Moving out of the city was a no-brainer for Aminah Haghighi. Last year, the 31-year-old mom of two found her world turned upside down due to the pandemic and its related lockdowns. Like many of us, she was suddenly cut off from the rest of the world — afraid of going to grocery stores, unable to access the restaurants she loved, she began to feel the limits of her small world, made even smaller.
“That’s when I started to learn about what our food systems look like, and it was something that I had taken for granted with my food background,” she says. “We would just order food and it would show up. I never really realized what that food system looked like until the pandemic hit.”
So she queued up the gardening videos on YouTube and joined a few local community gardening groups on Facebook. She started growing seedlings, putting them in trays on shelves under grow lights. She tore up the 10 by 10 patch of grass in the backyard of her rented house in Koreatown and had cow manure delivered to her back alley. That summer, Haghighi grew 25 different fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplants, cucamelons, arugula and kale. She grew enough to feed her family, friends and food insecure people she connected with online who would come up to her porch and grab a bag of whatever she had grown.
“That’s when I realized that I really loved it,” she said. And so Raining Gold Farms went from being a pandemic hobby to a full-time job.
It’s been six months since Haghighi and her family moved to a farm in Hillier, Prince Edward County. Over the winter, she was busy growing microgreens indoors to ship out to her 80 weekly subscribers, starting seedlings to later plant outside and launching her online store.
Haghighi uses regenerative farming techniques to grow her produce, which focuses on soil health and nourishing healthy root systems through growing diverse crops, using very little to no harmful chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Rather than huge tractors sitting on soil beds, regenerative agriculture uses only human-scale machines and no tilling to protect the soil. Closely aligned with the organic local food movement (though not all regenerative farms are strictly organic, and vice versa), regenerative farming is seen to be more environmentally friendly, less water-intensive and more resilient against changing weather patterns than conventional farming.
It is also a style of farming that suits smaller-scale farmers who want to grow a diversity of crops — large machinery is expensive, excessive water use is expensive, and chemical pesticides are expensive.
Regenerative farming made sense and took the least money to start
“It will save you more money in the long run, because you won’t be using as much water; your soil will have a higher organic matter percentage, content-wise; and you won’t have to weed as much because you won’t have as many weeds or pest damage. You’re planting a bunch of crops around it that are beneficial to them,” says Haghighi. “To me, it just made sense and it took the least amount of money to start.”
Because of its environmental benefits and its ties with the organic food movement, regenerative farming is becoming more mainstream. New farmers are increasingly building their farms around regenerative farming practices, and experienced farmers, recognizing the long-term damage of conventional farming and chemical use, are starting to embrace these methods, too.
But as North America rediscovers these traditional farming methods, for people who come from different countries, it’s just a route that makes a whole lot of sense.
Soniel Gordon is a sixth-generation farmer from Jamaica. His farm, Sunny Boy Farm, sits on an acre of land in Pickering. After a bout of depression, he picked up farming as a hobby and as a way to reconnect with his family’s farming roots.
“Knowing that the soil had to be fertile, that it had to get the right nutrients, I had to make sure I did that for myself as well,” he says. It was farming and healthy eating that lifted him out of depression, and he wanted his community to have the same access to high-quality produce and the kind of farming community that he grew up with.
With local farming partners, Sunny Boy Farms puts out a biweekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) full of fresh produce. His goal is to feed his community, offering financial support to low-income families, as well as to scale up using practices that he was accustomed to in his youth.
“I’ve never seen my family using chemicals,” he says. “The chickens were always running around, naturally free range. The pigs and the goats were all going to pasture. Whenever fruits fell from the trees, they were given back to the animals. I never saw any big machinery.”
Instead, Gordon uses hand tools, his pitchfork and machete, and tries not to dig too deep, preferring to put back into the soil more than he takes, building his farm by a fraction of an acre at a time.
For people like Haghighi and Gordon, buying (or, in the case of Gordon, leasing) farmland and getting crops started isn’t the stuff of We Bought A Zoo, movie-daydreams. For one thing, they’re not Matt Damon — they’re neither white, nor middle-aged, and only Soniel Gordon is a man. For these fledging farmers, the challenges go way beyond simply choosing to switch careers.
Gordon had trouble finding resources and securing loans for his farm, so he bootstrapped his operation from day one, keeping his old IT job until he was laid off in August. Haghighi was able to afford her farmland after freeing her family from the exorbitant rent prices in downtown Toronto, but that also meant leaving the diverse heart of the city and having to adjust to being the only BIPOC family in all-white spaces.
“It’s something that’s very difficult, being here,” says Haghighi. “The white fragility and the white tears and how us existing here makes people uncomfortable.”
Even for young BIPOC farmers living and working in the city, it doesn’t get that much easier. Just ask Cheyenne Sundance, a 23-year old urban farmer with a plot of land in Downsview Park. On top of running a successful weekly CSA program, she is also a food security activist and mentor of BIPOC youth looking to get into agriculture.
She started Sundance Harvest, her urban farm in sprawling Downsview Park in 2018 after being unable to find farm work opportunities that worked for her.
I couldn’t find a farm that was run equitably, so I set up my own
“I really wanted to work on a farm, and I could not find one farm that was equitable in Ontario that also had fair representation, didn’t use exploited unpaid interns, and had a really good social justice framework,” says Sundance. “That’s really why I started Sundance Harvest. I was looking for a farm that was run equitably that was also for-profit. I figured, if I was looking, then other people would be looking too and I guess I was right because Sundance Harvest has a lot of youth coming to its programs.”
Since she started Sundance Harvest, the urban farmer has grown her small urban farm operation into two 2,000-square-foot greenhouses with a 10,000-square-foot outdoor space and she’s looking to continue expanding. However, it hasn’t always been easy. She’s had to overcome ageism and a host of challenges while other well-financed urban farmers soared straight to the top.
“The people who do for-profit urban agriculture, it’s a very specific type of person,” she says. “Usually a man. Maybe he’s a lawyer or he worked in the tech industry and now he has a hydroponic warehouse. There’s no community-driven aspect. I’ve never seen someone who comes from the poverty line or below the poverty line start off a big urban farm and have all that support.”
As a result, she’s supporting the community, offering workshops and mentorship programs for BIPOC youth looking to find out more about a life in farming and urban agriculture.
This type of work has larger implications for the Canadian food supply chain. Demographics are shifting drastically within this sector and without community intervention, the forecast looks pretty bleak.
Farming is a deeply generational industry. Traditionally, a family that owned a farm could count on a son or daughter to take over and see through the next few generations. But according to Sri Sethuratnam, a board member of FarmLINK in Ontario, the population level of farmers in North America is at a “critical point.” Most farmers are aging and few people are able — or willing — to take over their positions.
“Unfortunately, as a society, we’ve systematically dismantled and destroyed the pathways to farming,” he says. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of farmers operating in Canada decreased by 7 per cent, with the average age of farmers increasing from 54 to 55 years of age. Without successors, retiring farmers are left to sell their land to large-scale industrial operations, or to developers.
“The reality is, the age of the white farmer is on the decline,” he says. “The demographics of farming are changing. It may take another 10 years, but the existing generation of farmers is on its way out.”
In other words: Even white people are quietly getting out of the game. Despite the low farming population, the barriers for any new farmer, but especially BIPOC and immigrant farmers, remain tougher than ever. It boils down to three issues: education and experience, land access and capital.
Experience is hard to come by, and often relies on poorly paid internships. Land access has become more difficult, as existing farms have become larger through consolidation and more expensive to run. And access to capital is difficult to come by as banks no longer see farming as worth investing in.
Getting into the industry is hard for everyone, but white farmers usually have more capital to start with and more financial leeway that allows them to take on internships and learning opportunities. They have more access to land, and once they obtain that land, they have no trouble fitting in with the larger community.
This cannot be said about BIPOC and immigrant farmers. And that lack of opportunity also affects food security for people in those communities.
“Until organizations, policy makers and the like are doing things that actively dismantle that discrimination and that balance, unless we’re willing to have real conversations and take real actions to dismantle white supremacy, we’re going to continue to reinforce the inequities that cause us to predominantly be buying produce from white-owned farms, predominantly having Black and Indigenous folks more likely to be food insecure,” says Paul Taylor, the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit food justice organization.
The work is being done, but slowly. There are organizations like FarmLINK, which positions itself as a matchmaking platform for farm seekers and farmland owners to connect and work with each other.
Last year, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario hired an anti-racism and equity consultant, Angel Beyde, to help gather information and create new pathways to success for BIPOC farmers.
That work includes gathering information about barriers that their BIPOC members face — but also their areas of expertise, unique skills and offerings — and fairly compensating these members for their time.
In action, it means creating knowledge sharing opportunities, connecting BIPOC farmers with farmers’ markets, conferences and more. It means creating opportunities for their marginalized members to share their expertise — through authoring research papers, teaching workshops, or leading webinars and virtual farm visits — to help bolster representation and diversity.
Their newly established BIPOC Farmers Association also connects underrepresented farmers with each other, which adds another layer of support and reciprocity.
“People find out that there’s another BIPOC farmer two kilometres away, which they would never have known about, so it also reduces some of the rural isolation for BIPOC communities,” says Beyde.
Perhaps the biggest driver of change, as farmers start to contemplate retirement en masse, are consumers who have gotten more educated about where their food is coming from — according to Sethuratnam, it was the consumer base that pushed the regenerative and local food movements to the forefront.
As the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of the food system, it also opened up a conversation about the inequalities of who gets to eat what and where that food comes from. Taylor shares Sethuratnam’s views:
“I feel more folks are engaging in a rights-based conversation around access to food and recognizing that we’ve made food a commodity and you can only access food if you can afford it,” says Paul Taylor.
“More people are coming to this conversation that says that capitalism is not serving all of our communities equally and are looking at more community-based interventions to access foods.”
At the end of the day, Aminah Haghighi, Soniel Gordon and Cheyenne Sundance are not going to simply stop feeding their communities and feeding their souls through the work that they’re doing. They’ve fought too hard, for too long, to get here.
“Yes, there are going to be push backs,” says Soniel Gordon. “But I just have to be creative. I just keep pushing. I know that I have a purpose to feed people; I have a purpose to change people’s minds and help them transform themselves.”