The Current·Back to the Land

How BIPOC farmers are working to make rural agriculture more diverse

By making their mark on rural land, young farmers of colour are working to upend the assumption that farming is the domain of older white men. They say that using ecologically minded farming practices and growing food locally can create a more equitable industry.

Farmers of colour often forced more than white farmers to prove credibility: expert

Aliyah Fraser started Lucky Bug Farm on a rented plot of land in Erin, Ont., earlier this year. As one of the only Black farmers in her area, she hopes to bring produce such as collard greens and Scotch bonnet peppers to local markets. (Submitted by Aliyah Fraser)

On her farm in small-town Ontario, Aminah Haghighi is trying to shake the perception that farmers are typically older white men.

Though she acknowledges she didn't have much of a green thumb when she moved to Hillier, Ont., two hours east of Toronto, last year, the first-generation farmer now sells a cornucopia of produce from her quarter-acre of land.

"I'm not an outdoorsy person, but I really, really felt connected with growing food," she told Back to the Land host Duncan McCue.

"I saw that there weren't a lot of people that looked like me in this. And so I thought, maybe, if I'm not going to do it, then who else is going to look like me in this space," said Haghighi, 31, who is of Iranian and Filipino descent.

Even though some of Haghighi's family in the Philippines are rice farmers, she admits she couldn't picture herself in agriculture.

For most people, the childhood nursery rhyme, Old MacDonald Had a Farm, conjures up an image of the typical farmer: a "white guy," says Jacqueline L. Scott, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto who studies the intersection of race and nature.

"Nature is coded as a white space; the city is coded as a multicultural space," she told McCue.

"So when Black people, people of colour show up in nature — whether in the rural areas, on the farms or in the wilderness in outdoor recreation, you're seen as out of place. It's always like, 'Oh, what are you doing here?'"

Whether selling produce at markets or performing as cowboys at the Calgary Stampede, Black farmers have a long history in Canada, Scott says.

"If you go to Niagara-on-the-Lake, at one point in the 1850s, a huge chunk of the population there were Black farmers," she said. If you visited St. Jacob's, Ont., around the same time, many of the vendors selling at markets would have also been Black farmers.

"But if you don't know the history, and you go today, it's like, 'Oh, Black people weren't here.'"

Jacqueline L. Scott is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Toronto who studies the intersection of race and nature. (Submitted by Jacqueline L. Scott)

From city to country

Young farmers like Haghighi are fighting to upend that assumption.

Spurred by a love of food and the COVID-19 pandemic, Haghighi started Raining Gold Family Growers late last year. She focuses on ecologically minded farming methods — there is no tilling to reduce weeds and efforts are made to reduce water use. This summer, she employed two BIPOC workers.

Raining Gold began with a backyard garden at Haghighi's Toronto home in the midst of the city's first lockdown.

"I had no idea what I was doing — zero," she said.

With the help of YouTube and books, she had grown a "jungle" of food: tomatoes, peppers and "crazy cucumber plants that would have overtaken my house" by the end of her first summer.

When friends announced they were moving east from Toronto to Prince Edward County, a two-hour drive away, Haghighi and her husband, Bryce, took notice. The pair scraped together their savings for a down payment on land in the county.

Grown at her quarter-acre plot in Prince Edward County, Haghighi sells produce from microgreens to tomatoes in subscription boxes and at local markets.

But marketing herself as a woman of colour farmer in the rural county of about 24,000 residents has been a source of pushback from locals and hateful comments online, she said.

"One of the things that was very difficult was that people would look at us and would assume that we weren't from here or assume that we don't live down the street, and therefore we don't get to receive the same treatment that the other white folks would be getting," she said.

Scott said those perceptions can cause BIPOC farmers to feel as though they "have to prove their credibility, their competence as farmers, because they are not what we are expecting to see."

Changing the food system

When she started Lucky Bug Farm in Erin, Ont., earlier this year, Aliyah Fraser says she wanted to prove there is space in the food system for BIPOC farmers.

"We are the ones who think outside of the normal box of just the way that things are done, and I think if there are more of us in the food system, we can just create greater change," said Fraser, 25.

Scott stands beside a plaque commemorating the history of Black settlement in Ontario's Oro Township. (Submitted by Jacqueline L. Scott)

At the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., market where Fraser sells produce such as collard greens and Scotch bonnet peppers, she's one of the only Black growers.

While reception to Fraser's offerings has been largely positive, she says some shoppers visit the stall and "assume that I'm not the grower until I say those words," often believing that her partner, who is white, is the farmer.

"We're [Black farmers] always bumping up against other people's assumptions and expectations for us and having to really set the record straight often. And I mean, that's just a form of racism."

Scott notes that the majority of vendors at farmers' markets are white, while Black and brown agriculture workers — many from Latin American and Caribbean countries — are in the background.

"It's sold as this wholesome, healthy, alternative way of producing food. But it is white people who are doing the selling. It's mainly white people who are buying," Scott said. Black and brown people "very rarely get the public face, the public image."

Fraser says as a Black farmer, people often make assumptions about her role in agriculture. (Donalee McIntyre)

Accessing land, resources for BIPOC farmers

An additional barrier is the significant overhead costs associated with starting a farm — and historically low rates of rural land ownership among people of colour, Fraser says.

In fact, 2016 Statistics Canada data found that women are more likely than men to rent or lease land.

Fraser has been renting a quarter-acre of land since February but will move to a new plot where she feels more supported, not only as a Black farmer but as someone new to agriculture.

"I have luckily found a space for next year where the landowners are white, but they understand that it takes time to build a business and they understand that it takes time to build soil, and they understand that farming and food growing for market is really tough," she said.

Resources are top of mind for Haghighi. In addition to starting Raining Gold, purchasing the family's property in Prince Edward County provided an opportunity to set her children up for the future.

"Creating generational wealth for our children is of utmost importance to us because we don't come from any financial privilege at all, and we don't want our kids to have the same issues that we did," she said.

Given the challenges she's faced — and worries about her kids — Haghighi says she's not sure if she will stay in Prince Edward County for the long term.

But she says it's clear there's interest for the kind of farm she runs.

When Haghighi posted an online ad for two farm crew members that encouraged BIPOC individuals and those who face systemic barriers to traditional farming to apply, she says she received more than 300 responses.

"It's funny when other old, white men farmers say, 'Well, nobody wants to work on my farm,'" Haghighi said. "I think that people really resonated with the job posting and with me as a potential employer.

"People do want to do this ... there's just no opportunity for it."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interviews with Aminah Haghighi and Jacqueline L. Scott produced by Zoe Tennant.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.