Ellis Hamm has spent the last seven years alternating between small-scale, regenerative agriculture in the summer, and working with people in schools and churches in the winter. They reside in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba depending on the time of year.
Briar von der Kall is a 29 year old nonbinary farmer-in-training in Hamilton Ontario. They are currently living on their family’s biodiverse organic farm and positioned to become a third generation farmer. Though initially reticent to take over the farm, they have grown over time to become not just willing, but excited to steward the continuing evolution of their family’s small plot of land.
Here is Ellis’s winning essay:
by Ellis Hamm November 2023
To say that farming takes place alone is wildly inaccurate. It may also be the only way to sum up the experience. Farming cannot take place alone. And yet, we are so often not with anyone else.
What does it mean to be alone, then? If farmers do everything we do for other people, are we alone? If farmers spend hours on end surrounded by living things, are we alone? If farmers are so deeply planted in the earth that our roots intertwine with those of the trees we planted decades ago, are we alone?
Farming makes the world your coworker. It is an immense privilege, as well as, frankly, a pain in the ass. When the world becomes your coworker, one of the two of you has a lot more power in the decision making process, and it is not you.
How, then, do we build unified communities as people who are alone and not alone at the same time? In many ways, farmers have been answering this question all along. Unified communities require that we pull on our boots when a truck pulls onto the yard to see what they need. Unified communities require that we go home and get the tractor when a neighbour gets stuck in a drift. Unified communities require that we show up to the harvest suppers and make parade floats and cheer on the baseball teams.
In other ways, creating unified communities is harder than it has ever been before. There are fewer neighbours and they are farther away. More of our work takes place in machines than beside another person. Community traditions are falling to the wayside, people are moving to the city, and there are not enough folks to shovel the outdoor rink anymore. And that’s without even scratching the surface of our splintered and volatile political landscape pulling neighbours apart.
We have a chicken on our farm who I call Pretty Boy. Pretty Boy came with a bunch of other barn run chickens that we raised and then sorted out the hens to add to our laying flock. To the best of our understanding at the time, Pretty Boy was a hen. They looked like a hen, they acted like a hen, so they were moved in with all the other layers in the spring. Quickly, Pretty Boy decided they were not interested in living with everyone else and, quite literally, flew the coop. They settled into the nearby barn nicely and continued their life. As time went on, they developed new characteristics—a more pronounced comb, then longer tail feathers, and then a new posture, new colours, and the indignant walk that only a rooster can pull off. Now that the snow has flown, Pretty Boy is the handsomest rooster on the yard.
As a child, the world around me presumed that I was a girl. I was sorted into spaces that, in time, I decided were not right for me. As an adult, the world around me now presumes that I am a man. They are still not right, but I create spaces where I am entirely myself. Pretty Boy found their way into the coveted position of My Favourite Chicken pretty easily.
As a farmer who is trans and genderqueer, I am no stranger to a fractured political landscape.
Every facet of my life is surrounded by division. Trans people have been left at the bottom of a chasm formed by the political divide of liberal and conservative. We have become less “people”, and more “problem”. And we have come to be one of the most contentious issues within the liberal and conservative spectrum. And yet, we share a future. There is no other choice.
So I think about my own future in farming, and what it could be. I think about my fear that my neighbours may not pull their boots on when I pull into the yard, or get the tractor to pull me from the ditch. I think about what it means to be alone and not alone.
I have always farmed in close community. Seven years in, and every season has been collaborative—some years with a worker cooperative, other years with three generations on one yard. Farming, for me, is best done with others. Farming with others reminds me that neither my will nor my wishes have much to do with the day to day of working with the world. Other people have their own ideas, their own priorities, their own flaws, and their own brilliance. Other people require us to consider positions we do not hold. Other people ask us to consider our plans in the light of the infinite futures the world might bring about.
My connection to other people is what connects me to the world. My connections to people connect me to the livestock and the gardens. Then, suddenly, I am connected to the birds and the deer and the moose. Then the bees and the lambsquarters, the gophers and the thistles. Connection is complicated. Connection does not mean we all benefit equally. But connection means webs, links, nets. Connection means being tied together. Connection means we do not all fall.
So then, when every single thing goes wrong, there is someone with whom you can lie on the ground and yell at the sky. There is something succeeding even if you are not. There is a twist and turn of what the world is doing, and a new place from which we will begin again.
None of these things are solutions to the world we live in and are heading into. But, every day we find ourselves with a new starting place. The world is how it is, today. Pretty boy is who Pretty Boy is, today. We are who we are, today. We go from here, today. Hopefully, together, today.
Here is Briar’s winning essay:
How are young farmers using collaboration and/ or collective action to move towards more equitable food systems?
A vitally important aspect of sustained leftist organizing and organizations is being able to balance both organizing and building community. To organize without building community leaves people overwhelmed and prone to burning out, as they become hyper-focused on the dire consequences looming on our horizons and the impossible task of tackling it on their own. Conversely, eschewing organizing with and supporting fellow marginalized groups to focus only on a small, insular community weakens said community in the long run.
This same concept applies to community and communal farms. Hippy communes that ran out of funds only for their members to become reactionaries are a perfect example of focusing too much on community building, whereas the converse leaves farmers burnt out and overwhelmed with a never-ending list of jobs to be done. My vision of the future is of one where, overwhelmingly, we are able to find, and teach each other, where that balance point lies.
I’m sure my readers are well aware of the amount of time and labour being a farmer requires – but I envision a future where all that work is split between dozens and dozens of people, and where the concept of the “farmer” as it exists today becomes alien. Not because the work that farmers do today becomes strange, but because the thought of so much being done by so few becomes utterly unthinkable. The farmer of my future would still do most if not all of the jobs of a farmer today, but with many more helping hands, and more free time.
Crucially, I also imagine this work being made so much more fun by the presence of one’s community – a group laughing and gossiping over the fresh foods they are sorting and preserving, folks in the fields singing their favourite songs as they harvest, or just enjoying each other’s quiet company and the sounds of the birds while transplanting seedlings. Not only would we have more time to take breaks from the necessary tedious work, but finding fun and communal joy within the tedium will make all those tasks go by so much quicker.
Unfortunately, I won’t wake up in 2024 to see my utopian vision of intertwined food-forest collectives and villages magically come to fruition. It is something that will take a great deal of inter- and intra-community building. I have sought to build this future I envision, first by becoming a repository of the great deal of knowledge my family, especially my mother, has learned. It must be acknowledged that much of said knowledge comes from our Indigenous neighbours, who have stewarded the land successfully for generations before and since colonization. The implementation of traditional indigenous farming practices is vital to a sustainable future in farming.
The next step is finding a group of like minded people – something I have been lucky enough to stumble into quite quickly! A pair of friends of mine moved back into the area a few years ago, and they brought with them a growing love for kombucha and foraging. A symbiotic relationship immediately began, wherein my friends were able to start a locally-sourced kombucha business – with a great deal of their ingredients being sourced from our farm – and we gained an extra pair of hands to help harvest! Admittedly, our idea for a predominately queer farm collective arose partially in jest, but as we spent more time together helping each other to achieve our goals and seeing how naturally they intersect and enmesh, the idea became less silly and unobtainable, and more realistic. An excellent example was how we found attending farmer’s markets year round to be too costly overall – both financially and for the time required. Simultaneously, my friends were complaining that customers would often walk past a stall they saw as containing too sparse a display, and that it was difficult for them to show a full table when their wares required refrigeration. The natural solution was a combining of our wares into one tent, with only one of us attending a given market.
As time has gone on, I’ve only found more and more local folks with a wide variety of skills and knowledge, who have all expressed varying interest in such a communal farm. The more I brought it up, the more I found my hope of having dozens of people doing the toughest field jobs in rotation feasible, as an ever-increasing number of interested volunteers began expressing their desire to help and learn.
I have seen that the divorce so many people experience between the food they eat and where it originates from is not only something that so many people are aware of, but also something that makes so many feel hollow. The more I brought up this idea, the more I had friends and acquaintances express that they wish they could fill that hole – to learn how to care for and be cared for by the land – but they have no idea where or how to start. All they need are the places and people to teach them.
Some would argue that the hardest part of this whole journey will be getting the ball rolling. In a way, I agree, yet also see it as a moot point. I would argue the ball has already started to roll, the desire to see it continue is exploding, and that all we have to do is not dig in our heels.
Briar von der Kall