What one Ontario farming group is doing to get more racialized farmers into agriculture

The Ecological Farmers Association has hired a consultant to better understand the challenges facing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) farmers in Ontario.

The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario wants to better represent BIPOC farmers

Brenda Hseuh is an organic farmer near Chesley, Ont., who said it can be lonely being the only Asian face in her community. (submitted by EFAO)

The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) has hired a consultant to better understand the challenges facing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) farmers in the province. 

The association is dedicated to bringing farmers together to learn from each other and improve the health of their soils, crops, livestock and the environment. 

That also includes community building, according to an EFAO official. .

"We do have some Black, Indigenous and people of colour as part of our membership and I think we haven't been representing those folks or listening to the needs and interests of farmers," said Ali English, association's executive director. 

Ali English is the executive director of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. The organization has hired a consultant to reach out to BIPOC farmers. (submitted by EFAO)

"We're really just taking first steps toward anti-racism work, which is long overdue. As an organization, we want to apologize for that."

The Black Lives Matter movement has been a wake up call for her and EFAO board members, English said. Once they recognized the lack of diversity on the board, they agreed to hire Angel Beyde as a consultant. She's also an urban grower and member of the organization's anti-racism campaign.

Beyde is Black/mixed race and calls the challenges facing BIPOC farmers profound. 

Angel Beyde has been hired by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario to reach out to BIPOC farmers and learn more about the challenges they face working in the sector. (submitted by EFAO)

She said Ontario farms are often handed down from one generation to the next, or access to finances, such as a down payment, are covered within the farm family.

"That isn't so transparent and simple for BIPOC folks," said Beyde. "And, then systemic racism overall is something that really limits people's ability to pursue goals like ecological farming."

The barriers can include access to clean water, especially in Indigenous communities, said Beyde. 

The only Asian face

Brenda Hsueh owns the Black Sheep Farm just outside of Chesley, Ont., where she grows organic vegetables and farms sheep. The Asian Canadian lost her job in the financial sector in downtown Toronto during the 2008 economic downturn.

It was a turning point in her life; she decided to give farming a try. 

"It was extremely fun," she said about volunteering on a farm near Toronto before buying her own property. 

Fortunately, Hsueh did not have the financial challenges that face many newcomers to agriculture as she had the proceeds from her Toronto condominium.

But she does describe the move to rural Ontario as lonely.

"I really, honestly, had no idea what to expect," she said. "It was definitely really strange for me to come into an area which is primarily white and primarily senior."

Hsueh said she didn't face overt hostility or meanness in her new community, but she did face other challenges. 

"I was the only Asian face," she said. "I couldn't find the different kinds of food that I was used to. I had to start growing a lot of Asian vegetables because they just weren't available here."

Awkward questions

Hsueh said she was also asked a lot of questions along the lines of "How did you learn to speak English so well?" or "Do you people eat lamb?" 

She said, people weren't being mean. They just haven't been exposed to many other cultures. 

And, her own family didn't exactly understand why she was leaving her career in finance to work the land.

"There's a reason why I named my farm 'Black Sheep Farmer,' because I am kind of a black sheep in my own community. So, like I said, it can be very lonely."

Hsueh said each racialized person faces a unique set of challenges when considering a career in farming. 

"Unfortunately, in this area, there's so much more racism against Indigenous people than I ever thought I would encounter," she said. "For me, an Asian who seems kind of foreign, I don't have a lot of baggage thrown behind what people think of me. There are a lot of people who have so many more barriers than I've had coming into this industry."

Committed to change

The EFAO board is committed to learning more about those barriers and educating its members accordingly, said English.

"We are very much committed to increasing their understanding around anti-racism toward Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, and also to better meet the needs of EFAO members and farmers who are not currently very well represented in the organization and the ecological farming movement more broadly."

'Stronger together'

If any organization can bring about change, Beyde believes its the EFAO. 

She said the organization's 700 members are already adaptable when it comes to trying new methods for food production and the environment. She believes they'll also embrace this initiative. 

"I feel like there is a real appetite for diversifying," said Beyde. "When you have people from lots of different places with enormous skills about how to steward the land, it becomes a reciprocal relationship between non-racialized and racialized farmers where we're stronger together."