Project Aims to Help Immigrant Farmers

September 18, 2007 - News Release

Okra, green chilies, sweet potatoes and other ethnic foods may soon be growing in rural Ontario, thanks to a research project led by the University of Guelph's Centre for Land and Water Stewardship aimed at removing barriers for immigrant farmers.

Land resource science professor Stewart Hilts, director of the centre, and research assistant Peter Mitchell have consulted with six different immigrant groups in the greater Toronto area over the past year to find out what's preventing them from continuing with the farming life they had in their home country.

"It surprises me the number of immigrants who were farmers back home or have a PhD in agriculture and are driving taxis in Toronto," said Hilts. "They would like to continue farming here, even if it's part time, but they can't afford to buy land. As a result, Canada's multi-ethnicity is not reflected in what's being grown in the province."

In partnership with FarmStart, the project is also targeted at removing barriers for younger people interested in farming.

"We're starting to see young urban people wanting to learn to farm and grow organic vegetables, but they don't have access to training or farmland," said Hilts. "With the number of farms and farmers declining along with the amount of farmland, it's important to create opportunities for a new generation of ethnically diverse farmers and young farmers, including children of current farmers."

As a result of Hilts and Mitchell's research, the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation recently awarded $400,000 to help establish a training farm in Ontario's greenbelt. This training farm will allow immigrant farmers to try their hand at growing food indigenous to their home country in the Canadian climate, as well as give young farmers the opportunity to learn the profession. A second training farm spanning 20 hectares is close to being finalized near Brampton.

As part of the ongoing project, Hilts, Mitchell and geography graduate student Christie Young, who heads FarmStart, are also working to find solutions to other barriers facing immigrant farmers, including insufficient lease term agreements for rented land, difficulty in getting loans to start up farming enterprises, lack of a unified farming community among immigrants because most live in cities and have other jobs, unfamiliarity with Ontario's agriculture, lack of practical education training and business planning, and lack of resources being put towards research on growing and marketing ethnic crops in Ontario.

Project researchers are currently investigating what crops immigrant groups would like to see grown in Ontario that are currently being imported, as well as which ethnic crops are becoming more popular with the general population, said Hilts.

A recent public opinion poll conducted by Environics found that one-third of Ontarians have increased their consumption of ethnic or multicultural foods over the past five years.

Hilts and Mitchell also plan to consult with horticulturists to determine what types of ethnic crops are suitable for Canadian soils and climate.

Hilts said there is plenty of opportunity for immigrant farmers and young farmers in the GTA to get into the agriculture business.

"About 40 per cent of the farmland in the GTA is rented land," he said. "There is opportunity. We just have to make it easier for them to access it through more innovative land holding partnerships."

They're also working to develop programs that will link immigrant farmers and young farmers with members of the existing agricultural community. Ontario's current farming community has already expressed interest in establishing better relationships with the ethnically diverse GTA population and possibly contributing to the production of new crops, said Hilts.

"Creating links is necessary to support interested new farmers, to provide new crop possibilities and to enable the development of rural ethnic communities."

Stewart Hilts
Department of Land Resource Science
519-824-4120, Ext. 52447

Peter Mitchell
Research Assistant
519-824-4120, Ext. 58329

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982.

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1