Come for the Food, Stay for the People

Originally published on Farmwork to Feed Canada's website. A piece by Andrea Wong.

Rural Development Network Helps Ukrainian Immigrants Grow Traditional Food Business

Welcome to Altario—a hamlet in east-central Alberta known for its farming roots and friendly residents. While Altario may not draw the same attraction as a large city, the community has found new opportunities by welcoming and supporting immigrants.

Altario has given one culinary trio of newcomer women the perfect start for their catering business. With ample community support and flavours from their native homeland Ukraine, they are setting the example for rural areas and newcomers to work together in helping communities grow.

Filling in the gaps

According to Foreign Workers Canada, almost 70 per cent of Canadians live in cities, and many rural areas are  experiencing a decline in their population. Promoting immigration to rural areas presents a viable solution for changing this trend.

Living in a rural area comes with its challenges such as employment and labour shortages. During the early 2000s, agriculture and oil businesses in Alberta were in tight competition for workers. That’s when Altario farm owners Jinel Ference and her husband Craig decided to look outside of Canada. Over the years they’ve employed several workers from places all over the world, including Ireland, South Africa and Ukraine.

Bringing in foreign workers along with their families has helped to bridge another gap in Altario. Their local school had concerns over their dwindling numbers, but as more newcomers began to fill farm jobs, their children filled their classrooms.

“Our community has grown, and it’s wonderful,” Ference says. “To drive through a town that used to seem so quiet, and now is just bustling with child energy is just awesome.”

Rural Development Network helps support rural food business start-up

While the men had work on the farm, their wives mostly stayed home because there were no jobs for them. This was the case for Nataliia Mantsybora, who immigrated with her husband from Ukraine eight years ago. Wondering what she could do at home, she considered creating a food business.

“I decided that it would not be bad to introduce local residents to Ukrainian national cuisine,” she says. “But then I did not have free time because of small children, and most importantly, a reliable person and like-minded person with whom I could start.”

Mantsybora eventually found her partners in fellow-Ukraine immigrants Iryna Mazur and Tania Shkolnik. All three women had grown up with a love for traditional cooking, so the next step was to make their hobby into a business. The first person they shared their idea with was Ference who encouraged them to go forward.

“I was just really proud of them that they were going to take a leap of faith and try this business,” Ference says. “There’s not a ton of employment opportunities right in Altario. You kind of have to get creative, so I was very glad that they took that initiative.”

Their business became official at the end of October and was aptly named “Smachno,” which means delicious in Ukrainian. Mantsybora says after their first few sales, she and the women were worried because they weren’t sure how customers would respond. By December, however, they were receiving several orders and had even expanded their customer base to the city.

“It’s all authentic and handmade, so it feels like a real treat to go and pick up something from their kitchens,” Ference says. “We’re very lucky to be able to share their culture.”

Giving people a reason to stay

In addition to the popularity of their food, Smachno has largely been a success thanks to the overwhelming support of the community.

Previously, when Altario brought families over, they would often only stay for a couple of years before moving to the city.

The principal of Altario School had been looking at how to encourage newcomers to stay, so he brought in help from the Rural Development Network (RDN), a non-profit that works to empower and support rural communities.

During consultations with the community, they discussed what they wanted to see for the future and how they could support entrepreneurship in the region.

Jayde Roche, program manager for RDN’s Rural Immigration Initiative, says the goal was to help the community understand the issues they faced in order to take steps to address them.

“We were hearing about people having to drive thirty minutes away to work a minimum wage job,” Roche says. “Lack of employment or economic opportunities is a factor in people choosing to leave. So I think for the community, they looked at how can they can really support these women because having them within their community is benefiting everyone.”

One answer came up when the women were looking for a garden plot. Through access to the community garden that is shared with Altario School and local residents, the women were able to grow their own food, some of which is used in their dishes.

For the most part though, the community has actively supported their business by buying their products, promoting Smachno on social media and offering encouragement.

“It’s really been the community coming together that has sparked all this momentum and the businesses,” Roche says.

Upcoming changes foresee vast business potential

After getting a sense of the local needs and dynamics, RDN’s partnership with Altario is now moving onto the next phase, which is implementing changes to support local agri-food businesses.

The current plan is to develop a section of the school building where community members can come together, celebrate food and offer entrepreneurship opportunities.

For the women at Smachno, these future plans include fundraising for a commercial kitchen, which Mantsybora says will help with production and expand their circle of customers. They have big dreams, and their hope is to share them with the community.

“The next step is to open a small, cozy cafe where people could not only come to eat and relax, but also temporarily plunge into a different atmosphere—the atmosphere of Ukraine.”

Setting an example for other rural communities

Since RDN began working with Altario and the women of Smachno, excitement has spread throughout the community. More small entrepreneurs have popped up in the area, sparking ideas such as bakeries and gas stations.

Looking at the success of Smachno, Roche adds that what is happening in Altario can be used as a potential model for other rural regions looking to attract and partner with newcomers.

For Ference, who has supported the women since day one, it all comes down to the willingness to help someone.

“I always am appreciative of living in our rural community because everyone is supportive and you have very good hearted people. One of the great things about this project for the Smachno ladies is that they’re infiltrating the community that much more … through customers and friendships and people being excited to taste what they produce.

A lot of times people just need some encouragement and some support. It goes a long way.”

Q&A with the women of Smachno

What kind of work did you do before moving to Canada?

Iryna: I worked in the Department of Education in our region, my specialty was as a Ukrainian language arts teacher.

Nataliia: In my homeland in Ukraine, I received a higher education as a lawyer. But fate decreed that for seven years, I worked in a bank as a loan specialist.

Tania: Before I went on maternity leave my work has always been associated with oil production. From engineer to auditor of international quality, labor protection and ecology standards in our company.

Where did you learn to cook?

Nataliia: From the age of six to seven, I began to be interested in cooking. Every school vacation that I spent with my grandmother in the village, we cooked with her.

Tania: The ability to cook is instilled in us from birth. I looked at my mother, grandmother; now my children are looking at me … This is how knowledge is passed from generation to generation. The main thing is that you need to do it with joy, then people will always like your food.

How have people in Altario helped you feel welcome?

Tania: People who I met were very friendly. Especially this is true of Altario school teachers. They made everything what they can so that my children feel comfortable in new atmosphere.

Iryna: It’s a very small town but the people here are very friendly and polite. Our family always feels the support and help from our employers, the Ference family. I got lucky to meet amazing new people that soon became my friends.

How has the community helped your business?

Nataliia: First of all, we would like to thank Jinel Ferencé and Altario School principal Kevin Van Legan for their help, support and advice, and for spreading the word about us. Also, thanks to everyone who is interested in our products—for the words of gratitude and support, and for the feedback from our customers. There would be no you (our customers). There would be no us.

What advice do you have for other people who move to Canada and want to start a business?

Tania: Believe in yourself and go for your dreams.

Iryna: For everyone who moved to a small town, I recommend being very active, hardworking, and look for new possibilities! I think having a local business is a perfect chance to change your life for the better.

Nataliia: Don’t be afraid and try to open your own small business. If you can benefit society, do it. If you lack confidence, seek support and like-minded people and do it together. Of course there will be difficulties, but with a little patience, everything will work out.

About Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC)

A national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.


Julia Juco