Square Seller Aliyah Fraser did not set out to be a farmer. A graduate of the Environmental Studies in Urban Planning program at the University of Waterloo, Aliyah worked as an urban planner at a land-use law firm and a private consulting firm after earning her degree. However, after completing a 12-week mentorship program at Toronto-based urban farm Sundance Harvest, where she learned about both organic growing and food justice, she was inspired to turn to a career in farming herself.
Here, we speak with Aliyah about owning and operating Lucky Bug Farm, the intersection of issues regarding housing and food, her work as an advocate and educator, and her dreams for the future of her business and her community.
On Lucky Bug Farm
Lucky Bug Farm is a small, sustainable, one-quarter-acre rural market garden located on leased land in Hillsburgh, Ontario (Treaty 19 Lands). Lucky Bug Farm uses organic, “no-till” farming methods that mimic natural system functions to grow a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers. The land, a hoop house and other infrastructure is rented from a community farm called Zocalo Organics.
In addition to using ecological growing methods, at Lucky Bug we farm with the understanding that Black, Indigenous and other racialized people, the LGTBQ2S+ community, disabled people and those with low incomes continue to be marginalized by our current, corporate-run food system. We also recognize the migrant workers who work to stock the produce section of our local grocery stores and the exploitation they often face in the agriculture industry. We aim to create spaces to speak openly, share ideas (and food!) and work together to build a more sustainable, resilient and just future.
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On her approach to the business of growing food in nature, and why she prefers the term “ecologically grown” to “organic”
Before I started out, I was interested in a particular kind of farming called market gardening. The model is focused on small-scale growing and direct-to-consumer sales, so it’s basically the opposite of the model used by most grocery stores. You cut out the distributors, the wholesalers, all that kind of stuff, and sell directly to the consumer. With market gardening there’s also a focus on using hand tools instead of mechanized equipment, and it’s typically done organically, though I don’t necessarily believe in the organic certification process. I actually like to say I use ecological growing methods, because for me it’s about mimicking nature. Nature knows what it’s doing, it doesn’t need my help, we just need to get out of the way and learn from it.
On her pivot from urban planning to farming
I went to school to be an urban planner, and I worked in that field after I graduated, but a lot of the work I was doing just did not align with my personal values. I think there’s this stated goal in urban planning of wanting to make communities better, but in reality, it’s about helping people who already have power and privilege capitalize on that power and privilege. It was really tough to have a neutral point of view, working for capital investment firms and other companies who see housing as an investment, instead of where people are housed and live as a community. I think being in that environment, even for a little while, made me want to take pause, because there’s so much power and money flowing through, and there are systems in place that impact people’s lives without them necessarily realizing it.
Seeing the inner workings of real estate and land development was really eye-opening for me. I realized that there is a lot of overlap when it comes to issues related to housing and food, specifically around affordability and access. Essentially, it’s the same kind of concentration of power in the hands of a few. I realized that I wanted to do work that mattered, where I could see the direct impact of what I was doing in a positive way. I also love food, so I wanted to find something about the intersection of food and the environment, and for me that was farming.
On considering where your food comes from
I want people to think about the big corporations that sell food. They really do a good job of making things cheap and convenient, which is great, but is it environmentally sustainable? I think a lot of the time when people go to the grocery store they’re made to be unaware of what goes into bringing that food to them. Like, what kind of conditions do the migrant workers who harvest and process live in? Often I think about how neither of my parents were born here — in a different universe, it could be my own family members coming here for six or seven months of the year to do hard work, and not be paid what they deserve. I hope that people have started paying more attention to these issues, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
On how Square helps Lucky Bug Farm operate smoothly
Some platforms I considered were like “Hire a designer! Learn our code!” and I was like “Nope!” I wanted to make something visually appealing by myself, and Square made it easy to do. Having the free basic plan to start off with was super helpful, because I literally had no money coming in when I set up the website. It was a great option to be able to start with something free, with the ability to build up to paid, when I wanted to have my own fonts and my own domain, and I wouldn’t have to switch platforms.
Square is great for the market, because I didn’t want two different platforms for eCommerce and Point of Sale — I wanted them to be linked, and I wanted to be able to track the things I sell on my website and the things that sell at market through the same platform. I love that I can do that with Square. Also, so many small businesses use Square, and I took that as a really great sign. I thought: “Really cool businesses that I look up to are using Square, and they’re doing pretty well. So maybe I’ll do well, too!” I also love that I don’t need an internet connection like I would with other POS options.
On her dreams for the future of Lucky Bug Farm, and how she wants to continue as a community advocate going forward
In the immediate future, my dream is just to get through this season without a broken back! But otherwise, I’d like Lucky Bug Farm to offer value-added products made from our produce. Things like hot pepper sauces and tomato sauces and salsas, to start. As for the future of my advocacy, for this season, I’m providing farm box shares to the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Fridge. Going forward, I’d also like to do more work like Cheyenne Sundance does with Growing in the Margins. She mentored me, and showed me that you can be a young woman of colour who farms with a focus on equity.
I’d love to start a program that would teach middle and high-school aged youth in the margins how to grow their own food. I would love to partner with a school board for a program like that — there’s so much wasted space in our cities that’s just tied up in bureaucratic red tape, and school sites would allow for great opportunities to grow a good amount of food throughout the summer months. I’d also love to offer programming, specifically to young black girls, to show them that they can grow food if they’re interested in it, and if they want to form a connection with the land. That’s one of many dreams I have.
You can find Lucky Bug Farm at the Kitchener Market and Feed Change Market in Kitchener, ON, and learn more about Aliyah’s mission online.