Agriculture, People, Our Work
Connecting Two Worlds: Creating an Ecological Farming Business Rooted in Hope and Healing
Curated by Karli Longthorne
Storyteller: Sophie Foster
December 15, 2022
Growing nutritious food for the local community of Oxford County rooted in ecological farming techniques and Indigenous values is a meaningful way that Sophie Foster—a 25-year-old rural farmer and entrepreneur—is addressing climate change in a rural context.
Rising Roots Farms is an ecological vegetable farm located on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki, Attiwonderonk, and the Mississauga nations in Embro, Ontario. Since its inception in 2020, Sophie’s mission has been to connect her two worlds: education in Indigenous rights and climate change mitigation and hands-on work in farming.
Understanding what ecological farming is and the role that it plays in addressing climate change is the first step toward environmental stewardship and reconciling our relationship with Indigenous land and its people.
Meet Sophie Foster and hear her journey as she answers the following questions: What is ecological farming, and what role does it play in addressing climate change? What are the benefits and challenges facing ecological farmers? How do Indigenous rights connect to farming values and practices? What is your advice for young, female farmers interested in creating an ecological veggie farm in rural Ontario? And, how do I start my own ecological vegetable farm?
During university, Sophie’s interest in Indigenous rights and climate change mitigation, working on food security, and ecological farming sparked the inception of Rising Roots Farm. “I felt like no one was taking responsibility for climate change issues and I began to feel hopeless and heartbroken. I turned to hands-on farming—and learned more about green building techniques in Australia—where I felt I could make a difference. I began to feel a sense of accomplishment I had been wanting so badly in my university program,” shares Sophie.
Rising Roots Farm is a creation that stems from the many emotions Sophie has felt in the past 6 years: sadness, fear, desperation, hope, passion, and healing.
“It has allowed me to share nutritious food, while also building a community and business founded on human rights values and climate change solutions,” says Sophie.
Conventional farming has been criticized for its harmful environmental impacts. It emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases—like methane and nitrous oxide—leading to excess heat trapped in the atmosphere. This combined with the widespread use of pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic chemicals can pollute our earth's natural resources, like freshwater, marine ecosystems, air and soil, and lead to biodiversity loss.
Unlike conventional farming, which aims to optimize production at the cost of crop's nutrient quality, and impact on climate change, ecological farming works on a smaller scale to support one's local community and minimize one’s environmental impact.
Ecological farmers don’t use genetically modified crops, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides. To limit insect damage on their farms, they avoid mono-crop plantations and work to preserve ecosystem diversity. Restoring soil nutrients using natural composting systems is also used to avoid soil loss from wind and water erosion.
Ecological farming methods date back to the days when diverse crops were grown on small family farms and are a widely revered approach to protecting soil, water, biodiversity, and mitigating carbon emissions today, tomorrow, and generations into the future.
“Some may say that conventional farming is more resilient than ecological farming due to the ability to trade and provide food on a global scale to address hunger, however, I learned that hunger doesn't come from a lack of food; it comes from a lack of access to food. Poverty and inequality cause hunger,” says Sophie. “Unequal political power over food rather than not having enough food is the real issue. So, to me, it just makes sense to look after our local community and ensure everyone has access to nutritious food.”
Operating an ecological vegetable farm in a rural context has come with its benefits and challenges. The nutrient-rich soil quality and the provision of support from local farmers are two key benefits, Sophie has experienced while farming in Oxford County.
“The amount of support in terms of knowledge or physical resources I have received from local farmers—whether they are conventional farmers or not—has really enhanced my experience. During university, I had the assumption that receiving support would be difficult and so far, everybody I have talked to has proved me wrong,” says Sophie.
Despite building a community network of support amongst her local farmers, Sophie has found it challenging to find farmers who are a part of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) community.
“The majority of farmers in Oxford County are white, and there is a long history of pushing those from the BIPOC community from their land. It’s important that we recognize this and work to rebuild those connections. Fortunately, we are seeing increased diversity of folks from the BIPOC folk living and working in Oxford County and I’m eager to learn more from them,” shares Sophie.
A large responsibility of farming on Indigenous land is learning how to act as an ally to Indigenous communities. Using Indigenous ways of knowing and teachings about environmental conservation and sustainability without taking credit for it and learning from Indigenous elders is a promising way forward.
Indigenous farming techniques have been around for thousands of years. Indigenous farmers use approximately 20 percent of the Earth’s territory; on that 20 percent, they protect 80 percent of the earth’s remaining biodiversity. Through university courses, readings and research, Indigenous elders have taught Sophie how to farm as if it’s an ecosystem; revitalizing rather than degrading soil, planting crops that grow in harmony with each other for water, oxygen, and soil, and intentionally co-planting diverse plant species on a single plot.
“Indigenous teachings have given me hope that humans aren’t just destructive, but that we have the capacity to show environmental care through ecological farming. I recommend that everyone read Braiding Sweetgrass, by Indigenous writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer who taught me the honourable harvest protocols that I use on my farm,” says Sophie.
Sharing what you grow with others, never taking the first or the last fruit or vegetable, and always thinking of future generations are among some of the harvest protocols Sophie has adopted from Braiding Sweetgrass.
“My intention with Rising Roots Farm is to build a business that helps my local community and that honours Indigenous land and sustainable ways of growing nutritious food. I am just getting started and am filled with hope for the future,” shares Sophie.
Introduction Clip: Today we’re talking with Sophie Foster, a young entrepreneur, and recent Masters’ graduate student about her journey in creating an Ecological Veggie Farm located in Embro, Ontario called Rising Roots Farm. Rising Roots Farm has allowed Sophie to connect her two worlds of academia and hands-on work—being able to share healthy food, while also building a community and business founded on Human Rights values and Climate Change solutions.
Could you please introduce a bit about yourself and your connection to Rural Ontario?
Sure, so my names Sophie Foster and I grew up in Woodstock, ON and and just kind of lived between Embro and Woodstock, so that’s kind of how…I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve only ever gone away for 4 years to move to Ottawa for 4 years for University.
Awesome, and can you tell me a bit more about your connection in terms of your business?
Sure, so after finishing university through a bunch of different kinds of experiences that I had I decided to start my own ecological farm I'm on about about 1/2 of an acre and I never thought that I'd move back to Oxford county you know I feel like everyone says that when I leave but I actually it ended up just being the place that I'm kind of supposed to be and the universe kind of directed me to live here again and everything fell into place so my business is Rising Roots and I started Rising Roots I'm just located outside of Embro, Ontario just about 20 minutes away from Woodstock where I grew up and it's my my boyfriend's family farm actually that I'm growing my own business on
oh neat I yeah that's actually one thing I wondered where your land was so that works out well um can you tell me a bit about why you decided to go with the name Rising Roots Farms?
Yeah, so it took me a while to come up with the name because I kind of started Rising Roots with…Rising Roots is basically my project to find a way to implement all these values that I have coming out of university and figuring out a way of like what can I do with these values and how can I actually create something whether it's a career or hobby or something that I can yeah have my hands kind of on the ground and doing something where I can see a difference. So Rising Roots is the name that I chose for the business just because I felt like it kind of captured the two worlds that I was trying to kind of to show in the business name so the first the first kind of angle is the actual kind of scientific the scientific kind of version of of roots and looking at roots so there the word “rising roots” that's me trying to connect to the actual roots in the soil and plants and how that connects to carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation and how, you know farming in an ecological way can actually you know support those values that I want to, such as like climate change mitigation an indigenous knowledge using indigenous knowledge to actually to actually you know yeah implement those values so protection of soil, carbon sequestration, biodiversity those are kind of that angle the scientific angle and then the second angle more connects to yeah me moving back to Oxford county and actually using my kind of my family ties and what I've learned from my own family as well so kind of like I'm using rising as like almost like a revolutionary like rising up of the roots not only the physical plant roots but also my own roots as well as my values and kind of the values of social justice and climate change and caring for the environment and yeah just yeah being able to implement those values into something tangible so that's why I chose Rising Roots.
ah awesome I really love like symbolic meaning that kind of leads me to my next question so I can definitely appreciate how your personal journey graduating with your Master of global governance with a focus in Foods security and Ecological Farming has kind of led you to this creative not just a passion project but also a thriving business so could you tell me a bit about how your farm meets the needs within your local community?
Yeah so this is a question that I could that that's the one that I could kind of go on forever because because you know I believe that I can meet a lot of needs but I'm also just just starting right so this is my only this only my second summer so I have the ideas of what I think it meets already but also what I think it could meet in the future so the first thing is bringing healthy food to my community so it's local so not only is that like a climate change mitigation right there it's local because it's local it's actually more nutritious because it's grown and healthy soil right here in Oxford county which is like some of the best soil and all Canada it's more nutritious so not only am I bringing that to my community but I'm also able to kind of like educate them about the food that I'm growing for them that they're going to eat and like how I grow it how how it does grow a lot of people are really disconnected so they don't actually you know they don't know what it looks like like how are Brussels sprouts grown… a lot of them don't know that it it looks like a tree trunk and you know you just pick them up but a lot of people don't know that stuff and that's something again that kind of comes from my growing up with my family that was very in my childhood to know how food grows and kind of have that understanding so that's something that I think is really important to bring to your community so yeah healthy food is definitely something I also think that another need that my business can can kind of meet is creating community events creating kind of like a base 'cause Oxford county is very centred around farming and I think it's so important that we kind of keep that and kind of I think I think every community should be around farming personally that's obviously I'm biased opinion but just around food in general you know that's how we meet as families to eat at the dinner table that's how we meet in bigger family gatherings, weddings everything, all of our like cultural you know almost every culture in the world is very centred around food and I think that's I think that's so beautiful because the people who are farming spend so much time and energy to grow the food and then we get to create these beautiful meals with it to have amazing conversation and connection with other people it's just like a ripple effect so that's kind of another aim that I want to do is to build more community host events have connection with others another kind of need in this connected to the community building one is just, Woodstock’s growing and we're getting a much more diverse population that kind of what I grew up with which I am very excited about because I think we need that in Woodstock and in Oxford county and so I'm kind of excited because because it helps Rising Roots because I want to have that social justice because I want to have those values that I want to share not only like can I share that with people my age and older people but also new like new people new you know we have people right from Ukraine living in who just got here during this crisis living in Embro right now so it's just again going back to the food and connection and like new people just building those connections for new people I think is amazing and yeah I'm super excited about that that's something that I'm working on right now so like on farm events or something but also having it like subsidized tickets hopefully in the future maybe next summer for events so that we can have people from different backgrounds people from different you know I don't want it to just be you know wealthy people coming to my events. I wanted to be a mix of different people from different backgrounds so that we can get those connections and we’re able to relate to people who maybe had a different upbringing different family background anything. I'll shut up soon with this question but I have two more two more things to say… this the the first one I guess out of the two things is just being able to care for the environment so one of the lessons that I kind of want to share with with my community or people who support Rising Roots is just the one the one main thing that I learned from indigenous elders during university and again I'm I'm white I'm not indigenous so so these aren’t my values to kind of teach you know I very much say to everyone that I talked to that I'm not indigenous and you know everyone needs to go out and talk to indigenous elders because they completely changed my life and change my perspective on how we should live and gave me so much hope so that's kind of where Rising Roots stems from too but the one lesson that I learned from those indigenous elders is you know if everybody takes care of their little piece of land you know all the land will be taken care of because humans are everywhere now and indigenous people are like the best caretakers of the environment so that's one thing that I can bring to the community and Oxford county is just environmental care and hopefully sharing techniques to other people and how they can take care of their own little piece of the land. And then the last thing I'll say for this question is just kind of bringing ecological farming is I would say on the fringe of Oxford county when you drive around it's all like big conventional farms so I kind of get to bring new ideas and maybe challenge some old ideas but also I can say new ideas but a lot of the ideas that I'm using are actually just techniques that my grandparents and the grandparents before that were using their really their old new ideas that that makes sense. So I'm kind of just excited to challenge in a friendly way you know the trending mass conventional farms that we have in Oxford county
OK well there's a lot of really great things that you said there just to clarify could you talk… what's the difference between conventional farming and ecological farming?
Yeah OK so where to start so I'll start with conventional sure so conventional farming it's only been around since about the 50s and it’s the idea basically people were looking at the world saying and by people I mean like global policymakers government governments etc., were looking at the world and being like OK we really have hunger around the world how can we solve hunger and so basically their solution was we just need more food if we have more food we’ll be able to solve this so then that push you know we need to make as much food as possible and that's kind of where this productivity you know is all about production but that's kind of what conventional farming is all about. It’s like let's make as much food as possible but with that, quality kind of dropped a bit I would say and it changed it changed the value it changed the values of farming as was known at the time so instead of looking at you know I want to grow the most the healthiest biggest tomato highest nutritional value it was you know let's grow a million tomatoes and like forget about the nutritional value kind of things, we just need to grow more so that really kind of that turned into you know let's build technology so we got tractors and then we started tilling like on huge scales and so then we really started to see like soil degradation we're seeing a lot of like carbon emissions from conventional farming I could go on and on but the idea basically is like everybody specializes in one or two so like corn and soy or maybe if we're talking animals then it could just be like dairy cows whereas before the 1950s you saw farms would have like cows, pigs, chickens like everything and the idea behind those smaller farms was like let's keep it let's keep kind of this ecosystem of we’ll have compost on the farm will use our own compost we can feed the cattle and like everything kind of goes in that circle and within its own local kind of ecosystem whereas these mass conventional farms are now working on like a global scale so so instead of growing a bunch of wheat in I don't know Nigeria now Nigeria I think it's Nigeria that's like 70-80% imports for wheat from Russia and Ukraine so you can see it's like they they as in like the people who support conventional agriculture think it's more resilient because we're able to trade around the world but when you look at like carbon emissions and the values that I'm talking about about like community and climate change biodiversity all those values are kind of put at the bottom of the priority list as like instead of sorry to promote productivity that's kind of what I say so it's all like monocrops one crop when you drive past it's a huge field of like corn stuff like that and so what ecological farming is kind of going back to those roots back to kind of what our grandparents did before the 1950s and in terms of like ecological farming kind of looking at indigenous values and indigenous techniques and using those to go back to yeah how can I trade with my neighbor instead of like the US and how can I keep it you know within my own farm too you know yeah keep it local support my community and create nutritional food instead of productivity and from my global governance kind of background it's come out in the last time around 30 years that hunger doesn't come from lack of food it comes from lack of access to food so it's actually more like poverty and inequality and you know rural communities how do we get food to them that's more of the issue and having like political power that's the issue of how people aren't getting food rather than there's not enough food so it to me it just makes sense to base it more on those values and that's what I go back to
Well that's really powerful that I definitely want to highlight that in the article is that that kind of perception that it's like you know lack of food but it's really the social inequality on this kind of larger scale that's driving that food poverty. You talked a bit about this already about what you've learned about indigenous rights and climate change mitigation, but I was wondering if you could maybe speak a bit more if you haven't already mentioned how these connect to your business practices and values on your farm?
Right, so again because I'm new I'm still learning and trying to figure out how I can first of all act as an ally to indigenous communities and second of all to kind of use the knowledge that I have learned without being without acting like it's my own knowledge because it's so not and we have to remember that like a lot of the indigenous knowledge that's been passed an you know that was taught to me in those classes in university that's been worked on and built on for thousands of years in Canada so lots of things is that's another difference between like this conventional farming and ecological indigenous techniques is you know indigenous techniques have been around for thousands of years and it was working and it's working now and indigenous land keepers indigenous groups around the world actually protect 80% of the biodiversity that we have left is something like it's close to 80% and so when you think about that you know that makes us think OK as as western world like what are we doing wrong because like personally if we're trying to protect biodiversity we should be talking to indigenous groups because they're you know they're doing amazing and we should be helping to protect indigenous groups we're trying to you know I don't like the word save but I've used the word protected a million times but protect those areas and so going back to the question of how does my farm use those techniques yeah it's kind of this again there's like two different ways of saying it there's like the social side and then there's also like the science side is like looking at how the idea is basically you wanna farm as if it's an ecosystem that you're working inside an ecosystem so if you look at a forest like a forest ecosystem the ground is always covered you do not kill in a forest like it'll just ruin it all and you'll see in a forest that it's constantly the soils just building on top of each other as opposed to yeah like conventional farming you know you're telling it every year you grow on it every year and then you just spray fertilizer on it in a forest you see you know it's weeding itself so the trees die or branches fall off it decomposes creates new trans worms, insects come in they feed, they leave their castings and it's a beautiful cycle it does the work for itself so the idea with ecological farming is that as you grow as you build, it should just become its own ecosystem and you're just kind of like caretaking for it and to go to the kind of value side that I was talking about and how I want to implement that in Rising Roots is just trying to learn 'cause for the longest time in university I was like humans are the worst and they just destroy everything and that's kind of where indigenous knowledge came in and indigenous elders it's because they taught me humans can actually be amazing, actually create you know amazing soil and work with this soil, work with the ecosystems and actually make it better and indigenous groups are kind of my they're just there just they just yeah they just helped so much in so many different ecosystems and and different areas in the world that because they're using techniques that they've built on for thousands of years through generations they've just found a way that works and those techniques you can kind of look at Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass she talks a lot about she made I don't I don't know if it's ten I don't know how many there are but they're called the honorable harvest techniques are honorable harvest protocols and that's kind of that's kind of the base foundation so if you look at them one of them you know share what you grow with others never take the first never take the last so like if you're looking at a at a raspberry bush you never take the first raspberry because it might be the last and never take the last Raspberry because it might be the last and the fruit of those you know are the seeds so you always need to think of future generations and that's kind of another base of the indigenous knowledges you're always thinking 7 generations ahead and how can you actually create something, build something that will benefit them in the future too so if you're going to do something that will leave nothing for future generations then don't do it so those honorable harvest protocols kind of can you give a base and simplify the teachings that indigenous groups have kind of passed on for the generations
yeah and I can definitely appreciate how you know how you say you're just in your second year and you don't have all the answers and also how you acknowledge that it's kind of a work in progress and so I was wondering throughout your journey creating your ecological veggie farm what have you learned about farming in rural Ontario so kind of speaking to what are some of the benefits and what are some of the challenges that you have faced?
OK well one of the main benefits is the soil here is crazy good and so if I can say anything is that we need more small farms like me because we value that so I mean everybody values this soil here but we can take care of it better than conventional farms. And I'm not at all I'm not against conventional farmers individually but I think that this type of farming is better for the soil it's better for the environment and it's better for biodiversity and it's better food for our community so I'm not against the people who farmed conventionally at all I would love to sit down and have conversations with them because that's another thing that is a benefit is that every farmer in Oxford county that I've talked to whether they are conventional or ecological or whatever have been so supportive of me and so they just shared so much with me like knowledge wise or tools or time even just has been insane and so it's been really really nice to have that community because again I moved away and then I came back and when I did come back I was very angry I was very angry person just of all the you know problems that I learned about and so I just kind of thought that I wasn't going to get any support and that you know I kinda had this idea of like me versus the world if that makes sense and I think a lot of people feel that way after university just because you know you usually just learn the problems and never the solutions and so yeah I just had this chip on my shoulder an everybody proved me wrong everybody proved me wrong here in the farming community and everybody's been really supportive so that's another huge benefit. Cons, I don't know about cons, cons I would just say is that I'm rebuilding my network and I'd also say that I have had a hard time kind of finding, kind of being able to find allies and other farmers that are from the BIPOC community so black, indigenous, other people of colour because I hate to say it but it's all white farmers here and like maybe that's just me maybe I'm still maybe I haven't found maybe there's a huge group and I just haven't found them yet but I do really really wanna find people that I align with in values and not saying that you know I can't find that in white people in people who identify as white but yeah that is definitely a con is that there's just I mean that's a long history and you can go into that, but I'm not an expert on the history of Oxford county and kind of you know pushing people of colour off of their land but that is definitely something that has happened here and more recently then I think that a lot of people know about but yeah that's kinda why I'm excited that that Oxford county and Woodstock is growing and is getting a lot of people that that are from the BIPOC community just because we need more farmers, we need more women farmers, we need more black farmers, we need more Indian farmers we need we need everybody to farm because it's so important so yeah it's just important that people have land access and again it goes back to that how people people you know, we can have as much food as possible, if what we need is for people to have access to food then we need people to farm from every single group possible because that makes access easier, so that’s what I would say is that I’ve really had a hard time finding people in Oxford County that aren’t white and that are not old usually old that's what I would say because and if anyone reads this and is in Oxford county and their farming or want to farm are interested in farming and they're not you know white middle-class person I would love to talk to them because it's been hard to find, and I would like to you know yeah sure yeah share that as much as I can yeah
OK and I'll touch on this after I'm done recording but I actually do have like a potential idea there but in terms of the last couple of questions so I think what really drew me to you and your story for this feature is how inspiring you are for young female entrepreneurs in terms of making a difference in their rural communities and I wondered, I know you already talked about your big piece of advice but I didn't know if you had any other thoughts, or what your advice would be to someone who's interested in creating an ecological veggie farm in rural Ontario?
Start just start! That's kind of my biggest word of advice I think a lot of people especially women I think that we just, they're scared and don't want to do it actually so many women that are my friends are just like Oh yeah I think I want to do this and then they don't do it so I'm like just do it just start and you can start small even if you're like if you have problems finding land because I know that that's a huge huge issue here and the only reason I have land to farm on is because of my boyfriend and they’re super supportive family. If you are having problems finding land to farm on I would say talk to your neighbours even if you're in like a suburb because a lot of people don't care about the back yards and there are a lot of farmers in Toronto for instance who are just finding neighbours and they just farm in peoples backyards and will have like a whole street… I've seen just people’s back yards and that's what I mean is people are more supportive than I think people think they are and they will have your back if you ask for help but you have to ask for help and you have to start and that's what I would say is my biggest advice is just go for it
OK awesome I didn't know that about the backyard Toronto farms I’ll have to keep my eye out for that it's really cool
yeah there's the one farm I know in Toronto that does that is Zawada farm I can I can email it to you he's another person that has been really supportive and yeah he just connected with people found backyards there's literally greenhouses in people’s backyards it's really really cool
Wow, that is cool is there anything else that you like folks to know for the feature about yourself or about your experiences?
I think the only thing that I'd say is again yeah that I that I'm just I'm not saying this is like a I don't know you know watch out kind of way but like I am just getting started and I have so many ideas and so many ways that I want to kind of use Rising Roots and build something out of it and I do want it to remain helpful I don't want it to be I don't know something that I don't want it to be and I always want those values to kind of be at the heart of it I basically I think that's kind of the main thing that I want to say is that this is all about implementing my values and I think that's really hard to find it was hard for me to find as an employee and so I kind of want to create that in my own community so that people who do leave university and are mad at the world and think it's us, like think it's them against the world so that I can create a space that they know that it's not them against the world