Building a More Just Food System

What progress has been made, and what barriers remain to be addressed.

By Jackie Clark

Farmers know that diversity is resilience. Increasing diversity in crop rotations, plant and animal genetics, pest-management approaches, and income streams all contribute to helping individual farms and the broader industry thrive.

So, what about the human element?

Great strides have been made toward recognizing the importance and celebrating the accomplishments of women in farming. However, that is only one small slice of the diversity pie.

Leaders across Canada’s agricultural landscape have stepped up to start conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in our industry. In this month’s edition, Better Farming connects with industry leaders and racialized women in agriculture to discuss inclusion and equity, particularly for Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour (BIPOC) in the ag industry.

What is equity?

Equity in agriculture encompasses the ethics and justice of the entire food system – from farm to table.

Celeste Lopreiato
    “I’ve never worked on a farm where there was another person of colour working there,” Celeste Lopreiato says. - Celeste Lopreiato photo

Celeste Lopreiato noticed something was amiss when she started working on farms and saw the discrepancy between labour and prices.

Lopreiato thought about how much energy she was “pouring into the farm and then going to the grocery store and seeing how cheap prices are and how unjust that is,” she explains. Now, she runs a farm-to-table food delivery business called The Conscious Kitchen and a five-acre vegetable and herb farm near Markdale.

The Conscious Kitchen works to connect consumers with food that is grown in a way that aligns with their values. This is just one example of how racialized women are working to overcome barriers and build a more just and sustainable food system.

Individual efforts can make a big difference.

“A two- to five-acre market garden can have quite a big impact in terms of food sovereignty and food security,” explains Angel Beyde, a Toronto-based grower, Organic Master Gardener and aspiring rural farmer. Beyde is currently supporting the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) in her role as anti-racism and equity consultant.

“The most fundamental relationship between equity and agriculture is that it needs to be affordable for farmers to do the hard job, but also the very rewarding and joyful job of feeding people,” she says.

Many barriers to entry exist in agriculture, particularly for marginalized people.

“It’s not really equitable for anyone to get into farming anymore unless they work for someone else,” Lopreiato says. “If you’re working for a farmer for 10 years at minimum wage, you’re not going to get any closer to your goals of owning your own farm.”

The food system is “working as it was designed to. It’s perpetuating equity for those who are invested to keep hold of the lion’s share of resources,” Beyde explains. Currently, food and agriculture systems most benefit those who already hold power and privilege, which is rarely the hard-working farmers.

“We need to pull together to create new ag systems built on equity and justice for farmers of all stripes,” she adds. “It’s possible to not exploit people in order to eat.”

 Aliyah Fraser
    Aliyah Fraser

Aliyah Fraser agrees. She grows vegetables, herbs and flowers on leased land from an existing organic vegetable farm in Wellington County.

“I want people to understand how our food system runs, and that understanding will hopefully lead to being able to make it better – make it more just and sustainable,” Fraser says.

Improving the system is not as easy as simply increasing diversity.

Angel Beyde
    Angel Beyde

“Diversity without equity is unsustainable,” Beyde explains. Using an ecological metaphor, “if you bring in a lot of ladybugs and lacewings to eat your pests, but they don’t have an equity stake, meaning, the habitat they require ... they won’t survive, and they can’t balance out your ecosystem with the benefits they bring to your farm.”

So, for diversity efforts to be successful, the environment of agriculture needs to be an inclusive space where marginalized people can build the equity they need to thrive.

Who is involved?

Groups in the agriculture and food justice space, such as Sustain Ontario and the National Farmers Union have, for a long time, included DEI goals as part of their mandates.

Traditional farm organizations and commodity groups are joining the discussion.

“Our organization will actively work to understand and remove barriers to equity and inclusion,” says the OFA’s statement on DEI, developed in March 2021.

The OFA is committed to four responsibilities: annual revision of policies and procedures, examining language, creation of a DEI committee, and soliciting feedback.

EFAO also has started working toward DEI goals. The organization initiated a BIPOC farmer network to better connect with and serve racialized farmers.

Ali English
    Ali English

“Diversity is at the core of ecological agriculture and a resilient natural system, healthy soil, and I think intuitively that makes sense. And the same applies to our human environment. We’re all going to be stronger if we have diverse farm communities, different skills, different perspectives,” Ali English, executive director of EFAO, tells Better Farming.

“Last year made it clear to us that systemic racism is rife within agriculture...We’re farming on stolen land, ultimately, and then most of our food is being grown by migrant workers who have completely inadequate rights,” she says. “So, how do we not talk about this?”

Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) leadership agrees that it was time to speak up.

“Around our board table, we felt there was a lack of agricultural voices speaking up against discrimination, and there were concerns raised that agriculture would be left behind and out of touch with our customers if our voices are not used to speak up on important social issues,” explains Rob Lipsett, president of BFO.

“We recognize the beef sector is not always a diverse industry, particularly at the farm and association level. Throughout our supply chain, however, there is a great amount of diversity among the people dedicated to making sure our product makes it to kitchen tables and, of course, among our loyal customers. We feel it is important to be a voice, build bridges, listen, learn and support all members of our community,” he explains. “Our board and staff are actively looking at our organization and current activities to see where we can do better and how we can weave education and advocacy around DEI into existing activities and programing.”

Challenges & barriers

Individual and systemic barriers to entry and success still exist and disproportionately impact BIPOC individuals in food and farming.

As a kid, “I didn’t even really have exposure to farms,” Lopreiato says. “I know that’s the case for a lot of people of colour growing up in the cities. There aren’t very many people of colour in rural areas. They may not have access to a car or know people who have farms.”

BIPOC youth also lack representation in the industry.

“I’ve never worked on a farm where there was another person of colour working there,” Lopreiato says.

Fraser agrees.

“I didn’t really see myself represented in agriculture at all, and that made it tough to visualize,” she explains. She had a lot of questions about farming and “didn’t see anyone providing an answer that matched my context.”

She searched online for “the words ‘Canada, women, young, Black, farmer’ in various combinations to try and find someone who was not just farming but running their own business and farming for profit. And I think Black women, and Black people in general, Black femmes especially, are so under-represented in this space, when it’s something that comes so naturally to us in a way,” she says.

“Looking at the history of agriculture in North America and the Caribbean, no matter how far you go back in time, Black people and Black women are so immersed in growing food,” Fraser adds. “And yet when it comes to making a living off that, we’re so under-represented and it really blows my mind. But that’s systemic racism. I have to be in the position of privilege that I’m in to be able to do this work, and that tells you how many barriers there are.”

Fraser was able to pursue farming after working for years in urban planning. She participated in the Growing in the Margins program provided by Cheyenne Sundance, owner of Sundance Harvest. Growing in the Margins is a 12-week farming educational course provided for free to youth who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, low income and/or a person with a disability.

Fraser is leasing space at Zócalo Organics in Hillsburgh, where the owners provide “a lot of the infrastructure, like wash stations and irrigation to a pond and greenhouse space and hoop houses,” she explains. “It’s a really great opportunity and super rare, which I don’t think it should be.”

Access to resources, particularly land, is one of the biggest challenges facing marginalized people who want to farm.

“Equity in agriculture is very strongly linked with the problem of commodification of prime farmland,” Beyde explains.

“Fertile rural land is increasingly being exploited for non-food production purposes, like investor speculation, urban and commercial sprawl and short-term vacation rentals.

“Looking at the present and future of agriculture in terms of equity, for farms to flourish we need farmland that’s financially accessible to ordinary, hard-working farmers for food production. For it to be sustainable, the farmer needs to build equity, which means having an ownership stake,” she says.

Fraser agrees.

“Land ownership is a huge privilege and a huge cost, and if you don’t have generational wealth, it’s really hard to achieve. And we know that Black people and people of colour often do not have access to generational wealth,” Fraser explains.

“People like myself, we’re struggling for the opportunity to purchase a small farm in rural Ontario and bring value to communities, but we are priced out of the current skyrocketing real estate market. This is the case for so many aspiring farmers, but additional barriers like race and gender can make it more challenging,” Beyde adds.

Renting land without building ownership or working for someone else without acquiring a stake in the business doesn’t allow for sustainable inclusion of marginalized individuals in the ag industry and limits the sector’s growth, she explains.

“If small-scale producers facing barriers to entry are just leasing a little piece of land temporarily, they can’t build equity,” she says.

“The work they’re doing to improve the land, to improve the health of the ecosystem, to do their part for climate change, to be supportive neighbours and build community – none of that can be continued in the long term.”

What can be done?

Everyone can contribute to making our food and agriculture systems more just and equitable for all people.

“Taking a conscious, system-level look at how food is produced, distributed, consumed and disposed of is really important if we want to identify goals for that system,” Fraser explains.

That work may need to start with understanding our own privilege and internalized biases before engaging with marginalized people, she adds.

BFO has started the process.

“We felt it was imperative that our board and staff participate in some DEI training to better understand the issues and be more confident to speak up and create action,” Lipsett says.

“We have partnered with a company called Bloom to create a comprehensive seven-week DEI learning experience for BFO. All of our board directors and staff are participating in the interactive training, and we also extended the learning experience opportunity to the leadership of our grassroots producer associations, as well as several folks from some of our partner organizations,” he explains.

“Admittedly, there was some initial hesitation from some folks about the training, but everyone has been open-minded, thoughtful and respectful throughout the sessions and we have had really positive feedback so far,” he adds. “We look forward to completing the program and creating more action, but we also recognize that, like our statement of values, learning is not a one-time thing. It will not always be in an organized session like right now, but listening and learning will continue to be major cornerstones of our DEI work moving forward.”

Individuals can take action by offering paid employment to BIPOC or otherwise marginalized individuals, Lopreiato says. For people who may lack direct farm experience, agricultural employers can be open to other backgrounds.

“Maybe they haven’t worked on a farm before, but maybe they’ve had a physical labour job,” she adds.

To help people with diverse identities feel included, farms and other agribusinesses can “make it known that they welcome people of colour, or they’re actually taking action to make their workplace inclusive and they want to add diversity to their farm,” Lopreiato says.

“Rural areas are really suffering right now because people are leaving,” she explains. “Thinking about how you can make your community more desirable for people of colour to live there” could be mutually beneficial.

Another key action could involve “reaching out and having a relationship with Indigenous communities in your area,” she adds. Finally, “if you have a lot of land, offer rental situations that are equitable.”

Beyde agrees.

“Due to the increasing financial and environmental challenges even established farmers are facing these days, some folks may not recognize the treasure they have in their family farm and what they could share,” she says.

Though fewer younger generations of traditional farm families may wish to stay on the farm, Beyde knows dozens of aspiring Canadian farmers whose roots come from every corner of the globe, who are eagerly looking for pathways into farming.

Farmers can connect with these “hard-working people who care about the earth as much as they do, who want to honour the legacy (of the farm), transform it and carry it with love into the future. A total win-win situation,” she adds. “We will always need farmers and the more of us who are willing and able to put our hands to this work with skill and dedication, the stronger our food system will be.”

Offering space for incubator or learning farms, like Zócalo Organics, is another option.

Farming is hard work, so “it can seem like a lot to manage sharing all of your tools and all of your spaces and doing the teaching,” Fraser says. “But I think that’s part of the work that white people with power and privilege need to be willing to do if they truly want to see a more equitable and diverse food system.”

Farmers can become allies in “dismantling parts of the food system that are inaccessible to Black people, and the largest one, I think, is land access,” she adds.

“Whether you’re an urban or rural property owner, being willing to open that up and share it with others, and particularly others who are marginalized by our food system is a great opportunity,” she explains. The work must be tangible, not performative.

Working toward justice and equity “means sharing power as well as your resources, and being open to that sharing of power,” Fraser says. BF

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