If you live in a city, do a survey of urban agriculture projects in your context. Visit some of the sites and consider: the participants, the safety, the organic methods of production.
According to Fernando, “a good farmer is a farmer who produces soil before producing crops.” But he suggests that many “don’t know the soil is alive”. Pick up a handful of soil and talk about the life within it. View the Legacies video “The Soil is Alive” featuring Fernando and his mentor Dianne Kretschmar, and then talk again about the life within the soil.
Fernando met Fulvio Giaonetto of Michoacán through the Legacies exchange. He sees Fulvio’s production of organic inputs as one way to lower costs and increase yield. View the Legacies video “The Alchemy of Agroecology” and consider the multiple values of this approach, in economic, ecological and social terms.
When Fernando visited Chandra Maracle at Six Nations in Ontario during the Legacies exchange, he was inspired to organize a community meal with the students he had trained through Cosecha en Casa. Has the tradition of the family or community meal been lost in your context? What cultural practices do you follow around sharing meals?
If you are living in a city, research the options for growing food, from indoor, balcony and patio gardens to allotments or community gardens.
Start small and at home. Grow some lettuce or tomatoes in a pot. Or make sprouts in a jar.
Do you have family members or friends who are interested in a more collective process of growing, preparing and/or eating food? Get together and explore possible group projects.
Samantha Trumbull is the executive director of a Washington, D.C.-based urban farm that aims to create a vibrant, informed, and well-nourished community through urban farming. Her belief in the power of food systems, and the right of each person to have access to fresh, healthy, and sustainably produced food is her driving force. Before joining the non-profit world, Sam served in the US Peace Corps in Honduras, and worked on a food security program for the US government.
This story really cuts to the heart of some of the major barriers both for urban agriculture and small agricultural producers. There is a constant struggle for balance between capitalist multinational companies who have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, and small justice-minded farmers or organizations who see a different world that doesn’t center so much around profits. One thing I found particularly interesting and poignant about this story was that Fernando not only left his urban agriculture business to work at a large multinational corporation, he did so because his small business couldn’t compete in the environment that those corporations created.
This observation led me to many questions, the primary one being whether or not corporations that aren’t Certified B Corporations can ever really be socially responsible. There is now a whole industry of corporate social responsibility, and indeed my farm receives both funding and volunteer support through these channels. However, at the root of many of the inequities and injustices in the food system is the fact that those same corporations have already chosen to feed the rich rather than the poor. Often when considering the food justice work that we do, I am forced to ask myself whether or not the changes that are necessary for an equitable food system are even possible within our current economic structures. Mostly I think the answer is no.
Despite that conclusion, the work that Fernando is doing is really important. Undoing much of the damage caused by the Green Revolution and the growth of pesticide and herbicide usage, GMO seeds, and mono-cropping is the work of generations. I do hope that governments take notice, so perhaps the question we should be asking is how can I get my local/state/national government to take agricultural sustainability seriously? As was mentioned, the Indigenous agricultural practices are being lost, or have been lost. Luckily, we know so much more about plant and soil science. Once farmers have the knowledge and tools to collectively stand up to corporations, because they can grow their own seeds and make their own compost, then we can start to dismantle the whole structure upon which our food system is built.
Fernando is at his house, in front of a living wall on his patio. He jokes that he set up the living wall, complete with drip irrigation, to satisfy his wife who told him as an agronomist they needed something green at home.
In the late 1990s, Fernando completed an agronomy degree, and began work with the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture. Interested in learning more about organic agriculture, he got a leave to go to Canada in the early 2000s. First he worked at Plan B Organic Farm
near Hamilton, Ontario, and then moved to Grenville Farm in the Muskoka region of Ontario. He learned organic practices from Dianne Kretschmar, developing a special relationship with her based on their interests in agroecology, soil and farming.
Once established back in his home town of Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico, Fernando experimented with various agricultural enterprises, from retail and delivery of organic foods to large scale organic lettuce production. He then founded Cosecha en Casa, an urban agriculture company which he ran from 2013 to 2018.
Since 2017 he has worked for Semillas Globales,1 a multinational company that harvests and processes high quality oils from seeds, nuts and fruit like sesame, chia, peanuts, and avocados. In describing his work with Cosecha en Casa and the company he now works for, Fernando raises critical agroecology issues: urban and rural specificity, issues of scale, community capacity and connection, and economic viability.
Cosecha en Casa was an urban agriculture business in Guadalajara. The project focused on establishing gardens of various sizes and scales, from balcony and patio gardens to community gardens, as well as running workshops and training events. Cosecha en Casa was an opportunity to do what Fernando loved most – growing food, sharing knowledge with other people, and supporting people to grow vegetables.
Cosecha en Casa was a well-known business in the community, and Fernando was well respected for his deep knowledge and understanding of urban agriculture. He inspired many young people and women to start their own gardens, and brought them together for community dinners to share their experiences and build a suburban support group.
Over the five year period that Cosecha en Casa existed, urban agriculture became very popular in Guadalajara and across Mexico. Fernando explains, “Urban agriculture is blooming. Lots of people wanted to do it, but didn’t know they need science and knowledge. Doctors, dentists, people without experience became interested in urban agriculture.”
Over time, lots of people began offering urban agriculture workshops, and it was harder to get customers because there was more competition. What concerned Fernando wasn’t the competition, but that some competitors were teaching the wrong ideas which meant people weren’t successful and were discouraged.
According to Fernando, there isn’t a sense of community in Guadalajara. The prevailing feeling is that it is a dangerous city. People hear about kidnapping and robberies which creates fear. This impacts any sense of community. Urban agriculture was one positive response to the violence, to help neighbours get to know each other and to build community.
Urban agriculture offers a big opportunity to start developing community but this requires government support. Because urban agriculture was a trend and in fashion, the government wanted to get involved in some projects. Fernando tried to work with the government many times, but the willingness to invest just wasn’t there. For example, one government-started community garden looks abandoned.
“It isn’t maintained,” described Fernando, “you don’t want to be part of it. When you look at it you don’t see a garden producing diverse good quality food. You see an abandoned piece of land that says ‘community garden.’ But you don’t see community at all.
“I’ve seen community gardens in New York and Toronto. They are very different and it is a different experience. It requires investment to start this kind of project. I am certain that the community will participate, but we need the spaces, and ongoing help to establish and maintain the garden.
“Cosecha en Casa helped me to find ways to share my knowledge with others, it helped me connect food production to consumers. We’re accustomed to consume food even though we don’t know where it comes from, even from other countries. To have the capacity to grow your own food in your family context and then to consume it, completely changes the relationship you have with the food that you eat.”
In 2017, Fernando was offered a full-time job at a multinational company that produces organic products and exports them to 35 countries. It buys raw materials from all over the world, many of which aren’t available in Mexico. The company is concerned with sustainability, social responsibility and the way these raw materials are produced. Fernando was hired to ensure that the raw materials are produced organically, and to promote the values of sustainability and social responsibility to the producers. Fernando brings his expertise on the technical aspects of organic agriculture to his work with the company, as well as the social skills to teach and encourage people to move toward a more sustainable organic practices.
With both Cosecha en Casa and the company, the work was about supporting people to survive by increasing their food sovereignty.
Fernando struggled with the transition, and for some time tried to maintain Cosecha en Casa while working in his new job. “Urban agriculture was a business that depended on me. People wanted me to do the workshops, to build their gardens, and I didn’t have time to do that with my new job. And my son is three, so I wanted to spend time with him, too. I felt like I was losing control of the business and people were expecting more than I could give. Cosecha en Casa is something I can start again when I want, because I built a community and developed some techniques. I decided to stop Cosecha en Casa for now and focus on this new adventure with the company. It is a totally different scale, but uses many of the same agroecological techniques. The company offers a big opportunity to do things differently, to work on a different level with different people.”
With both Cosecha en Casa and the company, the work was about supporting people to survive by increasing their food sovereignty. With Cosecha, it was more about self sufficiency and building community. At the company it is more about supporting the economic viability of smallholder farmers.
“I had a vegetable garden in front of my house. This was stressing me out because I didn’t have time to maintain it, especially when I was travelling. It became stressful and distracting. The owner of the land wanted to sell it, so it was time to give it up. The huerto fed me and my family for a long time. It is sad not to have this healthy organic food for my family.
“Especially now that I have a two-year-old kid and want to feed him responsibly. In one way it is frustrating. I look in my fridge and doubt what I am eating again. It wasn’t only about food, but also community. It was a point of connection to people who think the same way and want to learn about food and agriculture.
“To have the capacity to grow your own food in your family context and then to consume it, completely changes the relationship you have with the food that you eat.”
“It was a nice community that I miss. Building friendships, life, community. It was a hobby for me as well. A place where I connect with myself, this way of living, thinking, connecting with the mystery of agriculture in a responsible way. It was a very intimate moment for me in the huerto, walking around, feeding and caring for the plants.
“It was very hard for me to see the garden of Cosecha en Casa locked up and sold.”’
“It was very hard for me to see the garden of Cosecha en Casa locked up and sold.”
At Semillas Globales, Fernando works as a rural agricultural development manager. He is working across a wide range of scales of agriculture with hundreds of farmers, some of whom have 1-2 hectares and others who might have thousands of hectares.
Fernando’s work involves supporting farmers to improve their agroecological practices. For Fernando it is critical work, as the farmers are economically reliant on agriculture to maintain their families and communities. Each region, farmer, and scale of farm requires different strategies, planning, and concentration in order not to make mistakes that would cost either the farmer or the company money. It is a big challenge.
“The farmers need to make a living from this land,” explained Fernando. “All of them have the same problems – they don’t get enough yield and spend a lot of money on inputs. Farmers think the industry is guilty and doesn’t pay enough. I have a different point of view. What could you produce, what is the potential? If you were able to produce one tonne instead of 100 kilos, you would be earning lots more money with the money industry is paying. The strategy is to find a way to produce more and spend less.
“We work in different stages. First, we sensitize farmers about this idea – so they understand a new approach, what they are doing wrong, and what they could do to improve. Second, after they become interested, they often realize soil is alive. Then it is easy to teach them techniques to make organic fertilizers and inputs and manage their resources in a sustainable way.
“This requires technical support and agricultural science.” Fernando continues. “Farmers have lots of experience, and know how things must be done, but they don’t always understand the importance of soil in agriculture. They don’t know the soil is alive, that micro-organisms are the stomach of the plant, and that if you don’t have good soil you won’t be able to produce good quality food and high yields.”
In the Mexican context, there are risks involved in the direct approach of working with farmers the company takes. The approach is used because the company believes in business development in the field and not through intermediaries. This approach brings better profits for the producer, and better business for the company. But the agriculture sector in Mexico is exposed to drug trafficking and narco-trafficking activities.
“These areas have been invaded by narco-trafficking. It’s a risk for us who work in these areas, but it’s almost throughout the country. We have to be very neutral, because we’re constantly being watched, so we have to be careful. They (the narco-traffickers) see government and industry as the enemy, so we are not welcome in these areas. We have to convince them that we really are trying to help the campesinos. They see us as foreigners. To manage this, the company has policies for people who work in the field: That they always travel in the daylight, for example, or that they have vehicles that don’t get stuck in the rainy season. There’s a whole security policy: we are trained on what to do in case of an ambush, what documents to take. This is a preventative policy, to avoid problems.”
Because the company works globally, Fernando has learned a lot from his visits to other countries. “In Bolivia, Venezuela and two African countries , farmers’ problems are almost exactly the same. There is a lack of strong farmer organizations, the state of the environment is poor, there is poor access to markets, and a lack of quality technical assistance.
“There are fake technicians trying to sell expensive inputs and other things. There aren’t real technicians or agronomists who are capable of diagnosing problems, accessing good information, planning, and providing information to inform decision making. Local Indigenous knowledge is being lost by the use of remedies that work fast, but aren’t focused on the root of the problems. This implies more mechanized soils, more exposed soils, the excessive use of chemical inputs, without understanding that when we use a pesticide, we can control a pest in the moment, but we are also killing insects that in a way maintain an environmental equilibrium. We need many micro-organisms to work in the soil to maintain a natural equilibrium.”
“In our company, we are aware of the ideal conditions that must exist in the ecosystem without affecting living beings, micro-organisms, or bees. All these relationships must continue to exist and work naturally so that we are able to produce quality food and good yields in time.”
In 2019, the company secured an experimental farm outside of Guadalajara, where Fernando has been able to mass produce organic cauliflower that is then cut, cleaned and dehydrated as healthy snacks. He is also working with local farmers to test other organic vegetables that could be cultivated and processed.
Fernando is very interested in the agroecological techniques that Michoacán-based Legacies collaborator Fulvio Gioanetto uses and the results he gets. It is very difficult for agriculture to be profitable with higher and higher production costs, low yields, and little attention to caring for natural resources like soil. Fernando talks about the importance of Fulvio’s work and approach.
“We do not have to leave the natural world to turn agriculture into a practice”
“There is so much knowledge that Fulvio has, and I would like to test out some of these techniques, and learn more. What Fulvio does is very important right now. For me, a good farmer is a farmer who produces soil before producing vegetables. If you don’t have good soil you won’t be able to have good yields, or good quality with low cost. The system will demand a lot of inputs. What Fulvio does is produce inputs that are affordable; farmers have what they need to produce them on their farms and in their communities. There is an opportunity to collaborate in the production of organic crops at my company.
“For me, agroecology is the ability to produce food respecting all production factors – such as soil, water, the environment in general, without negatively affecting them and guaranteeing their health over time. It is not to apply a product to control a problem, but rather to try to understand why the problem arose and to understand the problem at its root, to recover the micro-biological balance of the soil, to respect the entire relationship of the crop with insects, with animals, with water sources. Agroecology is to respect and maintain health across all these resources. We do not have to leave the natural world to turn agriculture into a practice.”
Through the Legacies Project, Fernando has had the opportunity to exchange his food knowledge with settler and Indigenous people in both Mexico and Canada. The project brought him back to Ontario for a reunion with his mentor, organic farmer Dianne Kretschmar. He was inspired by Mohawk community food leader Chandra Maracle at Six Nations to consider the table end of the food system, and to organize community dinners with his former students. Since 2017, he has been involved in scaling up, by trying to influence a multinational company to support small farmers to produce organic products in a more sustainable way.