Meet the Farmer Training Indigenous Youth and Revitalizing a Culture of Food Sovereignty - Modern Farmer

Meet the Farmer Training Indigenous Youth and Revitalizing a Culture of Food Sovereignty

An Indigenous-led training hub, Tea Creek, in northern B.C. may be an answer to Canada’s looming farmer shortage.

The third cohort of Tea Creek graduates.
Photography courtesy of Tea Creek

This story is part of our Future Farmers series, highlighting the joys and hurdles of a career in agriculture today. You can read more of this series here. 

Dzap’l Gye’a̱win Skiik translates to busy eagle or an eagle who gets things done. A perfect name for Jacob Beaton. As an Indigenous businessman from the Tsimshian First Nation, he never imagined himself farming or teaching others. He lived a quintessentially suburban life with his wife and two sons before devastating wildfires and floods in B.C. inspired him to start thinking about climate change and food security for his family. 

In 2018, they bought Tea Creek, a 140-acre farm outside the village of Kitwanga in northern B.C. With the intent of keeping most of the property forested and only farming a few acres, they settled into farm life. But Beaton had to learn from scratch. He turned to YouTube videos and started visiting other small organic farms throughout the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Europe. 

Jacob Beaton stands in his field on Tea Creek.

“Farming, ranching, field base food production were a big part of Indigenous culture in this region that got wiped out by the Indian Act,” says Beaton. When the act was enacted in 1876, it took control over land rights and access away from Indigenous populations, which blocked most agricultural opportunities. “Immediately, from day one, our First Nations friends local to the area started dropping by, really excited that we were farming,” he says. Some remembered stories their grandparents and great-grandparents had told about farming in the area and asked Beaton to come to their communities and teach them.

But he was busy learning himself and, as he put it, there’s only one of me to go around. In 2020, the pandemic struck, and with food sovereignty top of mind for Indigenous communities in the region, it quickly became clear to the Beatons that they could do more to help their community and it was time to expand. Developing the Food Sovereignty Training Program, they invited Indigenous people interested in learning how to grow their own food to Tea Creek. 

Providing skills training in a culturally appropriate and empowering way is not an easy thing to do, but Beaton is “the eagle who gets things done.” 

Realizing that whatever was taught at Tea Creek had to translate into marketable skills and employment opportunities, Beaton enlisted support from SkilledTrade BC. Working with  employers, industry and government, Skills Trade BC approves non-public training providers, such as Tea Creek, to train and certify individuals who meet industry and government accreditation standards in their trade of choice. Tea Creek is able to offer apprenticeship programs and train an individual all the way to Red Seal certification. Recognized as the interprovincial standard of excellence in the skilled trades, it is the highest level of training in the country. 

Learn More: Based in the US? Check out the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative's work on enhancing food sovereignty.

Programs run from January to November, and they are open to Indigenous peoples 16 and up at no cost. Meals are provided and bunkhouse accommodation is available. All programs have Indigenous instructors and include carpentry, safety training, first aid, drone mapping, heavy equipment operation, cooking, horticultural training and administration. 

An aerial view of the farm. Photo courtesy of Tea Creek

Tea Creek is not a school with desks and classrooms. The land is the classroom. All courses are held outside as much as possible. Instructional cohorts are small, ranging from three to six people. This creates better opportunities for instructors and mentors to connect with trainees who in turn receive more hands-on learning experiences. 

Arriving at Tea Creek in 2020, Sheldon Good was 23 years old when he learned to repair and operate tractors. He says the experience at Tea Creek motivated him to get up during the day and do things. “The environment is really welcoming and there are really nice people taking care of everything,” he says. Acquiring skills he otherwise wouldn’t have learned, he now works at a sawmill.

Learn More: Are you a parent or educator seeking pathways for aspiring young agrarians? Check out Agriculture and Agri-food Canada's resource hub.

Tea Creek though is more than learning to operate a backhoe or tractor. The farming methods taught here include best practices from regenerative and conventional farming. This includes learning how to make fertilizer from compost and using a tractor to till the soil. Beaton’s business savvy has him insisting that trainees leave Tea Creek with a range of economically viable farming skills. With food sovereignty top of mind, traditional Indigenous crops such as corn are grown alongside kale, broccoli and lettuce. In 2022, the first crop of Ozette potatoes was harvested. These fingerling potatoes, renowned for their nutty flavor, were brought to the Pacific Northwest from South America by Spanish settlers 200 years ago. Grown primarily by First Nations peoples, they were rarely known outside of Indigenous communities until the late 20th century.

Tea Creek in B.C. Photo courtesy of Tea Creek

In 2023, Tea Creek hosted Farmstand Fridays where 20,000 pounds of fresh mixed vegetables were distributed to Indigenous families and communities. Tea Creek also prepares and serves 100 hot meals per day to trainees and staff using vegetables from the farm. 

In 2021, Tea Creek’s first year of accredited training, 33 people graduated from Food Sovereignty Training programs. Last year, 292 Indigenous people enrolled in training programs and more than 140 graduated from at least one course. 

“Tea Creek, can solve Canada’s farmer shortage. If funded and supported in a real way, Tea Creek could be scaled with multiple training centers across the country.” Jacob Beaton

It’s estimated that, by 2033, 40 percent of all farm operators in Canada will retire. Two-thirds don’t have succession plans in place. 

“Tea Creek, I’ve been told,” says Beaton, “in the area of agriculture, outputs more people in a year than any other agricultural training program in the province.” With a waiting list of 75 First Nations from the east to west coasts eager to learn, there is no shortage of enthusiasm. 

The legacies of Canada’s Indian Act, though, are far reaching. Canada’s residential school system stripped Indigenous children of their cultural identity and language. This has caused intergenerational harm that continues to be experienced through ongoing marginalization and systemic racism.

Take Action: Interested in learning more about the Indigenous history of Canada? Take this free course from the University of Alberta.

In 2023, 93 percent of Indigenous youth attending programs at Tea Creek identified this historical trauma as a factor in their mental health challenges. Through the peer-to-peer counseling Tea Creek offers, the sense of belonging and the purpose it provides through its training, 100 percent of trainees 30 and under, in 2023, reported improvements in their mental well-being. This is Tea Creek’s real success. 

“Before I got here, I was really in a dark place,” says Justice Moore, who is featured in the film Tea Creek, part of CBC’s Absolutely Canadian documentary series. “I was getting to the point of, just, no return. That’s the only way I can put it. I wouldn’t be here if Tea Creek weren’t here. That’s a fact.”

This story is part of our Future Farmers series, highlighting the joys and hurdles of a career in agriculture today. You can read more of this series here. 

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