller than table grapes, are more suited to Saskatchewan’s cold climate, becoming especially sweet once they’ve gone through a frost.
Berries grow especially well, and the food forest grows multiple varieties of gooseberries, currants, haskaps, sour cherries, and raspberries. They are getting more than they know what to do with, and haven’t yet set up a distribution or trading system with other communities – although that is in the works. Fortunately, the community loves them and is happy to take them when they are available.
An important part of the project is the health centre’s garden, which grows medicinal plants and Indigenous plants such as sage and sweetgrass used in ceremonies. There are also medicine picking trips organized and led by Elders, which take place around the lake where rat root, wild mint, and other plants thrive.
Looking to the future, there are final finishes to be done to the outdoor kitchen and play structure, and they want to create demonstration areas for gardening techniques, as well as more spaces to process and store food. Now that it’s feasible to gather in person, the community is planning more events around food processing. “We tend to spend a lot of time daydreaming different ideas of things we can add on,” said Jordan, “but the youth areas, play structures and kitchen are definitely things we’re going to be focusing on. A lot of our plans now are in the function of the food forest to make sure we have alternate water sources, including a rain water collection area.”
Listen to our podcast First Comes Food, where we go on a journey through Indigenous food forests in Saskatchewan, farming communities in African countries and early childhood community programs in Bolivia to meet the people who are growing food security for everyone. Their stories may surprise you.
First Comes Food is now streaming on our website and wherever you listen to your favourite podcasts.