Bringing farmers together

By Jayme Melrose of Common Roots Urban Farm

In November 2017, farm staff went to the ACORN Conference (also known as the organic farming conference), as we do every year.  But this year, we brought a busload of farmers and interpreters, and hosted a session to connect farmers to farmers – specifically, new Canadians who were farmers and would like to be again, with the organic farming community.

We did this in partnership with ISANS and ACORN, with the help of ThinkFarmFriends of Agriculture, and the Ecology Action Centre.  #manyhandsmakelightwork

Acronym notes: 

  • ISANS- Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia
  • ACORN – Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network
  • CRUF – Common Roots Urban Farm

By bringing new Canadians and Nova Scotian farmers together, our purpose was to:

  • Build relationships between newcomers to Canada and Nova Scotian farmers
  • Further the conversations around farming & food opportunities in NS
  • Identify potential solutions to existing barriers linking newcomers to farming and rural communities

ISANS, Common Roots Urban Farm (CRUF) and ACORN designed and coordinated  a session at the ACORN conference for new Canadians to meet Nova Scotian farmers. The event was facilitated and designed to maximize interaction between the new Canadians and the farmers. The activity included small group discussions which were facilitated and interpreted in 3 languages (Swahili, Arabic and Nepali) to ensure participation of all attendees.

Conference program details:

11 newcomer participants from refugee backgrounds, 3 interpreters and approximately 40 Nova Scotian farmers attended the session. Also present were staff from ISANS and Common Roots, to add context to the discussions.

The main facilitator, Stephen Law (organic farmer and ISANS staff) began the session  by summarizing the barriers, hopes and dreams of the newcomer farmers, as discussed in the preparatory sessions.  Participants were then divided into 3 groups to discuss barriers to immigrants farming in the Maritimes, the barriers for farmers in involving newcomers and to begin a conversation about how those barriers could be addressed.   The hope was that this session would be the beginning of a process that would continue outside the conference.

An inclusive and welcoming tone was set at the beginning of the conference by ACORN executive director’s opening remarks:

I’m really pleased to acknowledge that we’re joined today by a group of New Canadians, many of them farmers in their own countries before coming to Canada. We have an incredible opportunity to learn from these folks as we work to improve our own farms, organizations, and the organic sector as a whole. Can I have the group from ISANS stand for a moment? Thank you very much for joining us – we’re so pleased to host you! I hope that you’ll have great workshop experiences, meaningful conversations and make great contacts over the course of today!“

Many newcomers to Canada come with farming backgrounds, and a great interest in growing food for their communities.  Many farms experience a shortage in skilled labour, and see opportunities in growing food for ethnic markets.  While ISANS and CRUF have  know for many years that there is interest both among Atlantic Canadian farmers and amongst immigrants to be growing healthier food for their communities, there are significant barriers to this happening. At the session in Truro on November 27, Canadian-born and newcomer farmers finally sat down face-to-face to discuss these issues, and explore how we can grow food for our communities together.  For  immigrant farmers who are interested in farming in Canada, the session was an important step.

When asked what was important for them about being at the conference, newcomer participants said:  

“I  volunteered to sell books at the conference.   That was the fun part of it as I got to talk with people outside the workshops.”

“I was grateful for the opportunity to go to the conference….To me, it was a good chance to speak with other farmers to understand the challenges of the weather, farming organically. So we know that to work in farming we have to move outside of the city and that farming is seasonal job; for most of them they will have to get other jobs when they are not working in the farms to take care of their families.  I did speak with some people from the conference who asserted they have two jobs including farming.”

“I would like to express appreciation for being at the conference.  I she learned about the challenges farmers in this country go through especially in taking care of family, paying bills etc. it is really challenging to be a farmer in Canada. It will be good if we are trained more on organic farming and was particular interested in the chicken manure…”

In addition to the goals identified before the conference, there were some other benefits identified by participants.  In particular, many comments focused on feeling more informed about organic farming practices in Canada. Participants learned specifics about what it means to farm organically, about the challenges for Canadian farmers, and began to identify areas of Canadian farming that they wanted to know more about:

“Before, I didn’t know about the meaning of the word organic, thought it meant just putting in compost in crops.  I learned organic is more complex: they have rules (the 4 principles) and this is very challenging and it was a surprise to me. In my country, we used any kind of water (waste water) on the plant but with the organic you have to think about everything carefully before you use it…”

“I was happy to travel to Truro and meet other people, they were really focused on organic. Learned that organic is expensive, that all organic farmers in Canada are trying to come together to see how to promote organic farming. I would like to have more training on organic farming here in Halifax.”

Through this initial encounter, seeds of awareness were planted.  Awareness has increased on the part of Atlantic Canadian formers, about the barriers to full participation in the farming sector.  They are enthusiastic to support the inclusion of immigrants from farming backgrounds, while recognizing that there is much work still to do.

Newcomers who participated in the conference expressed that felt a sense of belonging at being included in a conversation about addressing these complex issues.   Through fostering these new relationships, and addressing the barriers together, solutions are closer.

There is a large contingent of newcomers who were farmers prior to having to seek refuge in Canada – many of whom would like to settle in farming and rural communities. The potential social and economic impact of them being able to do so is far reaching, for the lives of newcomer farmers, for established farmers and for the province of Nova Scotia as a whole.

ISANS and CRUF will continue to explore next steps, and opportunities to increase cultural diversity amongst Atlantic Canada’s farmers, both in urban and rural settings.

(This post is adapted from a report by Heather AsbilCoordinator, Growing Strong Neighbourhoods & Community Connections Ongoing Activities at ISANS)