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Breaking through the grass ceiling

Women are changing the face of farming



From July/August 2014

Amy Smith knows what it’s like to stand out in a crowd of men. Despite being part of a welcoming farm community in Prince Edward Island where she and her partner Verena Varga have run Heart Beet Organics, a one-acre biodynamic diversified vegetable farm, since 2010, she says that she once felt “less than welcome” at some of the larger farm and tractor auctions “where you can count on one hand the number of women.” And those there are the wives.

But she isn’t a farmer’s wife or a daughter: she’s a farmer. And along with women from coast to coast, she’s breaking through the “grass ceiling,” changing the face of Canada’s agricultural landscape.

Women have always made a critical contribution to the farm, but traditionally a supporting one, largely from the kitchen, the milk house, the vegetable garden and the chicken coop, leaving the “real” business of field work and farming to the men.

Not anymore.

Today in the same way they’re entering male-dominated professions and becoming engineers, pilots and mechanics, more and more women (almost 30 per cent according to recent statistics) are now the primary farmer — running CSAs, custom grazing cattle, making cheese, growing hogs. They farm on their own or with partners, male or female, who may work in the field or off the farm.

“What’s different now is women are allowed to believe that they can be farmers,” says Christie Young, executive director of Guelph, Ontario-based FarmStart.? “Before, if they wanted to be part of a farm they had to marry a farmer.”

A growing number of young people, new Canadians and second-career farmers of both genders are heeding the call to farm, bringing with them urban upbringings, university degrees, business smarts and hands-on learning from apprenticeships.

And while women are actively involved in all scales and sectors of agriculture, there’s an explosion of female farmers starting small-scale organic or ecologically-minded farms where there is less emphasis on big equipment and mechanized production, and more focus on connecting with the land, their customers and each other, through CSAs and farmers markets that favour collaboration over competition.

“Women are good farmers because the new business models allow them to succeed in the new marketplaces,” says Young. “If you wanted to be a woman in a cow-calf operation, you would go to the barn with these big, tough men and you would have to act like them to succeed in the auctions.

And women did in the past . . . but the culture didn’t really change. They were just able to cut it. But I think the culture is now changing which is allowing women to succeed with their [own] skills, rather than having to act like men. They can farm like they want to farm.”

Their reasons for going to the land are as diverse as the enterprises themselves, with women seeing farming as both a mission and a passion.

“It’s not just the physical aspect, but the immediate gratification of going to market and selling the produce you’ve cultivated to customers who are so appreciative of your hard work and labour,” says Smith, 41.

Julia Grace, 63, of Moonstruck Organic Cheese on Salt Spring Island, B.C., who produces between 10,000 and 12,000 kilos of artisan cheese with her partner Susan and a herd of 20 Jersey cows, got into farming because she loves food and where it comes from. “I moved from gardening to farming because I loved being in that chain. I always wanted to take what I grew into the kitchen so I could cook it. When milk came along it was another ingredient.”

For some it’s political. “There are a lot of women who just want to take the bull by the horns and get going,” says Sue Earle, 55, of Duck Creek Farm, a market garden farm in Salt Spring, B.C. “Political action is far too frustrating. There isn’t really enough going on that’s putting food on the table for their families the way they want it to be, so they’re doing it themselves.”

For others it’s a spiritual calling, a means of connecting with the earth. “Most of the seed keepers and seed sellers that are in business out here [on Salt Spring Island] are women,” says Marsha Goldberg, 60, of Eagleridge Seeds, producer of endangered heirloom seeds since 1995. “As more and more women flood the fields with their love and commitment that is how we change the world.”

But do women farm differently than men? A touchy subject, to be sure. Gendered stereotypes label women as nurturers, while men are more drawn to machinery and mechanization. (But we all know compassionate male livestock farmers and women who love their tractors.) Still anecdotes suggest, as an example, that women do have a natural connection with livestock.

Susan Winter, 62, a custom grazier for 400 cattle that run over 3,500 acres in Kirkfield, Ontario, has a soft spot for her “crazy stockers.” Despite their acting like “12-year-old boys let loose on 1,000 acres with a case of whiskey” she spends a lot of time with the herd, even telling them they’re handsome, to the point she can bring in 100 on her own. “They’ll come with me because I truly love them,” says the sole proprietor of Carden Angus Beef. “And that sounds crazy but I do.” But she has her eye on the bottom line: calm cattle gain better and stay healthier. “I have a mandate to give back a healthy bunch that is a little bit quieter.”

And Tarrah Young, 37, of Green Being Farm in Neustadt, Ont., knows she has a knack for observing behaviours and identifying sick animals. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or not, but I can do that really well.”

While gender-driven discrimination is less prevalent today, especially in sustainable and organic agriculture systems (though most women farmers still get mistaken for the farmer’s wife), it hasn’t always been this way.

When Karen Davidge, 65, of Good Spring Farm in Keswick Ridge, N.B., started at the Fredericton Boyce Farmer’s market 34 years ago, not only was she one of few women but she was selling vegetables and small fruits — organic ones — at a time when chemical agriculture was king. “Local, and especially organic, wasn’t what it is today,” she says. “You were crazy. I was crazier because I was a woman farmer.” That said, she adds:? “I can’t say I ever felt disrespected though. It was always because of the organic part; that opened the conversation up to jokes.”

It’s clear the face of small farming has changed dramatically in the last decade. “Now it’s more about what you do rather than who you are,” says Grace, noting that she and her same-sex partner feel more accepted since buying their farm in 1992. “In the early days what we were doing [artisanal cheesemaking] was unusual. We’re so much more known and part of the island community now.”

But while women are making inroads in the fields and the barn, patriarchy remains at an industry and farm organization level, although this too is slowly changing.? “I think the establishment still exists,” says Joan Brady, a farmer and Women’s President of the National Farmers Union. “The only reason [the NFU] is different is because we included a space for women in our bylaws. We have a good balance of women leaders, not just ones who fill women’s positions. By census there are about 25 per cent women operators but you don’t see that same 25 per cent represented at the leadership table of other commodity groups.”

Female farmers continue to shatter old stereotypes, but they do face some unique challenges. One is an often smaller stature. Women have lower centres of gravity so strength tends to be in their legs, whereas men have more upper body strength. Most tools and equipment are not designed for women’s bodies — even hand tools are meant for a large-handed person.

“That remains one of the biggest challenges,” says Smith. “Having worked as an apprentice with men, you try to do tasks the way they do them and nine out of 10 times it doesn’t work. We need to think differently about the tools that we use and how we use them and how we use our bodies,” as improper use of tools and machinery can lead to stress and injury.

The second is biological. Even in the most egalitarian households where men and women share family responsibilities, women face the intractable challenge of having a baby. It’s not that the men can’t be involved with the family, but there is a period of nine months when you’re carrying a baby, plus the time you want to breastfeed, says Young. “It’s really hard for younger women farmers to figure out how to manage the farm, a challenge that can be compounded by a high-risk pregnancy or fussy baby.”

But the same holds true for any women entrepreneur, she says: “Whether it’s a farm or any business, you have to face that when you’re going to have a child.”

Tarrah Young, who’s been farming for 11 years (six on her own farm), gave birth to a baby boy early this year. “I am glad, really glad, that I had a chance to get the farm established. I feel like we just got to the point where we have a rhythm,” she says. “We have a stable business, a trajectory and we were ready to take on something else.” She adds with a laugh, “Every year we add something to the farm, this year it was a baby.”

That said, it wasn’t easy: “It was pretty typical — the first three months I was exhausted, and the last three months I was exhausted.” A lot more responsibility fell to two on-farm helpers. “It wasn’t the year to improve anything: I felt that I was just keeping my head above water, so I was really glad we had a lot of systems in place already.”

For Allison Muckle, 34, of Rowantree Farms in Wanup, Ont., who started her CSA after her maternity leave ended, farming with a child required some creativity — bartering for daycare, childcare swaps, and farming on the weekends when her husband was home.

“[My daughter] would be in the backpack a lot when she was smaller, especially for all the livestock chores and in the garden. For a while worms were the ultimate in entertainment. But eventually it got to the point that she wasn’t so entertained in the garden. The three-year-old stage was the worst.”

That said, raising kids on a farm has great benefits, says Muckle. “It’s really rewarding to hear about what she’s going to grow this year and that she understands where food comes from. She can taste the difference between Mum’s carrots and other carrots. I took her somewhere when she was two and she started weeding.”

As more women become farmers, the demographic will continue to shift, opening the space for yet more women entrants.

“Women see other women who are doing this successfully and it’s very encouraging,” says Smith. “If you’re considering a career in farming and you go to a farming conference there is going to be a lot of women in that room. And that tells them this is something I can do too. It’s a real option.”

And when it comes to tractor auctions: “I have a feeling now, having lived here a few years, that maybe some of the looks I was getting from men had more to do with them trying to figure out who my father was, or whose wife I was, rather than ‘she’s a woman, she doesn’t belong,’” says Smith. “I now feel much more comfortable. I know more of the farmers. And their fathers.”

To learn more about these women farmers:

Amy Smith & Verena Varga: Heart Beet Organics, Darlington, PEI: bóng đá trực tuyến http://www.heartbeetorganics.ca

Julia & Susan Grace: Moonstruck Organic Cheese, Salt Spring Island, B.C.: http://www.moonstruckcheese.com/

Marsha Goldberg, Eagleridge Seeds, Salt Spring Island, BC: http://www.eagleridgeseeds.com

Sue Earle, Duck Creek Farm, Salt Spring Island, B.C.:? http://www.duckcreek.ca/

Susan Winter, Carden Angus Beef, Kirkfield, Ont.: http://www.cardenangusbeef.com/

Allison Muckle, Rowantree Farms, Wanup, Ont.: http://www.rowantreefarms.ca/

Tarrah Young, Green Being Farm, Neustadt, Ont.: http://www.greenbeingfarm.ca/

Karen Davidge, Good Spring Farm, Keswick Ridge, NB: http://frederictonfarmersmarket.ca/vendors/good_spring_farm/