Indigenous communities eye opportunities in agriculture

Farming has largely become a lost skill but there’s a keen interest in both production and value adding

Indigenous farming has a rich, although largely lost, history but many communities want to make ag part of their future, said Shaun Soonias, director of Indigenous relations for Farm Credit Canada.

Costly land. Labour shortages. Knowledge gaps. Expensive equipment.

New farmers in Canada face plenty of hurdles — but for a growing number of Indigenous producers, those barriers are even bigger.

“We see a tremendous amount of interest in all forms of agriculture,” said Shaun Soonias, director of Indigenous relations for Farm Credit Canada.

“But a lot of our communities are in a situation where they’ve been a couple of generations removed from agriculture, so they’ve got to recapture and reconstruct some of their skill sets.

“We’ve got our work ahead of us to address some of these things.”

Last fall, FCC consulted with Indigenous communities and producers across the country to learn the opportunities and challenges facing them, Soonias said during a webinar earlier this year.

The good news is there’s lots of opportunity.

“What we’re seeing is folks really want to increase their participation,” he said. “Lots of communities are really starting to turn their lens around how their economic development organizations or individual members can benefit from agriculture.”

Right now, Indigenous ag is often centred on gardening, greenhouses, and production of Indigenous foods. But all parts of the sectors — “from food processing, livestock, aquaculture, non-timber forest products, and things of that nature” — hold potential, he said.

But however they go about it, they’re mainly focused on food security and sovereignty to ensure the “well-being of the community first, before financial well-being.”

“For 99 per cent of people, this is the top concern,” said Soonias, a member of the Red Pheasant First Nation near Battleford, Sask. “Unlike traditional agricultural businesses, our communities are structured around generational planning, making sure our communities are providing for all of our community.”

Agriculture is also a way to create jobs, involve young people, integrate traditional knowledge and support the well-being of the community.

“All of these areas are very important to our communities,” said Soonias, adding some are starting to look at vertical integration.

“How do we take our primary production and process it, package it, and brand it into something a little different? There’s lots of interesting things we’ll see coming out of this.”

Indigenous producers face the same challenges all new farmers do — access to capital, labour, land and equipment.

Those barriers are compounded by Indigenous people being forced off the land for so long.

“Indigenous folks are hungry for information,” said Soonias. “They know that they’re coming from a position of, even 50 years ago, not being able to get off the reserve or open a business.

“We know a lot of that knowledge and business acumen have been lost in our community, so there’s a great interest in recapturing that information.”

That’s why the focus is on training young people, he added.

“Lots of our communities have been out of ag for so long that the people who know how to farm are 80 or 90 years old. They’re not getting in a combine any time soon,” he said.

“So it’s no surprise that young people are a big component of our communities. We’re really concerned about their well-being, and we want to find ways to train them in these emerging opportunities.”

That includes formal education, but training that includes cultural knowledge delivered by Indigenous experts. That can be hard to find, he said.

“People are trying to figure out ways to incorporate our elders’ knowledge and our traditional knowledge of the land,” said Soonias. “We see the incorporation of traditional agriculture into Indigenous farming practices is very important.”

Despite the challenges, most of these producers plan to expand their efforts — purchasing land, improving equipment, increasing herds, taking training, and building value-added businesses.

“When it comes to opportunities in ag, everyone is going to face the same issues, and our Indigenous folks are going to have some other ones,” said Soonias. “But certainly it’s not unobtainable. It’s critical to our success.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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