Interview with Shaun Soonias, Director of Indigenous Relations, Farm Credit Canada
May 7, 2020
By Heather Exner-Pirot
People often equate agriculture with grain farming. What are some aspects of the industry that we don’t always think about?
People are familiar with what we call primary production, especially grains and lentils. The things we can see growing in the fields when we drive down the highway. But primary production also includes things like vineyards, marijuana, timber, and aquaculture such as inland fish, mussels and scallop farms.
But there’s a whole other sector that takes those raw products from the farm and brings it to grocery shelves. The value-add side that translates raw products into finished products. And at Farm Credit Canada we work all along the agriculture value chain.
On one side, we provide producers with the goods and services they need to be successful. That includes the equipment manufacturers, crop input dealers, livestock trucking, etc. We serve them through contractual relationships with agriculture retailers and equipment dealers. That’s our FCC Alliances business line and it makes up just under 6% of our total portfolio.
There are 1,800 Alliance partners across Canada who handle FCC financing. That means customers don’t have to go into an FCC office to secure financing. It’s a great benefit of one-stop shopping: to be able to purchase these goods and finance them, all in the same place.
It also exposes us to a huge number of producers that might not otherwise consider us for a loan and it creates great new leads for us. In fact, thousands of FCC customers had their first interaction with us through an Alliance offer and have since gone on to do other business with us.
On the other side, we expand options for producers to market their product. Those are the processors, manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors who sell to, buy from, or otherwise serve primary producers. We deal with these customers through our Agribusiness and Agri-Food line, which make up about 14% of our portfolio. We look for ways to partner with our customers, whether they’re looking to minimize operating costs, diversify assets or expand their business.
At the end of the day, primary producers are the glue that holds everything together; 86% of our business is with primary producers in the livestock and food production industry.
How did you personally come to be interested in the agricultural industry?
For me it was a bit of a transition – I spent the first 20 years of my career in social development, working with communities around justice, education, child welfare. But I did a 180° in my career 5 years ago. I found it easier to have conversations about how to grow a business than about how to address the needs of the most vulnerable. Doing business reduces barriers and lends itself to discussions and collaboration amongst diverse groups. Of course the social development side is worthwhile and I’m passionate about it, but I felt I could move the needle more in economic development.
When I was the Executive Director at the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network, we started to see a lot of interest in agriculture. Really it was just shifting our eyes back to agriculture, and it was a long time coming. The TLEs (Treaty Land Entitlement claims), the Cows and Ploughs claims, and the fact that those lands were primarily agricultural, have helped lead to this.
Agriculture is a primary opportunity for Indigenous communities as they continue to add more land and gain progressively higher levels of business acumen. More First Nations have sophisticated business plans and diverse holdings, but the blind spot is still agriculture for a lot of communities. For FCC and Canada, one of the greatest opportunities we have today is to nurture their lands and aspirations and help them move away from just land leasing.
What are some of the main challenges to greater involvement in the agriculture industry by Indigenous people?
Challenges facing First Nations in the agriculture sector include access to capital, land issues and lack of specialized expertise. Some federal legislation has prevented economic development in our communities because of the inability to use the land as security to access loans. So we are land rich, but unlike fee simple land holders, reserve lands aren’t leverageable. If we could leverage them we could access a lot more capital to advance business opportunities.
In addition, a lot of our communities need to focus on relationship building, and developing a stronger network with the agricultural sector and financial institutions, and places where they gain mentorship and access to opportunities. We aren’t usually aware of the range of programs available. In my past experience of working with communities and trying to access funds, it can be a complex process. Different ministries have different timelines, expectations, and requirements. Crown corporations need to be mindful of making the pathways to success easy to navigate. Different federal and provincial agencies need to align their resources, and work on addressing specific needs, such as mentorship and support in GIS, soil testing, and reclamation.
We also need to develop our own business skills and experience in the agricultural economy. We have missed a few generations of folks in farming. Some of our elders still have that experience but they aren’t going to get back in the fields.
But there are a lot of positives. There are niche markets for Indigenous plants, products and knowledge; the untapped potential of land resources currently being leased to non-First Nation farmers; a growing land base as a result of treaties; and a large, young population interested in seizing economic development opportunities.
What progress do you think has been made in Indigenous agriculture in the past five years and what do you think will be the next areas of growth?
What I’m seeing in our communities is that some bands are starting to claw back their leases. In the past, those that had arable land would lease them to their neighbours to develop cash flow. But more are trying to coordinate efforts to farm hundreds of acres, moving towards thousands of acres.
Nations are also building business acumen in other areas, such as casinos, gas stations and construction, and are now turning their eyes back to the land, and applying traditional values back to the stewardship and caring for the land. Not everyone is interested in a bumper crop every year. They prefer to make sure the land can produce for the next seven generations. It’s long term thinking – acting as stewards to continue to support the community for generations to come.
Despite all of our challenges, we have made significant inroads in the past few years. The last census showed a growth in Aboriginal agricultural operators between 2011 to 2016 by almost 54%. By contrast, the total number of agricultural operators declined by about 30% over the same timeframe. So there is a movement back to agriculture on the Indigenous side. Among the factors that have contributed to this increase is that Aboriginal people represent one of the youngest and fastest-growing segments of Canada’s population, and many of them are choosing careers in agriculture.
What do you hope to accomplish as Director of Indigenous Relations at FCC?
My overall goal is to help First Nations move from lessors to leaders in agriculture. From an institutional perspective, I want to help build FCC into the lender of choice for Indigenous agriculture projects and to be the employer of choice for Indigenous job seekers.
There have historically been strong contributions by Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas in the agriculture sector. We created some of the most advanced agricultural systems in the world, and we still benefit from those crops. Tomatoes, peppers, tobacco, potatoes, corn, beans; these staple crops have had huge impacts on our culinary exposure across the globe. A pizza wouldn’t be a pizza without tomato sauce. Curries wouldn’t be curries without peppers.
Land is one of the most valuable assets in any farming operation. If we as Indigenous communities can’t use our land to get a loan, it puts us in a difficult position. That’s what we are trying to address, and we are well on our way to that.
FCC sees Indigenous producers as representing one of our largest growth areas. Better Indigenous engagement in agriculture will help us improve Canada’s economy, food security and sovereignty, reconciliation efforts, and employment equity. That’s where we are focused.