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March/April 2005 – Of Hunches and Numbers

When it comes to identifying trends, I’ll always take a good hunch over the most rigorously argued, statistically supported predictions. Statistics tell you how many chickens the coyote killed last night; a hunch tows you out of bed and sends you sharking around the dark with a flashlight and pitchfork.

So when reports for StatsCan and other agencies indicate that the number of women active in farming has been holding steady at about 26 percent since 1991, suggesting that women have no more or less effect on agriculture, I have to wonder. Are women more engaged in self-sufficiency agriculture, which, as a feature in the last issue of this magazine showed, does not even count as farming in much of Canada? How is it that what I see and hear—that women are a rising and potent force in farming—is so divergent from the numbers?

According to StatsCan’s 2001 Census, there were 91,180 female farm operators in Canada (of a total of 346,200 farm operators). Most of these women worked alongside male partners on family farms. As for farms operated exclusively by females, the numbers increased during 1991-2002 from 3.9 percent to 5 percent of all farms (or about 13,000 farms). No matter how you read those numbers, they don’t argue for a stunning trend.

Yet there is evidence—a lot of it in a colossally wobbly pile at my side as I write—to the contrary. Women are approaching agriculture with open minds, vigour and (I hestitate to use the word because it is so unbusinesslike. . . ) joy, that many men seem loath to show.

Among my papers are numerous letters and emails, usually from women new to country life, requesting that Small Farm Canada provide information on the simplest of farm activities: buying poulty, stacking bales, or weeding. Some of these requests sound like straight lines for farmer’s daughter kind of jokes. My point is not to emphasize the writers’ lack of knowledge but rather to commend their unself-conscious enthusiasm and sense of possibility.

And what’s going on with the lock female farmers have on innovation and awards? The latest example, which I’m looking at in a recent issue of The Western Producer, is about Alberta small farmer Tam Anderson, who just won a direct marketing award. Apparently nuclear-powered, Anderson’s 25-acre farm/greenhouse operation attracts 20,000 visitors per year, has busloads of people disgorging every week spring, summer and fall to buy bedding plants, slurp fresh strawberries or launch pumpkins from a cannon at a pirate ship—all the while happily shedding dollars like autumn leaves. Her secret? To attend as many conferences and short courses as possible, and to keep the ideas flowing as readily as the irrigation pipes. A “lifelong learner” she calls herself. I know of several curmudgeonly male farmers who would sooner shoot a phrase like that than say it.

The manuscripts I receive, by a ratio of 2-1 are written by women. Increasingly the discourse about agriculture is being determined by female small farmers/advocates like Canadian Organic Grower editor Janet Wallace and the National Farmers Union’s Ann Slater (both of whom appear, ahem, in the pages of Small Farm Canada). You don’t need a degree in public relations to know that she who tells the stories sets the agenda.