Cheyenne Sundance on land she farms near Bolton, Ont. in February 2024. IAN WILLMS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

With Canada facing a looming disaster of having too few farmers as existing operators retire, some see young, racialized farmers as key to feeding Canadians into the future.

Cheyenne Sundance is part of a growing class of Black farmers who are hoping to help teach Canadians about agriculture and change what people assume a farmer looks like.

She’s doing her part through her farm called Sundance Harvest, which she launched in 2019. The business is actually more reminiscent of a hip tech startup in its early years if anything. The farm relies on a small team of eager young people for operations. It has unusual work hours, uses social media and, just like techpreneurs, it’s beholden to a fickle marketplace. For instance, the uncharacteristic warming and freezing this winter makes her work trickier than a regular office job, but worth it, Ms. Sundance says.

She grows vegetables on land located at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, as well as in Bolton, Ont., and Guelph. She also provides space for community members to grow and harvest their own produce, a profound move during a cost-of-living crisis in which the price of food has skyrocketed.

The 27-year-old, who boasts of 34,000 followers on Instagram, knows the struggles that go along with being a farmer better than her age suggests. She launched Sundance Harvest with little money and no connections. And, despite the challenges, she is finally making a profit.

“Being young, being a woman, I’ve gotten my fair share of, you know, harassment and discrimination, but I feel like I really wanted this to happen and now, look at us, you know, we’re growing.

Ms. Sundance is part of a growing class of Black farmers who are hoping to help teach Canadians about agriculture and change what people assume a farmer looks like. IAN WILLMS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ms. Sundance’s success and personal ethos on diversity inspired her to launch a non-profit program on-site that teaches farming basics – from how to fix a tractor to caring for bees – as well as providing mentorship to marginalized groups. It’s a program that she wishes had existed when she was starting out, and one that could be part of the solution to a looming disaster that Canada faces: too few farmers.

She’s not wrong. Currently, Black people make up only 4.9 per cent of racialized farm operators in the country, according to 2021 data from Statistics Canada, the latest available. Black farmers fall significantly behind other ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, the same report found that racialized farm operators who hold a bachelor’s degree – or higher – make up more than double the number of non-racialized farmers.

Additionally, Black farmers tend to operate smaller farms, which are more vulnerable to climate change, supply chain issues and price hikes for essential goods.

“The struggle I know for many new Black farmers is access and capital,” Ms. Sundance says. “Because really, who has access to intergenerational wealth and lots of land? Usually not most Black people.”

Ms. Sundance launched her farm, Sundance Harvest, in 2019. Using a business model reminiscent of a hip tech startup in its early years, the farm relies on social media and a small team of eager young people for operations. IAN WILLMS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A 2023 report called Africulture – an initiative by Pitch Better, an incubator that supports underrepresented entrepreneurs in Canada, alongside FoodPreneur Lab, Dalhousie University and others – found systemic barriers are preventing more Black Canadians from entering the industry.

“If we have more farmers in Canada who contribute to producing more, we will help minimize the risk of food insecurity in terms of availability of local food,” says Emmanuel Yiridoe, a professor at Dalhousie University. “Ukraine and COVID have shown people how easy it can be to disrupt food supplies.” As well, people who know how to farm in droughts or heat waves have skills that may become necessary with climate change.

The other reason to look to Black farmers? Canadian immigration policies mean the talent is likely already here.

“A lot of us immigrants, including myself – I came originally from Ghana – we immigrated from countries that are agricultural. So, some of those immigrants who are now in Canada would have grown up in their original home countries and are familiar with farming or involved in agriculture,” Dr. Yiridoe says. “Think of the possibilities. Think of the economics.”

Ms. Sundance’s Toronto property is approximately half an acre and was acquired in February. Her journey isn’t typical and shouldn’t be the assumed path for everyone, of course.

“We are not the future because we’re actually not production farmers,” she says. She plans to one day acquire land in the country in order to do more. It’s a long way off from where she is right now, though. “We’re just market gardeners, and we’re doing it in such a small way.”

For Max Hansgen, president of the National Farmers Union – Ontario, support for new, young and racialized farmers is the key to feeding Canadians into the future.

“The average age of farmers in Canada is deeply concerning for the future of farming. Transitioning farms within a family is no guarantee, as many farmers’ children grow up seeing the challenges involved and opt for a different lifestyle,” he says.

“Transitioning to new and younger farmers outside the family unit is even more difficult, as the upfront costs of purchasing land, infrastructure and machinery can take decades to recover from farm profits. The future of farming in Canada is dependent on new farmers being able to enter the industry.”

It’s something that Keith Currie has on his mind these days, too.

The president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture is 62 and intimately aware of the problems the industry faces when it comes to working people. “I’m sort of on the tail end of the boomer generation. So, there’s a lot of people in my situation, and obviously at some point in time, we’re going to retire.”

For agriculture experts within Canada and outside the country, the shortage of skilled labour has become a serious threat to the billion-dollar industry here, something that could drag down the overall economy.

Angelina Williams is one of the few Black farm owners in Canada. She owns two farms in Ontario, and plans to continue expanding her business despite the industry challenges. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Angelina Williams is one of the handful of Black farm owners in Canada. She has a 37-acre farm near Port Dover, a town on Lake Erie, where she grows fruit such as papayas and bananas throughout the year. This impressive feat has garnered interest from a national food chain that is eager to buy produce from closer to home.

Despite this potentially life-changing deal, as well as a recently purchased 174-acre property in Stayner, Ont., Ms. Williams doesn’t plan to stop expanding her business any time soon – because it hasn’t been an easy ride to date.

Farming is not an easily scalable industry in terms of, like, getting access into the industry,” she says. “We already know that it’s very, very challenging to acquire land in Canada and to acquire land that doesn’t flip a profit as quickly as, say, for example, residential real estate does.”

On top of that, there’s the implicit understanding that profits can be elusive for the first few years, and even a successful business can have a bad year – or two – that resets everything. It’s enough to push even the smartest entrepreneur to safer economic harbours.

“This job is 24/7 and it doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. It’s a lot of administrative work too.”

The greenhouse on Angelina Williams’ farm in southwestern Ontario. Ms. Williams sees more institutional supports as a way to bring more Black farmers to an industry in desperate need of contributors. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

While more clients are a boon to her bottom line, Ms. Williams sees her business as something bigger than just a profit maker at the end of the day. “It’s got to be about more,” she says. She intentionally produces culturally specific foods and participates in markets for marginalized groups.

The Africulture study found that Black households face higher food insecurities and are more likely to experience food deserts – that is, areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. A 2020 report by the University of Toronto issued by PROOF had the same results, finding that Black households are some of the most food-insecure in the country.

“If we are making food accessible, it has to be the type of food that is culturally relevant for the group that you’re providing the food for. The pandemic slowed our access to a lot of the fruits and vegetables that we’re used to as Canadians,” Ms. Williams said.

While she’s optimistic that change is possible, she sees more institutional supports in place as a natural way to bring more Black people into a trade that is in desperate need of new farmers.

For Dr. Yiridoe, studies such as Africulture are pieces that can help draw attention to the issue – but they alone are not the solution.

“Do I expect things to change overnight? Of course not,” he says. “I am a realist. I have to be realistic. I would see this as a little drop of water. Getting stakeholders to begin to understand that there is a gap. That we need to invest some dollars to support Black farmers, to support research related to the challenges and issues that Black farmers face with this research project is important.”

Ms. Sundance’s success and personal ethos on diversity inspired her to launch a non-profit program that teaches farming basics and provides mentorship to marginalized groups. IAN WILLMS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail, March 14, 2024