COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — July 13, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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I love food: Whole, healthy foods. My friend Deb is also a food nerd and we often have long, lengthy discussions about food.

The other day I went to her house for dinner. She needed tomatoes, so I volunteered to grab her some. I know she prefers organic, so I spent the extra money and was quite proud of myself.

That is, until she opened the package, selected one tomato, cut it open, squeezed the juice onto a weird-looking contraption and held it up to the window. “This is a Refractometer,” she announced. “It measures the quality of your produce.”

“Well, those are organic tomatoes,” I cockily pointed out. “They’re the best … aren’t they?”

“Not always,” she said. She handed me the instrument. I held it up to the window and could see a chart of vertical numbers like a thermostat, which was called a Brix Scale. “Where do you see the blue line?” she asked.

“Five,” I said. The line appeared on the lower part of the scale. “What does that mean?”

Deb opened a booklet called “Biological Ionization as Applied to Farming and Soil Management,” by Dr. A.F. Beddoe, DDS. She stopped at a page that contained a Comparison Chart for Brix Readings. On this chart were a listing of plants and the nutritional value of those plants. For tomatoes, a “Poor” Brix reading was four, an “Average” Brix reading being six, “Good” being eight and “Excellent” at 12.

I was shocked. My tomatoes, my organic tomatoes, were only “Poor to Average” quality? I felt utterly ripped off!

Naturally I convinced her to loan me the Refractometer so that I could cut up all my produce at home and find their readings. I tested; grapefruit, an orange, an apple, celery, a carrot, and spring mix and spinach. Sadly that’s all I had to test because it’s nearly time to get groceries.

Everything was “Average to Good,” except for my celery, which rated “Poor to Average.” Nothing was “Excellent.” There was no rating for greens. Now there are little gash marks in all our produce, which humours me every time I open the fridge, but the gashes serve to remind me that we can’t always trust what we buy.

It also brought to mind a picture I saw on the internet last week, about produce stickers. The four to five digit numbers can actually tell you what you’re buying. A four-digit number in the 3000s or 4000s indicates conventially-grown produce. A five-digit number starting with a nine means organically-grown produce. A five-digit number starting with an eight represents genetically-modified produce (GMOs).

Since I’ve known Deb she has always insisted that Aboriginal people should start their own farms where they can grow their own produce and share it within the community. I understand where she’s coming from, and it does sound great, if not a little hippie and fanciful.

I’m sure these ventures have been tried in some communities, but I think many First Nations people are a little reluctant to try these things, probably stemming from suspicion and distrust thanks to their early experiences of farming.

Soon after the numbered treaties were signed, First Nations people were placed on reservations with a few measly farming tools, in an effort to help assimilate them. My guess is that it just wasn’t easy to settle homesteads with a bunch of Indians traipsing all over, hunting buffalo and maybe causing rebellion. If they were segregated, it would be much easier to monitor and control them, and they wouldn’t be able to gather together with neighbouring tribes, gaining strength in numbers.

So if you stuck these Indians on reserves and forbid them to leave without a pass, it would encourage them to try farming. After the fur trade, there wasn’t very much buffalo to hunt anyway, so they needed to find a new form of sustenance.

Quickly on, First Nations farmers became successful. But because they couldn’t leave the reserve, they often couldn’t sell what they grew. They needed a permit from the Indian Agent, and you can imagine how helpful Indian Agents were. Not to mention, there was the whole competition factor.

White farmers weren’t always keen to lose business to First Nations farmers, and they complained, so a Peasant Policy was created, restricting First Nations farmers from profiting off their crops. That, coupled with some farming tools which were never delivered, land that was sequestered away, along with the restricted movement of First Nations farmers, makes it obvious how they were set up for failure. With the Peasant Policy in place, they were only able to grow enough to feed their families, if that was even possible.

There are definitely First Nations farmers now, but the tricky part is that reserve land is not owned by First Nations people, so they cannot use it as collateral for big farm machinery. I sincerely doubt that there are many First Nations farmers in Saskatchewan who own and work their own land.

I do think that Deb’s idea does have some merit though. Growing your own food definitely has benefits. After my experience with the Refractometer, I understand that the label “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean a quality crop – it just guarantees that no chemical pesticides and herbicides were used. However, it would be safer to grow your own crops than to eat anything genetically-modified or swimming in chemicals. Learning about soil and the subtle manipulations and fertilizers which aid superior crops would also be advantageous to First Nations farmers.

One pitfall, however, is that even for white farmers; many small farms are being bought up by huge companies, rendering small farms powerless to compete in a market that can be sketchy at best. First Nations farms would definitely be on the minority end, as small-scale operations, and they would likely have to secure loans to finance start-up fees.

As far as economic development is concerned, this would only be one avenue. Maybe it wouldn’t be a lucrative venture, but where health is concerned, it would definitely be a worthwhile investment.

Organizations: First Nations, Comparison Chart for Brix Readings

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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