Introducing the TYFPC’s Food Champion Series with Cheyenne Sundance

Cheyenne Sundance is the creator and manager of Sundance Harvest, an urban farm and greenhouse in Downsview park. She also started Growing in the Margins, a non-profit where marginalized youth can develop urban agriculture skills for free. 

“I didn’t go to school” she says, “hands-on is how I learned to farm”. Cheyenne first got involved in agriculture when she worked in rural Cuba when she was 17 and 18 years old. That’s where she learned about organic farming, hunting, trapping and tobacco growing as well as about food justice and socialist ideals. “My farming experience all comes from guessing, and not asking but just doing” she says. 

After Cuba, when she returned to Toronto in 2018, she looked for a job in urban agriculture. Unfortunately, she found that no one would hire her. More than that, she says that “I was only seeing people of colour, mainly black and Indigenous people, at lower levels in non-profits”. Whereas the people in power in this field are usually white people. 

“I started Sundance Harvest … because there was no space that was actually run by people who had power who were Black or Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC), especially femme folks” explained Cheyenne.

Cheyenne’s greenhouse is located in Downsview Park and even though she only has half of this greenhouse, she is able to grow a lot of food for her community. “I had a CSA this winter that fed 30 families. With organic produce. In the winter. In Toronto. Very difficult, but I made it happen.” she says excitedly. A CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) is a way that farmers can have stable income directly from consumers. Consumers who subscribe to a farmer’s CSA pay ahead of time for boxes of fresh food that farmers like Cheyenne grow. 

What does it actually look like to be an urban farmer? She says she starts her day checking her email for an hour or two, then three days a week she heads to the greenhouse. On the days she goes in she says “I would see how the crops are doing, I would seed, I would harvest, I do two farmer’s markets on Monday and Thursday, at Dufferin Grove and Sorauren”. Thankfully, Cheyenne has help from a full-time placement student who can work independently in the greenhouse.

Sundance Harvest brings in income from selling their produce, not from any grants. Grants often come with many rules about how to spend the money as well as expectations about what you can or cannot say when representing the organization. This freedom from grant-based restrictions is something that Cheyenne strongly believes in as it allows her to fully speak her truth. “If Sundance Harvest relied on grants I would not believe in Sundance Harvest to create any change. Because I would only create the change that the funders would see” she says.

But with land being so expensive, why not have farms like these further out of the city where lower costs would make it easier to make a profit? “Where are the Black and Indigenous youth?” She refutes, “Obviously on the [reserves] too, but when we’re talking about the people we actually want to empower, when we’re talking about where the most food insecurity exists, when we talk about kids in schools that are underfunded, it’s in the city”. 

“So I see urban agriculture as a solution” Cheyenne states, “In order for food security in Toronto to happen, we need places to make that happen.” Community gardens are often thought of as the places that promote food security, however Cheyenne disagrees. Community gardens are too small and the power is often held by only a few people who are often wealthy. She says many problems can arise from this, for example “if someone is growing their culturally relevant food, [those in power] get to criticize them”. This power differential, along with the fact that many community gardens do not allow the food grown there to be sold creates a situation where food security is not actually being promoted. “Community gardens, I feel, are not liberating” she concludes.

How about the climate crisis, how does urban agriculture play a role in that? We know that, unfortunately, the climate crisis will hit people who are food insecure the hardest. “With the climate crisis, my main concern isn’t like solar panels and wind turbines, it’s ‘how are we gonna feed, or have Black and Indigenous people have food’.” And what does she hope that will look like? “Having a bunch of urban farms with a thousand square feet [per participant]. Someone grows it, feeds their family, and sells the rest. So I can see that kind of system working for the climate crisis because it allows people to have autonomy” Cheyenne says.

So what does Cheyenne see in the future of youth and the food system in Toronto? “I see in 5 years an uprising of all the Growing in the Margins participants, and they have skills and abilities now and then [5 years from now] they are Executive Directors at non-profits across Toronto” she says, “I also see that there [will be] a bunch of urban farms existing that are run by the people who need those farms, that are making profits, that are sustainable, that are not relying on grant money”.

How can you get involved as a youth? “Growing in the Margins, is a free education program for youth and there’s workshops once a month, it’s only for youth who are BIPOC, queer, trans and 2-Spirit because those youth get the least amount of jobs. So they can come to those workshops if they want free education, and they can also come to my volunteer saturdays. Every Saturday at my greenhouse from 1-3pm, you can come in, you can grow food, you can look at the greenhouse, you can look at the worms, you can do all that stuff.” Cheyenne explains. You can also ask her to speak at your university or student group and you can always reach out to her for advice, although she recommends you come to her workshops if you have any garden or farm related questions.

If you have accessibility concerns, Cheyenne also has advice on how to grow crops that are less intensive and in different ways. For example if you are in a wheelchair, microgreens are great because they are on a shelf, or sunchokes are a crop that you can leave in the ground until you feel able to harvest them.

And one last message to youth who are interested in urban agriculture “For the youth who are maybe reading this interview, or are interested in having a career in agriculture, and are feeling like they have to still go to school or take a workshop, you don’t. You just read a book and you get started”. 

You can find Cheyenne Sundance and Sundance Harvest @sundanceharvest on all social media.

About the Author

Sarah Burnett was a practicum student from the University of Toronto completing her Master of Public Health in Nutrition and Dietetics with the TYFPC from January to March 2020. Sarah is very passionate about food security, health equity and about the many ways that the Canadian food system influences our health.

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