Abdul-Rahim Abdulai is an Arrell Food Institute Scholar in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph.
My life in Ghana as a kid was spent on a farm where food was at the centre of everything. Outside of school, I was either helping my mom sell produce or working with my dad planting and harvesting. It was never easy. From an early age I was always chasing answers to the question: How can I make farming better? It’s that obsession that brought me to Canada.
I come from a big family. Fifteen kids and I was the youngest – yet no one in the family but me took a keen interest in farming. Turns out that challenge is one faced by the industry around the world. Trying to figure out why led me to Newfoundland. It’s an important question because attracting more recruits is critical for not only meeting the food needs of the future but also to sustain vibrant rural communities.
The perception is that farming is a lot of hard work and it doesn’t pay. Farming families don’t want this kind of work for their children. The hours, the physical toll, the isolation and the potential for lack of social recognition. So, I wanted to research the issue, find out how we could get more young people to stay in the profession. As I was working on this, I also experienced firsthand that, not only is it difficult to attract people to farming, but the industry is suffering from a diversity problem.
Because, for all the challenges facing potential farmers today, the path for people of colour and immigrants in the sector is ten times more challenging. Many white farmers in Canada have generations of momentum behind them, access to land, resources and experience. By no fault of their own, they are set up to have a fighting chance in the fields.
If you’re Black or brown, if you’re an immigrant, the hill to climb is steep. The costs to get going, the tools you need – both are that much harder to obtain. But most of all, rooting yourself in a rural community will take all the bravery and persistence you can muster.
When I was working in Newfoundland, the communities were overwhelmingly white. I met so many lovely people who were generous and curious about where I came from and why I cared about farming. But, for all my positive experiences, racism still found its way into my days. Often something as simple as someone laughing at my accent would discourage me from moving forward. Other Black students I worked with told stories of needing to collaborate with a white colleague just to be able to gather interviews for their research.
Yes, there are programs to help immigrants build a future in agriculture, but they often lack the support truly needed by BIPOC farmers to make a go of it. Financing and training are helpful, but they don’t go far enough to help newcomers truly root themselves in a community for the long haul. The isolation felt by those brave enough to try is real and often unsustainable.
Canadian agriculture would be stronger if we welcomed diversity, deliberately, with open arms and hearts. Diversity in the industry could rejuvenate our demographically declining rural communities, and offer better food options to feed Canada’s growing diverse populations. The current situation involving temporary foreign workers is a symptom of our collective lack of effort. It’s unfair to treat these farmers as impermanent contributors to the food system. If they had a pathway to permanent residency perhaps their interests in farming would lead some to even strike out to start their own farms.
Governments in Canada have been more than willing to help established farmers. The feedback loop has been established over years. The government doesn’t want to waste money and defaults to choices they’re familiar with, the safe bet. But, if you don’t have a generational history in farming in this country, how do you break in?
The farming industry in Canada needs diversity. It’s the very thing that will allow the sector to be strong and adapt to changes. But to get there we need to take more risks and embark on the necessary adventure that will expand our thinking, our experience and inevitably the potential of the Canadian agriculture system.
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