Michelle Lam (They/Them)

Michelle has farmed for one season and is currently working in the ag non-profit sector while exploring options to gain more farming experience.

I am a New Farmer Engagement coordinator for Young Agrarians.

It’s a fancy term for the social media/storytelling guru of the team. What I mainly do is promote our programming that runs across the prairies and share the stories of farmers in the field. I’ve been doing that since March this past year. 

Young Agrarians is a non-profit located in Canada and our primary work focuses on growing the next generation of regenerative farmers in Canada. We are a farmer-to-farmer network of ecological, organic and regenerative farmers across the country. Our programming ranges from business boot camps to land access support to an apprenticeship program across the prairies. We are trying to set up our new and aspiring farmers for success who focus on regenerative practices.

I also am involved in the climbing community.

I currently work casually for a climbing gym in Banff, and that involves everything from helping out around the gym, leading programming, and route setting.

Also in the climbing world, I’m one of the cofounders of the Crush Collective.

We are trying to break down barriers in climbing for those who have experienced gendered oppression and we look to do that by building a welcoming community.

We host monthly climbing sessions and have partnered with various community organizations to host collaborative events to help people build skills and connections in climbing.

On top of that, I also work in hospitality in Banff for a brewery/restaurant in town.

I would consider myself to be new to the farming world.

I came into farming in June of 2020.

Originally, there was this need to learn more about food.

I think that food makes up so much of ourselves and you literally are what you eat.

My original plan before the pandemic was to go to Asia and do a bunch of work-a-ways on farms, to learn about different cultures and their food and how food is grown. 

Food has always arrived at my plate without too much thought.

I thought it was important for me to build that connection to it. I didn’t know that would spark my interest in wanting to develop a career in this area. 

When Covid happened, I couldn’t go to Asia anymore and I picked back up a volunteer gig at the Banff food rescue. They help reduce food waste from restaurants and groceries stores in town. They take the food that is not sellable, but still good to eat (bruised fruit, veggies, ones getting wrinkled or stuff that is nearing or past expiry date) and sort that all out and redistribute that for the community.

I saw how much of a need there was for food during the pandemic and how there was a lack of food security and that gave me that extra push to try out farming because I wanted to know more about the full circle of our food systems.

I was seeing one end of it where I could see how food waste could be diverted, but I wasn’t seeing the whole picture of how it got there.

I wanted to learn more.

That is what drove me to a farm in British Columbia.

I had a friend who was working there, as well.

It was an organic vegetable farm. I was a vegetable grower and packer there.

I think I ended up at the farm by coincidence.

First, I tried to do a workaway in Nelson at a micro-greenery and I had conflicts with how it was run. It seemed like one person was profiting from this community of volunteers. They focused on spirituality as a way to bond everyone – there were like 10-15 people. It just seemed off that everybody was working hard, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and even though it was a volunteer gig, they were very strict about the schedule. You were required to work until the very last second of your shift.

It felt like there was a bit of a following of leadership under one person. There were weird things where the person who was running this farm was a therapist as well so he was counseling to some of the people and they were paying him – it was such a conflict of interest.

I had a friend who was working in British Columbia, maybe 5 hours from where I was…

I thought i’d still want to continue this journey in food even though I’ve had this off-putting experience.

The farm in British Columbia had an opening coincidently, so I applied for that job and they had a working interview (which they paid me for). I ended up getting that job and moving there. I came in a little bit later in the season.

On that farm I didn’t feel like I was learning much.

I wanted to learn about the entire cycle of growing food.

I spent the majority of my time harvesting, washing, and packing crops I was assigned to on the farm. I also assisted with other chores such as weeding and transplanting.

There was always an emphasis on working harder and faster, and I think there should be shift in farming culture to care more for the workers. Even something like designated sick days per contract, that would allow workers to still be paid if they had to take the occasional sick day. In the situation I was in, I would’ve taken a pay cut if I had to take a sick day which would have been a big hit to my income.

I was never getting any positive affirmations; I was only getting critiques on how I could do better. Whether that be farming or any other job, that is not a good way of managing. 

I think compared to other farms, they paid okay at that farm, but since they paid okay, they expected a lot more from you. Their starting wage was $16.50 and went up a dollar after X amount of hours. By the end of the season I was making $17.50 and every year you came back you would get a dollar more.

But in return they were always expecting so much.

You would be transplanting in the field and going at a good pace, they would say bend your legs this way and walk backward instead of forward to just drop them in. Move your body this way and you can be faster.

We’re talking seconds here.

Farming also felt isolating besides from one other person who was queer.

It was obviously white owned and operated, but it seemed like – definitely certain people were valued more.

I would express interest in something like help building a greenhouse and even though I was outwardly expressive about it, I wasn’t ever chosen for those projects. Instead, I would watch others (usually the men of the farm) get selected to work on special projects, even if they hadn’t originally expressed interest. There were subtle micro-aggressions like this that I noticed over time.

I noticed that others, who had a lot of experience and were in larger roles on the farm, weren’t always respected for their decisions. For example, they would be asked to manage certain tasks, and then the farmer owners would decide that it needed to be done a different way. I think I was less involved in that because I was just a laborer at the end of the day.

I didn’t really feel comfortable to express myself there.

I hid a lot of myself when I worked at that farm.

I barely told anyone about my partner because I wasn’t sure if it was safe for me to be queer in that space.

I got a haircut in town and was told by my hairdresser that the KKK used to be based a few doors down. That’s kind of scary to think about because you start to question if those people are still around you in your neighborhood.

It was a predominantly white retirement community and I know that a lot of the people on my farm and the area were religious.

A lot of the time, religion doesn’t really respond well to queerness.

And maybe these are things that I’ve gathered in my head, but besides from my one friend who I knew previously, I never met a single person in the town who appeared to be queer.

I barely saw anybody who was not white.

That in and of itself made me not feel comfortable to share personal things on the farm since it was so close to this community.

I wouldn’t say the owners were unkind to me, but I never felt more than a farm worker to them.

When you don’t hear people talk about any kind of remotely progressive conversations about – you never really hear anyone talk about Indigenous land or Indigenous rights or queer folks, BIPOC communities, etc.  You never hear anyone talk about anything other than what’s happening in their lives on a surface level, it’s hard to be the one to start those bigger conversations.

I could be wrong in assuming I couldn’t bring these things up, but I didn’t want to be the first person to bring them up.

I think the issue with farms is that most of the time, it’s the same people who have access to it.

People who have access to intergenerational farms and wealth.

Unfortunately, that intergenerational wealth is almost always linked to colonialism.

  • There needs to be better access to land and equipment and all costs that farming entails for those who want to start farms.
  • There needs to be more financial support from the government so that the people who I would want to work for can have access to farmland and have the ability to start up.

I think that is why I am having trouble finding someone to farm for – people who look like me don’t have access to starting a farm.

There are a lot of obstacles for the average person to become a farm owner, and even more so if you’re part of a minority group.

That’s why I think of a commune or cooperative because there’s a hope that collectively, folks like me can start a farm.

When I say people like me, I mean people who have been historically marginalized – specifically people who have intersecting marginalizing identities even more so. 

It shouldn’t be that minorities have to think of alternative ways to come up with funds to get into farming.

And that’s just talking about money.

There’s also the added layer of feeling outed in rural settings.

I recognize that I already have so much more privilege than other people. I come from a two-parent household, I have a good education, I speak English as a first language, but even with these things I don’t have intergenerational wealth. I don’t have access to a lot money.

I wish I could live in a society where money wasn’t the means to everything, but I can’t run away from our societal constructs.

I find it quite daunting to think about starting a farm for profit on my own, as a way of making a living. That being said, as of right now I am kind of on the path where I want to learn more about farming because I don’t think I’m very experienced at it. At that job at British Columbia, I was an employee. I wasn’t part of the process of making any kind of decisions or learning how things grow or why they make certain decisions. I was really just a laborer.

If anything, it taught me that farming is a lot of physical work.

That farming definitely focused a lot on efficiency.

Everything was about how you could do something faster all the time.

I don’t agree with that mindset, but that didn’t turn me away from my desire to learn more about food.

I want to learn more about farming. I don’t know where my future lies with it.

I imagine I want to do something that is community-based.
I want to share food with others, grow food with others.
Share a collective knowledge on food production and build connections in the community around food.
I want to be more involved in working towards food sovereignty and also build more visible diversity in farming.

I’ve been struggling because I’ve been looking around at farms and what opportunities are out there.

There’s a pattern here — most farms are intergenerational farms that are owned by white, cis-gendered people.

It’s hard to see myself in that picture.

I think I’ve just painted a picture that all farmers are white and that’s totally not true. I just think – especially in Alberta (which is conservative), you just don’t hear about diversity in farming.

I think it’s really important to start sharing more stories of farmers who have been historically marginalized.

It’s really important that people can connect with these stories and see themselves in it, too. See that it is possible.

For my ideal farm to work for, I would want to be part of the team. I don’t want to be working for one person, where my input isn’t heard.

Even as a newbie farmer, I want to be more involved.

I want to be taught why certain decisions are being made on the farm.

And I want to be a part of a farming community where there is a shared passion for food security, food sovereignty and regenerative agriculture. 

It would be so cool to find a queer BIPOC farm in the prairies in Canada, but that seems very hard to come by.

I keep thinking and going back to the idea of starting a commune. It’s always the talk amongst my friends – to create something that doesn’t seem to exist – create some kind of collective where everybody is valued. Where everyone has something to say and everybody is there because of a shared skillset and wants to collaborate. That would be a farm that I would want to be a part of. 

I always talk about climbing because climbing should also celebrate each person’s individuality.

I think that can be translated into farming and any kind of community in general.

I like the idea of celebrating identities and being accepted for who you are.

Understanding that everyone brings a unique perspective and unique skill set to the table.

It’s never one person who holds all that knowledge. 

If you’ve been in a privileged position where you’ve had more access to that knowledge, it’s something that you can share with others. I don’t like the idea of one person owning the knowledge or owning all of the decision making.

I think that there is always hope in that if you have a negative experience of something you have the opportunity to influence positive change on it.

So maybe I don’t see myself in any of these farming communities per se but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be a part of something collectively with other people.

I’ll bring it back to climbing:

The Crush Collective started as a women’s climbing group and evolved to include anyone who has experienced gendered oppression (ie, non-binary folks, trans folks, etc.).

A lot of folks that we spoke to didn’t feel like they had a community to climb with. They felt a disconnect in the climbing community because it’s often very male dominated, egotistical, and elitist.

We wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be that way.

It can be uplifting.

We can support people no matter what we look like and what kind of bodies we have.

Climbing is about setting your own goals and supporting each other in going after those goals.

Over the past few years, people keep showing up and appreciate having a community. I think this changed my thought process on other aspects of my life, which includes my interest in food/farming.

Because something is one way doesn’t mean it has to continue to be that way. 

Farming is so much more difficult, there is so much more of a financial barrier in creating something, creating that kind of community – I definitely see that as a lot bigger barrier, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. 

At the end of the day I am amongst one of the people that eat everyday and just because I’m queer and Asian doesn’t mean I should have no say in how that food is produced.

I don’t have answers but I want to keep learning about how I can be involved in building inclusive farming spaces.