When Tiffany Traverse thinks about growing and eating the same food as her ancestors, she gets excited. “I want others to feel that too! We should all be able to feel this connection to place and food,” says the indigenous farmer.
Traverse and her husband own and operate Fourth Sister’s Farm, a small farm located in Treaty 8, a territory that includes 39 First Nations communities in northern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan and northeastern British Columbia. Traverse is of Secwepémc and Swiss descent and it is here on her farm that she strives to reclaim the history and traditional foods of her people. But she wasn’t always the avid gardener she is today.
In 2015, when Traverse first purchased the land that would soon become her farm, she had no formal gardening experience, only what she had learned from her grandparents. “I just started planting seeds in the Earth to see what would happen,” she says. Despite her lack of experience, Traverse had faith in what seeds had to offer. “That first year was a real learning curve, but I trusted the seeds to teach me.”
Traverse found value in starting small, researching age-old eating habits, and giving themselves the time and space to really immerse themselves in the work. She grows fruits and vegetables like squash, corn and watermelon to eat, but she has found her passion in the stories the seeds are so eager to tell. “I was addicted and hungry for more,” she says.
The first crops Traverse successfully harvested for seed on his Zone 2 farm were snow peas, calendula and spinach. She found that they grew well in the region’s short season and were easy to process and store. With a limited 90-day growing window, unpredictable frosts, heavy clay soil, and drought conditions, growing seeds at Fourth Sister Farm is definitely a tough business. But in this challenge, Traverse sees an opportunity. “Our short season and limited water create a wealth of adaptation opportunities,” she says. “Our plants are definitely put to the test.”
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Over the past few years, Traverse has volunteered to test a number of other crops, including participating in a carrot breeding project organized by the University of British Columbia. Launched in 2018, the Improving Canadian Organic Vegetables (CANOVI) is a five-year collaborative breeding program that aims to identify and develop varieties that excel in Canadian organic farming systems. The project focuses on Nantes carrots, a type that matures faster than other carrot varieties, making them perfect for the short Traverse season. And the harvest has meaning on both sides of his family. “I joke that the Secwepémc and the Swiss are root people through and through, but it’s true,” says Traverse, who also tested rutabaga and radicchio for the project. Yet she always finds herself returning to the carrot, which happens to be the most popular garden vegetable grown in Switzerland.
While her farming journey began with Traverse reconnecting with her Indigenous roots, the carrot trials served as a catalyst to explore her age-old Swiss eating habits, the surface of which she is only just beginning to scratch. She located a few seeds including potatoes, beans and red corn from Ticino, an Italian-speaking part of southern Switzerland. “Connecting to all my ancestral foods is important to me,” says Traverse. “This is where my journey takes me.”
Not all of the crops Traverse has tested on his farm have been successful, including attempts to grow upland rice and groundnuts. “My hope is to acclimate them over the course of a few years and maybe grow them out in the field one day, without shelter,” she says. Although the past three seasons have proven unsuccessful, Traverse isn’t giving up. “Maybe fourth year is the charm?”
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This concerted effort to grow nutritious, regionally appropriate, and culturally significant foods is a cornerstone of Traverse’s work, and she is also looking to grow more native species in her gardens, especially Secwepémc foods. “I really focus on plants like qwléwe [Nodding Onion]skwekwine [Spring Beauty] and various types of cameras. These are genuine Secwepémc foods, carefully preserved and selected by my ancestors for millennia and roasted over a wood fire, usually eaten with sqlélten [salmon]!or tcets’ [elk],” she says.
Although Traverse’s work is steeped in the past, she always has her eye on the future. Most of his breeding work revolves around identifying and selecting climate-resistant traits as well as studying plants native to his region. Moreover, seed breeding is intrinsically focused on the food security of future generations.
In the years since she planted those first seeds, Traverse has partnered with organizations such as Indigenous Seed Guardians Network and Seed change (formerly USC Canada), where she is now Chair of the Board. More recently, she started a job as a seed collection manager at ASKI Complaint, an organization focused on integrating ecological and First Nations knowledge with industry demands and best practices. There she will work with a team of native seed collectors to collect, clean and perform germination tests on species that are not only crucial to restoration work in their territory, but also culturally significant. “There are so many opportunities with this role,” Traverse says, “and ways we can help assert the Nations position on species that are critical to protecting and healing the earth from industry and other forms of disturbance.”
What future for these culturally relevant seeds? “Although I have immense anxiety about our exponentially increasing climate chaos, my work with the seeds and my ancestral foods has given me a lot of relief,” says Traverse, who doesn’t believe there will ever be a where she will not be responsible and caring. for soil and seeds. “We need more people to step up. We must inspire our youth and elders – and even the settlers – to embark on this work. We need to rekindle our indigenous autonomy and solidarity and focus more on the good of the community.