In the heart of Prince Edward County, in the fields surrounding Picton, Ont., you’ll find Paper Kite Farm, where hoteliers-turned-organic-farmers Judy and Hans Ning sell produce, eggs and seedlings straight from the land. Prior to the pandemic, the Nings lived in Montreal with their two young children, running a hotel business with Hans’ family. Judy grew up on a homestead in the U.S. and had always harboured dreams of an off-grid life spent cultivating the land — perhaps once their children were old enough to leave home. 

Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 arrived. Montreal, an early epicentre of positive cases, closed down and hotel rooms sat empty for months on end. With their source of income shuttered, the Nings contemplated a life-changing choice. Should they buy land in the county, where they spent holidays camping at Sandbanks Provincial Park? They loved vacationing in the area, but how would it be to live there, to begin a sustainable family farm out of nothing? After their search quickly showed that, according to Judy, “Toronto money goes further than Montreal money” when it comes to real estate and farmland in Ontario, they bought a “not-so-great” house outside Picton with “a large, overgrown lawn” that had been on the market for eight months.

They moved in January 2021. That spring, Paper Kite Farm was born. 

“It’s become this identity project … to learn more about my own culture as a displaced ethnic group, without a country of our own,” Judy says. “So being able to connect to the seeds that my mom brought with her from Laos, I feel really good about it.”

Akos Asare of re:Planted Farm & Florals in Deep River, Ont., in the Ottawa Valley, also credits the pandemic for inspiring her life change. Asare and her husband Bernard were both born in Ghana and raised in Toronto. In 2019 they were posted in Alberta, where Bernard was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, while Asare ran a successful e-commerce business selling custom wigs. When Bernard was transferred to Petawawa, Ont., they decided to settle in Deep River.

Fast forward seven months. The world shut down and Asare began craving change and self-sufficiency. “I wanted something more meaningful in life, so we started a garden and I just kind of became obsessed,” she laughs. Having always lived in apartments, she had no prior gardening experience. But a Masterclass with popular YouTube personality the Gangster Gardener — “Just those two words together got me” — led her down the rabbit hole of gardening content online. 

The anticipated culture shock of moving to a small town gave way to pleasant surprise for Akos Asari. Thanks to the presence of one of the country’s largest nuclear research facilities, the population of Deep River, Ont., is more diverse than she expected.
The anticipated culture shock of moving to a small town gave way to pleasant surprise for Akos Asare: the population of Deep River, Ont., is more diverse than she expected. Photo: supplied by Akos Asare

Asare began growing flowers and variations of vegetables she thought people might like, officially starting re:Planted in April 2021. “I wanted to grow things that were different from the grocery store,” she says. “Take carrots, there are so many more varieties that we never see at the store. I wanted to focus on the things that everyone knows, but offer something new.”

It’s a rare thing in Canada to be a farmer of colour running an operation of any size, large or small. It’s even rarer to own the land you’re cultivating. The challenges faced by racialized farmers mirror the challenges people of colour face daily: barriers to access, education, experiences, generational wealth and land ownership, plus blatant racism, microaggressions and threats. When minorities try to infiltrate places, systems and channels historically closed to them, they will always struggle. 

Farming is no different; you can’t farm without land and those who have access to arable land, or land at all, often belong to a homogenous club. That the Nings, Asares and other people whose stories echo theirs are seeing success — even if they’re supplementing their farm income with other work in order to survive — is a testament to the change that is slowly underway. 

Growing pains: gaining access to Ontario farmland requires creativity 

“Farmland prices are near historical highs when compared to farm income,” reads a March 2023 report from Farm Credit Canada, a commercial Crown corporation that reports to the federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. (A Crown corporation is a public sector business funded by the provincial or federal government — think CBC or the Bank of Canada.) The spring report said the value of agricultural land in Canada increased by 12.8 per cent in 2022, the largest gain since 2014. Ontario saw the highest provincial increase, up 19.4 per cent year over year. 

That cost is likely to increase as farmland shrinks: Statistics Canada put the rate of loss across Canada at 2.8 per cent between 2016 and 2021. Ontario was already losing about 319 acres a day before the province introduced a slew of policy changes meant to accelerate development; since last fall, the Doug Ford government has cut farmland protections multiple times, including forcing Hamilton, Halton and Waterloo to open land to development that local councils wanted to protect. 

All of this has left a lot of Canada’s food production, and food security, up to investors and corporations. One organization pushing back is the National Farmers Union, which is dedicated to supporting strong food systems that keep family farms running under families. In 2021, the union passed an amendment to create a Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) Caucus. The amendment also mandated two positions for racialized farmers on its board of directors, as well as a seat on the national executive and on each of eight regional boards. That’s 11 racialized farmers with a spot at the table they didn’t have three years ago, able to speak out against racism and up for change. 

Right now, Paper Kite has multiple income sources, including Judy’s part-time job, selling at the farmers’ market, an on-site farm stand and their Community Supported Agriculture program. But things are still precarious.
According to Farm Credit Canada, the value of agricultural land in Canada increased by 12.8 per cent in 2022, the largest gain since 2014. Ontario saw the highest provincial increase, up 19.4 per cent year over year.  Photo: Wynne Neilly / The Narwhal

The inaugural president of the BIPOC Caucus is 25-year-old Cheyenne Sundance, owner and operator of Sundance Harvest, Common and Market, which has locations in Guelph and Bolton, as well as in Downsview Park in Toronto. Sundance grows produce, flowers, herbs, mushrooms and fruit on about four acres with four full-time staff, who all earn a living wage with paid sick days and vacation time. 

As a food justice advocate longing to create space for racialized and marginalized people, Sundance founded Growing in the Margins, a 12-week farm incubator program that does just that. She teaches young people about leasing land, planning, growing and harvesting crops and food sovereignty, releasing them into the world to fight food insecurity and injustice, one market garden at a time.

One graduate, Aliyah Fraser, founded Lucky Bug Farm in Baden, Ont., near Waterloo, in early 2021. There, she grows produce on rented land in a community garden. Her focus this year is on her Community Supported Agriculture program, which will send a regular box of farm-fresh produce out to subscribers. Such programs are one proven way for small farmers to have a reliable income, and for those who believe in their mission to support them.

Chickens roam freely in their compound at Paper Kite Farm in Ontario's Prince Edward County.
Spiking land prices across Ontario means buying farmland takes place in a constant seller’s market in which farmers of colour just cannot compete. Photo: Wynne Neilly / The Narwhal

As of right now, Fraser is one of many farmers of colour priced out of purchasing land. “Throughout the province, as communities sprawl outwards, farmland is being increasingly purchased for current and future residential use,” she says. “This drives up the price and places land ownership out of reach for many farmers, myself included. I would also add that broadly, land almost anywhere in Ontario is unaffordable for farmers, but specifically for new, young Black, Indigenous or racialized farmers.”

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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

Spiking land prices create a constant seller’s market in which farmers of colour just cannot compete. Unsurprisingly, ageing farmers willing to sell want the best price possible for their land, while others bequeath it to family when they retire or pass away. This all leaves racialized farmers locked out of the land ownership discussion on multiple fronts. 

Finding affordable land meant a big move for Shini Ko, owner of Bao Bao Farm. 

Before the pandemic, she was a passionate balcony gardener in Toronto, eager to grow more of the Asian produce she grew up eating as a child of Chinese immigrants living in Japan. “I was specifically learning about growing Asian leafy greens,” she says. “I found certain types really hard to get in Toronto, especially organic, locally grown ones. That’s when the seed was planted. I thought it would be really cool to not only grow them for myself, but for other Asian folks and people.” 

Hans watering tomato seedlings and a mixed herb tray with Thai basil, holy Basil, sweet Basil, Chinese garlic chives and lemon grass at their Ontario farm.
Thai basil, holy basil, sweet basil, Chinese garlic chives and lemongrass are among the crops at Paper Kite Farms. “We did want to grow things that were more unique to our heritage,” Hans Ning says. Photo: Wynne Neilly / The Narwhal

When both she and her partner began working remotely, Ko realized they didn’t have to live in the city anymore. But even after branching out of the Greater Toronto Area into central southern Ontario, they couldn’t find arable land they could afford. Ottawa appealed because the couple had lived there before and in 2021, they purchased a house on about 10 acres roughly an hour southwest of the capital near Perth, which has a population of less than 7,000. 

Ko began researching and got to work on a quarter of an acre, while keeping her day job as a software developer — without which Bao Bao would not exist. She sells produce at the Perth Farmers’ Market, where she is also a recent addition to the board. 

“Especially because the demographics here are largely white, it’s interesting,” she says. “A lot of people are curious … so I do get a lot of questions about how to cook the vegetables and what they are at the Perth market.” She’s looking forward to selling at the Parkdale Public Market in Ottawa this year, to see how city dwellers react.

Akos Asari started re:Planted Farm & Florals in Deep River, Ont. in 2021,
“I wanted to grow things that were different from the grocery store,” Akos Asare says of starting re:Planted Farm & Florals. “Take carrots, there are so many more varieties that we never see at the store. I wanted to focus on the things that everyone knows, but offer something new.” Photo: supplied by Akos Asare

Uprooting an urban life for one in a rural or smalltown setting is not a decision any person of colour takes lightly. Culture shock is a given, and it goes both ways. There’s a fine line between honest curiosity about the unfamiliar and snide ignorance about change you can’t control. For Asare in Deep River, the anticipated shock gave way to a pleasant surprise. Thanks to the presence of one of the country’s largest nuclear research facilities, the population is more diverse than she expected. “Deep River once had the highest concentration of PhDs in Canada,” Asare says. “People have travelled, they are not as narrow minded.” 

Even though farming wasn’t part of the plan when the family moved, finding a home was still a challenge. “All the rental properties were just so expensive that it was actually cheaper to get our own home,” Asare says. “We were extremely fortunate because the house we bought wasn’t even in our budget. It had been on the market for so long that the owner was willing to negotiate.” 

They moved into a house on a 1,400-square-foot corner lot in August 2019. A year later, as the pandemic unfolded, housing prices shot up. “We would have never been able to purchase a house had we waited. So it was very, very timely, although we didn’t know it.” As Asare’s farm business has grown, she has expanded into her neighbour’s front lawns in order to grow even more flowers, vegetables and herbs. 

The family has a market stand on their property every Friday. “Re:Planted has become something worth investing in, so now we’re putting in permanent infrastructure like hoophouses, walk-in coolers, rainwater collection systems and a dedicated workshop space. It’s become full time. More than full time,” Asare says.

BIPOC farmers in smalltown Ontario are connecting food with community

Before I visited Paper Kite Farm, it was hard to envision what a quarter of an acre of farmed land looks like. Turning into the driveway, I was struck by how much was already growing in mid-May. They may be a small, two-person operation, but the amount of food Judy and Hans are able to grow on a quarter of an acre is abundant. Seedlings of a variety of heights and shades of green stand heartily in rows of overturned earth. Chickens roam freely in their compound. The Food Forest — a delightful grid of selective plantings intended to mimic nature and produce enough food to feed their family — is in its early stages. 

“We figured we might as well make it pretty,” Judy says as we tour the paths. The potential is palpable, but it didn’t start this way. 

“There were things growing on the land, grasses and weeds, so we knew things could survive,” Judy says. But it was all a big risk. The couple studied sustainable farming techniques and read about what could grow and thrive in the climate, and tried to match that up with their desired crops. They now use a method called bio-char, where charcoal from burned wood harvested from their land is used as a sustainable soil cleanser and fertilizer. 

Hans and Judy grinding charcoal to add to their soil at Paper Kite Farm in Ontario's Prince Edward County.
Judy and Hans Ning studied sustainable techniques when they started their farm. They use a method called bio-char, where charcoal from burned wood harvested from their land is used as a sustainable soil cleanser and fertilizer. Photo: Wynne Neilly / The Narwhal

“We did want to grow things that were more unique to our heritage,” Hans says. “Instead of growing just regular cabbages, which we do grow, we also grow Napa cabbages. Instead of regular corn and pole beans, we grow a kind of sticky corn that Asians really love and yard long beans; stuff our parents grew up eating. We wanted to learn how to appreciate those types of things as well and to share that culture.”

Becoming part of the community has had its ups and downs. All are Welcome Here is a BIPOC-led local organization that supports diversity in Prince Edward County and offers workshops for locals and established farmers to learn about anti-racism and intersectionality. Judy volunteers and reports that the meetings are “truly wonderful. People are eager to learn and feel comfortable asking questions.” 

The county is changing as more people of colour from urban centres move in, bringing their familiarity not only with Asian people, but the produce Paper Kite is selling. “The folks that have lived in cities are familiar with something like bok choy, but there are people who have never been exposed to that … we had someone comment that the ‘lettuce’ we gave them was amazing! It can be fun to teach folks what the vegetable is and how to use it.” 

There are an increasing number of people and organizations taking up the challenge of anti-racism work within Canada’s agricultural communities. Fraser, of Little Bug Farm, is eager to pass experience and knowledge on, as was done for her in Sundance’s mentorship program. 

“I’m really grateful for Growing in the Margins for giving me my start in agriculture,” she says. “There are so few opportunities for young Black farmers to learn about agriculture in spaces where we feel safe and fully accepted. That’s what [Growing in the Margins] offered to me and, without it, I’m not sure if I would be a farmer.” In the past few years, she has led workshops and panels for the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario and the National Farmers Union. 

In December 2020, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario founded the BIPOC Farmers Network to support farmers of colour. The network has about 140 members, including Paper Kite Farm and re:Planted, and helps farmers build ongoing relationships between events and meetings. It’s something the Nings appreciated as farm life got busier and they felt overwhelmed. 

“We didn’t really know how important it was for us to be part of this until afterwards,” Judy explains. “We realized, ‘Oh, it feels so satisfying to work towards a common goal with people who look like me.’ It felt really good to have that.” To pay it forward, she has helped local BIPOC farmers with advice and shared what resources she can.

Judy and Hans weeding around ginger root at Paper Kite Farm in Ontario's Prince Edward County.
In December 2020, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario founded the BIPOC Farmers Network. It has about 140 members, including Paper Kite Farm and re:Planted. Photo: Wynne Neilly / The Narwhal

Right now, Paper Kite has multiple income sources, including Judy’s part-time job, selling at the farmers’ market, an on-site farmstand and their Community Supported Agriculture program. But things are still precarious. “There are weeks where we’re like, we can’t even eat this, we’ve got to sell it,” Judy says. “And spring brought all of the failures with the snowmelt and seeing our inexperience, which can be daunting and demoralizing.” But they have an inkling of what success could look like. “In the ideal world, we would be self-sustaining and be able to continue to share food with the community and talk about our heritage,” Judy says. 

Sharing food is intimate, communal. But the way our food is grown, why it’s grown and by whom can feel like the opposite: inaccessible, lonely. What the Nings, Asares, Ko and Fraser are doing is somewhat revolutionary. Real change cannot happen without continued effort in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These obstacles look and feel different for marginalized people, but the work must get done. 

“It does feel like important work that we’re doing,” Judy says. “The BIPOC community here is very small. I do feel responsible for shouldering some of that representation in this area. The only way I know how to protest is by taking up space and feeling empowered by that. And I want our kids to learn that, too.” 

Updated on June 9, 2023, at 10:16 a.m. EST: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Akos Asare’s surname.

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