In this photo essay, Louise Erskine MPS ’21 utilizes photography to tell the stories of rural and agricultural communities across Canada, the United States and Mexico. Behind the lens and on the global stage, Louise advocates for the need to build solidarity within and across communities.
Betty MacArthur, my grandmother, has spent every one of her 89 years on a farm. Her father and father-in-law survived frigid barren winters in Canada’s north just to watch crop and vegetable seedlings stretch for glimmers of sun during the three-month summer growing season. After she built a family and career of her own, she chose to travel to Mexico each winter, where she enjoyed the company and knowledge of local farmers. These Mexican farmers often visited her farm 3,000 miles away the following year to spend several months working and exchanging understandings.
Agricultural communities in Canada, the United States, and Mexico operate vastly different now than they did a century ago. Today, these communities are often siloed from other working people or the industries they feed, either through race, class, or geography. Over the past one hundred years, just as many other industries have, the production of food is now largely international and each of us is losing control of where our food is produced and who profits from its production.
My work, understanding how communities are impacted by international food systems, affords me the great privilege of sharing stories of community through photography, research, and advocacy. I hope this series of photos, snapshots of simple moments in food systems throughout North America, encourages you to reflect on how 21st century farmers, farm workers, and food interacts across borders and cultures. At first glance these communities, eaters, and producers have little in common. But in fact, each of these photos reveals a struggle towards sovereignty and a path toward good food production outside of the constraints of a corporate food structure. These communities are irresistibly connected and their desires for security will only be realized if we all understand current bonds and the need for future camaraderie against policy that serves to increase grave power imbalances.
In Val Marie, Canada, dozens of neighbours pool labor and time to brand cattle for days on end. The cattle are destined, about a year later, for a local abattoir. All the meat will be consumed in Canada, if not on the prairies themselves, but the slaughterhouses are staffed with new Canadians or temporary workers, many from Mexico.
Only a few blocks from the crowds of sunbathing tourists in Cancun, Mexico lies a community of bakers and butchers who now rely on imports of international food products like American wheat flour for baking and corn to feed livestock.
Two American combines work in tandem during the long fall season, harvesting tens of thousands of acres of wheat, canola, and field peas for both domestic and international consumption. Modern combines can cost upwards of half a million dollars each, burdening farmers who purchase them with what industry leaders calls ‘necessary debt.’
Together, farmers and farm workers can use the power of collective action to support self-determination and a secure food system. The risks of not joining hands in creating a local, financially viable, and culturally appropriate food system are real. We can already see evidence of forgone communities dotted across our rural landscapes. Abandoned trucks, expansive and desolate fields, and the remnants of cooperative grain elevators.
Farmers and farm workers across the continent are joining movements and working together in new ways. We must join them by fighting for fair wages, advocating to a local politician about Right to Repair legislation, and supporting land access for Indigenous food production. Continuing to produce food in falsely siloed communities is a price we can’t afford to pay.
The community my grandmother grew up in looks different than the one that exists today, but the central principle still applies: an oppressive winter will only feel warm in the light of community. Progress towards food and community sovereignty will be an uphill battle — but do not fret, for Ramón Vera-Herrera (editor, Biodiversidad) reminds us, “These are everyday and permanent struggles.”
About the author & photographer
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