Courtesy of Zawadi Farm
In light of April being National Garden Month we spoke with Jessey Njau, founder of Zawadi Farm, an urban farm in west Toronto that practices the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. We first met Jessey at local farmers markets in Toronto and have since visited his backyard farms to learn more about regenerative agriculture and how Zawadi Farm is changing the local food economy.
BRUIZED: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day to chat, and share a little about your farm - first of all how are you doing?
JESSEY: I'm great! A lot of planting today, trying to finish up everything! I can give you a quick tour of the garden, it's kind of wet and rainy right now
BRUIZED: What do you have planted in there?
JESSEY: We have bok choy, some lettuces, kale, cilantro, some onions.. and spinach
Courtesy of Zawadi Farm
BRUIZED: Yummm. To start off I'm wondering if you could share a bit about the history and mission of Zawadi farm?
JESSEY: Okay, background - I'll give you a quick synopsis of my personal background, as you know I did not grow up farming, it was not on my radar, nothing I wanted to do or close to what I wanted to be but life has a way of turning things around. I was very fortunate to have very good mentors and guides who helped me reset the way I was thinking about life. Today, my wealth is not the pursuit of gaining so that I can have. My pursuit of wealth is: as I'm gaining I am giving it away, I am sharing it, and having people who are learning around me. So getting more people to practice what I'm doing is literally the mission.
The name Zawadi is Swahili for "gift".
BRUIZED: That reminds me of a quote I love - sorrow shared is lessened while joy shared grows.
JESSEY: Well think about it, nature's all about it. I love the quote "when it rains, it rains on both the good and the bad". There's no selection on where it rains - it rains everywhere. For me, the journey has always been to gravitate towards the gift mindest, the gift economy. I'm not trying to create a silo for me, I'm trying to create an environment where we all can participate. My favourite saying - "I will store my wealth in my brother's belly".
BRUIZED: That's such a big concept but set out in simple terms.
JESSEY: Imagine it, if my brother's - my sisters, my family, my people, my tribe, my community - if as much as I am fed and well, they are well-fed too. Where could we be? That's where I want to go. Where there's no scarcity in the conversation, where you've eaten, I've eaten - now let's go do some work! Cause there's a lot to be done.
BRUIZED: That would be pretty amazing, just sharing that connection of everyone being fulfilled.
JESSEY: You know everyone is using the word sustainable- sustainable agriculture, sustainable practices... when you take care of your community, nothing is more sustainable than that. When your community looks out for you as much as you are looking out for them - we have not tasted how sweet that is.
Courtesy of Zawadi Farm
BRUIZED: On your website you say you use regenerative agricultural practices - could you describe what that is?
JESSEY: Regeneration is an interesting word, meaning - everything goes back to and comes from. When we talk about agriculture and regeneration we talk about soil - everything comes back to the soil. I'm writing an article, which will soon be on my website, called "Food is not Waste". How is it that what I eat in five minutes becomes waste- am I eating waste then? It makes no sense. How can food be waste? How can what gives me life become something that I can throw away in absolute disregard?
BRUIZED: Those are very conflicting terms.
JESSEY: Food and waste becoming one word- foodwaste- it doesn't compute and makes no sense. So regenerative agriculture for us is not just in the aspect of what we grow. It's a full circle and part of our extended mission statement is the concept that whatever we are part of doesn't regenerate within our timeline, it's seven generations deep. So I will not participate in any of the agricultural practices... things that will not be sustainable or will not have an effect seven generations deep. It's actually a First Nations philosophy called the Seven Generations Mindset. And I strongly believe that because with the food I'm growing I'm farming nutrients using soil, which I'm going to give to my farmshare members. Those nutrients are going to go into somebody's vessel to make them better and give them the ability to go do. To me that's regeneration, because once they are out there doing good work and have eaten good food, they can go do good.
Regeneration is not a pendulum swing that ends, it's a skipping stone where energy flows and continues on and on.
I want people to understand that you aren't a consumer- you are a citizen of the food economy. Everything you are doing is from plants, the air we breathe, the soil that grows our food- we are part of it but somehow we've all agreed that we are simply consumers, customers. How is that? Is that how you really want to be known as "I'm just a consumer, just a customer of"? You are a citizen, you have a role to play, you have value, purpose, a space for you.
BRUIZED: Getting back to soil -what is no till and what makes it good for the soil?
JESSEY: Think about it- forests we never water them, how do they manage that? Everyone has roles to play, plants, animals, predators. They are all citizens, participants and you take one person out of that economy, you mess everything up. We don't till because just like in nature if you take something out of the equation, you mess everything up. The way agricultural started for me back home was that you need to tear the soil so that you can put seed in it, chemicals on it, cover it with the soil so it can germinate and be a plant.That's Big Ag. But what makes soil so valuable, and I'm coming back to the forest scenario- we didn't plant those trees, we didn't water them, we didn't give them nutrients, we did nothing. We found them there. As much as we want to understand what nature does we want to fight nature from what it can do well.
So when you are tilling, tearing up roots structures and communities within the soil you are ripping apart communities. One of the most phenomenal things is the fungal network.
One year we had a terrible blight outbreak (blight is a fungal spore that attacks the fruit and plant from inside out). We lost our farms but my friend's farm did not and we asked what he did. He said he had a very strong fungal network. When one plant in one area is being attacked, it will send a signal of the attack through the network to the other plants. Through the fungal network, the plants can communicate what they need to fight the attack and the nutrients will be sent to protect the other plants. So when we come with machines and tear up the soil, that is what we are losing and more.
For me, I practice no-tilling is because I want to keep the structure as natural and undisturbed as possible. But we do add a layer of compost on top and we tilth that, which is mixing that segment. We then take a broad fork and add air to that layer to create an air mask. Soil needs air and does not like compaction.
Courtesy of Zawadi Farm
BRUIZED: Could you talk a bit about CSAs and yours in particular?
JESSEY: CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. There are people who we call farmshare members and they buy a specific share type. For example we have large and medium box so they choose which one they want, they choose bi-weekly or weekly for the whole season and when they purchase those farmshares, that financial capacity is fuel for us to work even harder in our mission.
CSA is not an outside looking in, it's also an inside looking out. We want to equip people to know how to be able grow their own food and moreso for them to become farmers so they can grow for other people as well. As much as we are pushing the CSA aspect, we want the farmshare members to understand that they are joining the gift economy, hence Zawadi Farm. We want more people who can grow.
One article I'm working on is how farmers can never compete against each other.
But not a single farm can feed Toronto.
The reason why we have the word food and waste together is that we are afraid to use the word abundance. There's no food waste, it's just we have too much. and we don't know what to do with it. But we have people in Toronto going hungry yet here I am, I've eaten my meal and I want to put it in the garbage? We are so disconnected.
So when it comes to the CSA, one thing I share with anybody who says, "Jessey I want to do what you are doing", first and foremost, above understanding your soil is know your community. Who are you growing for? If it's for yourself, great, but nature has a thing about growing more than you can eat. What are you going to do with it? Nature deals with abundance, it's natures way. But somehow in our humanesque mindset, we want all that to be just for "me" for "my" .
BRUIZED: We need to change our mindset that we've been fostering for the past century- it's not like food waste has always been an issue, only recently has it become a huge problem.
JESSEY: Exactly and I wanted to challenge you and anyone who might be reading this- is next time you have a meal, try not to eat it by yourself. I don't eat by myself and if I do my heart is troubled, I'm not well. I would suggest - call a friend and say let's meet at a park. I'm bringing food. Just try it and trust me, the effect of that energy will shock you.
If we go back in time- no hunter went to hunt for themselves, they were hunting for more than themselves - store your wealth in your brother's belly.
BRUIZED: And that's such a good reminder for all of us this past year- I know for myself and my friends a lot of us have gotten into the habit of eating alone.
JESSEY: And the thing is, we have a wonderful opportunity, we are blessed in Toronto to have rivers, greenery, the waterfront- call a friend and go sit there. Food solves a lot of problems, we just don't think about it that way.
Courtesy of Zawadi Farm
The Five Year Vision
BRUIZED: How do you envision Zawadi Farm in five years?
JESSEY: I want to see Toronto flip. I want to see people eating together at parks. I want to be able to ask anybody where a local farm is and have them know where their food comes from. I want to make sure Toronto understands and values where its source of sustenance comes from.
I want Toronto to value the soil and value those who take care of the soil. And I want Toronto to value what comes from it so we don't combine the words food and waste.
BRUIZED: Lastly, do you have any tips and tricks for newbies starting their own garden this year?
JESSEY: There are no tricks. Food requires good soil as we've talked about that. Find good soil understand what good soil means. Find a garden centre with compost- they have bags of soil. Take that and grow on that.
Once we get back to the simplicity of life- you need good soil, and to understand the germination rate which most seeds come with good details on the package. One website I recommend is Fruitionseeds. Phenomenal resource, they are good friends of mine and have put in so much detail about how to grow, when to grow, what to grow. I cannot recommend them enough.
Knowing your why is something I share with all my friends. Understand your purpose and your motive.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.