Rural racism: A closed door

With issues of racism and race inequality being discussed like never before, David Jesudason hears why agriculture is still a closed shop for people of colour.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has had far-reaching repercussions and will continue to do so. In the UK, it has led to a growing awareness that ingrained racism means people of colour are discriminated against on a daily basis, across every sector. Like many others, farming has a job to do to turn this around.  

The NFU says it does not keep figures of members’ ethnicity, but with only about one per cent in the agriculture sector being non-white the figures could not be clearer. It’s no surprise, then, that tracking down any non-white farmers to interview for this article was difficult. The two farmers and one farm vet I did speak to are outliers; here they tell their own stories.

More than two decades ago, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones bought a farm in Devon after a successful TV career. 15 years’ ago, he was quoted as saying that it would be a travesty if he still was the only black farmer in 10 years’ time.

Wilfred Emmanuel Jones
Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones ran a scholarship scheme aimed at encouraging more black young people to become farmers, which was featured in a Channel 4 documentary in 2006.

“The biggest challenge that we have is everyone knows that there is an issue of bringing diversity into whole sections of society, especially in rural Britain. But there’s a lot of people who talk about it but don’t actually then do anything about it.

“I would be challenging these organisations [who own land] and saying, ‘out of all the percentage of the land that you have available, how much of that are you setting aside for people from diverse communities?’

“Anything rural – anything from the countryside – they’ve managed to hide under the radar of this diversity debate. It’s usually seen as an urban problem and the time has now arisen where those organisations that represent rural Britain need to be challenged and asked: ‘what are you doing for diversity?’

“When I go to some of these big [food] companies it’s like going into a white enclave, you know, you think how in God’s name can you be in a city that is so diverse and then you go into the nearest rural area where you do not spot a black person. And if there is a black person, that’ll be the cleaner or the security guard.

“People talk diversity, but they don’t act diversity. Nobody is challenging the status quo. They should have a Farming Month where it’s mandatory that every child goes and spends time at a farm.”

Navaratnam Partheeban is one of the few non-white farm vets in the country and is founder of the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society. He says only one per cent of farm vets are from an ethnic minority, while 3.5 per cent of all vets are non-white

Navaratnam Patheeban
Navaratnam Partheeban is one of the UK’s few non white vets. 

“Being a vet is the whitest profession in the country. You go to a conference and you can be the only person of colour there. I worked in Wales for a while as a farm vet and the only person of colour I ever saw was in the Chinese or Indian takeaway.

“At school, no one promotes agriculture to ethnic minorities or even gives it consideration. There’s nothing to say that this is a career for you. But what you’re finding is the younger generation [of family farmers] don’t want to farm. They want to do something else, and then they’ll think ‘where are we going to recruit students from?’

Racist hate mail
He received racist hate mail after highlighting the issue of racism in farming.

David Mwanaka is a Zimbabwe-born white maize farmer who has spent most of his life in the UK and is now a tenant farmer in Enfield, north London.

David Mwanaka
David Mwanaka is a tenant farmer. 

“About 12 years ago I was renting a field in Leicestershire and the residents saw me working in the field and they just assumed I was stealing corn so they called the police. If I was in the town of Leicester – that’s okay, no problem, nobody will call the police, but because I was somewhere where they never thought that a black person’s supposed to be, they thought I must be stealing corn. This has happened every year since. Someone says ‘Oh, I’m going to call the police, I know what you’re doing you’re stealing.’ I just ignore it.

“Even last week, someone was trespassing. They see you, they just think you’re an employee of the farmer or they just don’t respect you – they walk past you. You also greet them, they don’t greet you, they don’t answer you back, they just walk past you as if there was no one there.

“In this country there are nationals from nearly all the countries in the world, but then they have to rely on importing the food that they grew up eating, when there’s an opportunity that they could grow quite a lot of that food. Like in my case, white maize is so unique. You can import it but then it quickly loses its sugar content so by the time it gets here it’ll be almost a lump of starch.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has created a rare situation where the issue of racism has a wider and more sympathetic audience than normal, and empty promises are being rejected.

For real diversity to occur, the experiences and recommendations of those who have experienced racism, like those of David, Wilfred and Navaratnam, need to form the foundation of real change.


Leave a Reply

  1. We have to start to learn from farmers everywhere and respect them. Farming is never easy or predictable and many other places in the world have greater respect for the well-being of the land and its custodians. So sad to see stupid racism from ignorant and biased people.

  2. I thought about the letter the vet received and thought the ignorant person didn’t know that a black lady of the Roman Period dressed in finery was found in London in 1901 and recently looked at again. The Roman army was all races and creeds and doubtless some stayed after the exit. There are several pictures of black people in pictures from the Middle Ages as well.
    The concept of being British or English is just what it is an idea not a race as far I as see. I have looked at my own DNA and my genes come from all over the place just like everybody elses.

  3. Near Riverford is also Kumar, the ex sheep farmer! “After years questioning his choice to rear sheep for meat, he decided to give up sheep farming and donated 20 lambs to Goodheart Animal Sanctuary in Kidderminster. He sells vegan masala dosa, tomato chutney and dhal in Totnes, and wants to set up a horticultural enterprise growing vegetables for his street markets”.

    As we tackle racism, can we also look at the customs that make us value and protect the lives of dogs, but not those of cows or sheep – customs that have a huge impact on the climate and biodiversity crises?

  4. There is heartening news on this front. The Royal Veterinary College delivers a range of activities designed to increase the knowledge, access and qualification success of pupils from different ethnic background (BAME) e.g. sending their BAME students as student ambassadors into primary schools to excite and enthuse pupils as vets often make career decisions very early. Much of their widening participation work is targeted at inner city schools with significa`nt numbers of BAME pupils. Also among their widening participation activities through work with BAME focus groups, building on their work with the BAME is their ‘Prepare to Succeed’ programme – co-developed with their BAME students and led by different students throughout the past three years. The RCV has seen a rise from 7.23 to 10.63% BAME students entering the college during this period. The College’s widening participation work also targets white working class boys, females, young people who are or have been in local authority care, and adult learners. I just wanted to point out that colleges and universities are spending a lot of effective time and resource addressing these inequalities – though clearly there is a long way to go.


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