In the last decade, increasing attention has been paid to land access as a key barrier for new entry farmers (Butler-Rippon, 2020; Calo & Petersen-Rockney, 2018; Cox, 2012; Figueroa & Penniman, 2020; Ruhf, 2013; Scrufari, 2017; Valliant & Freedgood, 2020). One response to alleviating this barrier has been a suite of programmatic activities, often run by non-profits or public institutions (Hersey & Adams, 2017), related to connecting land seekers with landowners. These initiatives carry out their core objectives via a range of activities (e.g., curating land listings, technical support, facilitating relationships), and are broadly grouped under the unifying theme of championing land access for farmers.
Land is also central to the reproduction of settler colonialism, maintained via dispossession and narrative erasure of those who are Indigenous to the land. Given this, how are initiatives for farmland access positioned with respect to the maintenance of settler colonial social structures? My research seeks to answer this question by exploring how the farmland access movement articulates its values and priorities, and by interrogating how those themes reverberate within and against the contours of settler colonialism. Through textual analysis of values (mission/vision) statements, I attempt a discursive examination of the narratives expressed by the farmland access movement guided by the inquiry: how do these themes reflect, resist, or relate to settler colonialism? I straddle methodologies, using content analysis as a systematic, descriptive approach to deriving meaning from language (Green-Saraisky, 2015) and critical discourse analysis to situate meaning within historical and social processes (Fairclough, 2012). By applying the theoretical lens of settler colonialism to the discourse of farmland access advocacy, I probe narrative constructions around how land is held, and by whom.
Overall, my findings suggest that while the discourses of the farmland access movement are positioned in contrast to the harms of industrial agriculture, they assert entitlement to land in ways that often fail to refute Indigenous land dispossession. I identify themes of generational futurity, farmland preservation, sustainability, stewardship, community, and others. In my discussion, I examine these themes alongside a settler colonial past and present, and bring them into juxtaposition with Indigenous thinkers and frameworks. Emphasis on land transfer from one generation to the next reproduces a “knowable future” in which settler colonial structures of Indigenous erasure remain unchanged and unchallenged. Representing farmland as threatened, or in need of preservation, fails to acknowledge that agrarian land-grabs were a mechanism by which settler colonialism unfurled across the North American continent. While emphasis on ecological stewardship and community relationships echoes Indigenous epistemologies informed by land, these discourses do not in and of themselves constrain settler colonial structures.
Challenging settler colonial structure requires a reckoning with the cultural logics that persistently deny sovereignty and restoration of land to Indigenous peoples. This calls for an examination of all aspects of “business as usual.” This research seeks to make visible the taken-for-granted “embodied practices” (Barker, 2021, p. 3) of settler colonialism within the specific arena of farmland transfer and advocacy. “Inhabitants of Canada and the United States take these nations' settler colonial contours so much for granted that the systems of ordinary dispossession and domination are made invisible to settler people or recede both figuratively and literally into the landscape” (Barker, 2021, pp. 4–5). Farmland access initiatives represent a moment of transfer: land is changing hands. Perhaps this moment of transfer also represents an opportunity to 'do' differently. This paper concludes by presenting frameworks of land rematriation and ‘land back’ as actively undoing narratives of settler colonialism, illustrated by organizations oriented towards relationships on and with land.