By: Jan Murphy, Local Journalism Initiative
TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY – For Andrew Brant, gardening takes him back to his childhood, to precious time he spent with his late grandfather, bonding, learning, even making more work for a man he holds in the highest regard.
Brant chuckled while standing roadside at his garden along York Road in Tydendinaga Mohawk Territory as he recounted how he used to help his grandfather during potato planting season.
“He was going along planting potatoes and I was following behind him pulling them out because I thought that they were the ones that needed to be pulled,” he remembered with a laugh. “I never lived that story down.”
Gardening and a strong connection to the land has always been a huge part of Brant’s life, having been born and raised as a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. So much so that last year, along with his wife, Renee, and the help of good friend Nick LaMarsh and others in the Indigenous community, Brant created a food sovereignty project that offers free fresh food to community members, elders and those in need on and off Territory.
They did so with the help of Lush Cosmetics’ Charity Pot grant program, which provided a $17,000 grant to get the project ‘growing.’
This year, the project received a $5,000 grant from Carrot Cashe, a non-profit organization that supports small projects in Ontario working toward a sustainable and regional food system. The grant will fund the construction of a greenhouse, pushing forward its goal of growing food for the community all year round.
“Last year, Lush came through,” Brant said on a sunny but cool day that followed several days of rain earlier this month. “This year, we applied to Carrot Cash out of Toronto, which funds places that don’t necessarily want to conform with the Canadian government,” he said. “That gave us some money to be able to put up the greenhouse, which is going to be going up within the next couple of weeks.”
The project was a late bloomer, so to speak, last year, but also suffered a short setback at the hands, er, paws of nature as rabbits enjoyed much of the first harvest, prompting the group to put up fencing to keep opportunistic creatures at bay. The season was a success in spite of the furry fiends.
“This will be the first full season,” Brant noted. “Last year, we just planted a lot of leafy greens and stuff like that because we got started a little bit later in the season. Our first batch was destroyed by rabbits, so we only had about four months of grow season. In that time, we were still able to get out at least 1,100 to 1,500 pounds of food, that all went either off-Territory or to the community and the Elders’ lodge, the Food Resource Centre, and people who came by and asked.”
As the birds chirped gleefully in the background, Brant pointed to the season’s first grow, which includes potatoes, strawberries, broccoli, onions, to name some. With the looming construction of the greenhouse just a short walk up the road, the project will see much, ahem, growth this year.
Indigenous tobacco, medicines, wildflowers, sugar maples, white cedars and elderberries are among the items Brant intends to add this growing season, with plans for the addition of a dog park, small retail store and more on the site in the years to come.
Also this year, Brant plans to offer preserved items and workshops on preserving food.
“We’re going to be able to buy some trellis for the cucumbers,” he said. “We’re going to have two different kinds of cucumbers growing so that we can pickle some. That’s going to be another thing that we do to try to raise some money, sell the pickles, but we’re also going to show the people how to do the preserving. We were able to buy more fences so we can protect our potatoes. We’re probably going to sell potatoes just to fund the garden, but they’ll still be free for Indigenous people.”
The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte have secured a spot at Belleville’s Pop Ups on the Bay in Zwick’s Park for the season, which will be shared with groups and businesses around the Territory. Brant said while he’s unsure yet if he can offer fresh fare from the food sovereignty garden, he does plan to be selling some of his Two Row Coffee to help fund the garden.
“We’re taking Two Row Coffee there,” he said. “We’re going to be selling a new cold brew, which we just perfected. We’ve got a special blend for that. I don’t know if we can bring food yet, but if we can, we might bring some because there are people who live off-Territory who can’t necessarily make it here. But if we can’t, it’s still an opportunity for other people to support the garden by making Two Row purchases and everything because it all goes back in.”
Brant said he continues to be overwhelmed by the support and help he’s been receiving from community members.
“It’s actually pretty great. We’ve had people come out and offer to take our water tank, fill it up for us, bring it back,” he said. “We’ve had people offer to come out and help us build the greenhouse, bring their tools. They’re going to do whatever they can. It’s just really a matter of us having to buy the material for them to come out and do it. It’s cool to see. The food is going to places it needs to go and it’s a real communal thing. It’s a sense of community that’s starting to build more and more, especially after the COVID time.”
Brant has also held meetings with the Kenhte:ke Seed Sanctuary and Learning Centre about the possibility of working together.
“We’re going to be building our circle gardens, which are going to be the same as what they grow over there,” he said. “And we’re going to take our tomato plants and we’re going to put those in the greenhouse and we’re going to grow those all year round. Whatever we can grow all year, we’re going to put it in there and make sure we can keep putting food out.”
Brant’s project couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, given the sharp rise in food costs due to Canada’s recession-like economic situation.
“We see the grocery prices going up, they went up again over the winter,” Brant said. “We’ve seen our groceries go from a full cart costing only like a hundred bucks to having a full cart and it’s five hundred now. I saw somebody post on social media about their grocery bill being $1,000. People are having to choose between eating and having a roof over their heads.”
While the Carrot Cashe funding is a good start, the project is hoping to hear back on a few other grants it has applied for. In the meantime, anyone wanting to help out or donate can do so. The project urgently needs wood chips for the garden.
“We need wood chips desperately as you can see,” he said, pointing the ground, which was still soaked following a prolonged period of rain earlier this month. “The moisture is good right now, but we want to hold on the moisture for the garden. We purposely put the potato gardens right there because of the moisture, but once it starts to dry up, it’s going to dry up.”
Brant, who is a teacher, business owner, lead investigator for the Kenhte:ke Paranormal Society, a student at Queen’s University and an actor, paid tribute to the volunteers who have emerged to help keep the food sovereignty project moving.
“I really am thankful for volunteers,” he said, noting that with his many projects and commitments, his time can be limited. I’m responsible for more than just this project. There is all kinds of stuff happening for me so all the volunteers are literally what makes this happen. I’m just here tending to it. They’re the ones that made it come to life,” he said, adding that there are more than a dozen people helping with the garden project.
As the project continues to take root this year, Brant has a clear vision of what the rest of the year will look like in his perfect scenario.
“The way I see it going this year is us actually establishing that greenhouse down there, getting everything running,” he said. “I also want to start some preserving programs, get people making chili sauce, getting people pickling things, just making sure they have those preserves for the winter time. I want to team up with the seed sanctuary. I want to create something to teach people how to braid corn. We haven’t had one of those kind of workshops here. They do a lot of it in Six Nations. We’ve had some online stuff, but to actually have one of those here would be nice. But just to show people how to do things, it’s a lot of educating, which was part of the reason I did this.”
He also sees the project producing twice as much fresh food as it did last season.
“If we got 1,500 pounds out of four months last year, and that was with what I call the ‘rabbiting,’ then I’m sure we’re going to get a few thousand this year, at least,” he said.
Brant harkens back to his childhood, and his grandfather, when discussing what his motivation is behind this project.
“It’s just my people,” he said when asked what drives him with the project. “It’s just our way of life. It’s just who we are. I don’t really see it as getting anything out of it. If you’re doing something to get something out of it, then you’re not really doing it because you love it.”
As a child, when he wasn’t uprooting potatoes behind his grandpa, Brant said there was corn to be shucked.
“Every summer, there was always a shucking of corn,” he said. “Peeling the corn, peeling the corn. ‘Everybody get over here and peel the corn!’ he shouted, vividly remembering hearing that a lot as a child. “It was that and planting potatoes. I remember those things distinctly.”
Even now, when he wants to relive his youth, all he has to do is come to the garden and get his hands dirty.
“Getting my hands into the dirt and actually planting those potatoes is actually nostalgic in a way, it brings you back to that time when you were planting with your grandfather, who is not here anymore. Even just that it reminds you that your ancestors are there, too. You know, it’s not just that person or it’s not just your recent relatives who have past, it’s all of them.”
And Brant isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty.
“We don’t even have a wheelbarrow yet,” he said. “We’ve got all the dirt and everything for the gardens and I don’t even care that I had to go shovel by shovel back and forth. The fact that it’s happening is real. And that makes me happy. You don’t need all the material things to make you feel that you’re successful. To be successful is to be happy and if you’re happy doing something, then do it. If that means doing a little bit of hard work, carrying a little dirt from here to there so I can stick my hands in that ground and feel like I’m with my grandfather again, then so be it.”
Food produced through the project is made available free to anyone living on or off the Territory. As he did last year, Brant plans to set up a table weekly to hand out fresh food, as well as to offer delivery to those in need.
Over the last 25 years, Carrot Cache granted over $2.6 million to organizations and individuals who are working on organic agriculture initiatives and developing regional food economies.
The garden is located at 1407 York Rd., in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. For more information, visit thecrediblemohawk.com.
Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.