Women have always been an important part of family farms — but over the past 15 years, their roles have evolved, both on the farm and in the agriculture industry as a whole.
“A lot of women have taken on different roles that we didn’t see them in actively 15 years ago,” said Kim Keller, co-founder of Women in Ag. “Women are realizing that we can be primary producers. We can be in leadership roles within companies. We can be anything.”
Historically, women haven’t been at the forefront of the agriculture industry, despite the roles they’ve played both on and off the farm, said Iris Meck, who launched the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference in 2014.
“(But) there’s been a tremendous growth in women playing a bigger role in the agriculture industry,” she said. “They’re taking on greater positions within organizations. They are becoming true leaders.”
There are also more networking opportunities and resources for female agri-food entrepreneurs these days (including a $1.65-billion pledge in the last federal budget for more financing for female business owners). This type of support — both from the government and from organizations — is a sign the industry is finally recognizing the “great role” women are playing on the farm, in their own businesses, and in agri-food corporations, said Meck.
“It’s no secret that agriculture has been quite dominated with males,” she said. “Now it’s time to raise that level of awareness for women to take on some of those roles.”
‘Farmwives’ versus farmers
That shift is happening as women (and men) begin to change their perception of women in agriculture. In the past, women who worked on the farm might have called themselves ‘farmwives,’ but that’s not always the case anymore, said Keller, who farms near Melfort, Sask.
“Now she’s identifying as a farmer,” she said.
Billi J. Miller has seen that shift first hand in the decade since she married a farmer and moved from the city to the country.
“The term ‘farmwife’ has changed so much,” said the Lloydminster-area author. “I don’t fit into that box. And there’s comfort in knowing that there are other women like you.”
Her first book celebrated ‘traditional’ farmwives from the Lloydminster area while her latest examines how the next generation is forging a new path for women on the farm.
And while some women in the book embraced the term ‘farmwife’ and others balked at it, each of these women had that choice — a key shift from the way things used to be.
“One of the farmwives from my first book told me, ‘Fifty years ago, you just did what the person who came before you did. You didn’t think anything more about it,’” said Miller.
“Because of all the hard work women of past generations have done, we do now have more choices.”
Those women have laid the foundation for change, Keller said.
“There are many women ahead of us who paved the road we’re going down now,” she said.
“We’ve seen them in those roles, and all of a sudden, we realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do that too.’”
It was harder to see those success stories 15 years ago, Keller added. In the past, farm life was often isolating for women, and there weren’t a lot of available resources, but the internet changed that, she said.
“Social media in particular has connected women from across the world. It’s allowed us to grow our network beyond our farm gate or the small town that we live in,” she said. “That’s really important. We can learn from all these different women who aren’t doing things exactly like us.”
Groups such as Women in Ag have also worked to connect women working in agriculture, she added. Started by Keller, Ginelle Pidwerbesky, and Jaclyn Baum in 2014 as a calendar fundraiser, the organization has grown into a cross-country effort to support and empower women in the ag sector.
“Now we’re a network of women across the country where women can learn different skills, grow their abilities, and grow their network as well,” said Keller. “I don’t think that there is any woman in the industry who would say, ‘I did this all on my own.’
“I rely a lot on the network around me to get me through those times where I’m up against the wall and don’t know what to do.”
‘Learning from each other’
More programs and conferences geared toward women are making it easier to build networks, confidence, and skills.
“Those conferences and programs have provided a space where women can really learn without being intimidated or feeling like we’re out of place,” said Keller. “It’s easier to feel like you belong when you’re in a room full of women.”
One such program — the Success for Women in Agri-Food program — wrapped up in October, and for participants, the opportunity to network with other like-minded women was a major draw. More than 70 per cent of the participants said having access to a broader network of peers and business professionals had a significant impact on their businesses.
“Living in rural Alberta, you can begin to feel a little isolated. You don’t always have the opportunity to meet someone doing similar things,” said Heather Broughton, who led the project for the Agriculture and Food Council.
“They really loved the opportunity to get together with other women. When we had our first face-to-face meeting, everybody stayed for a good hour after to have informal conversations about the topics that we discussed.
“It was great to see them learning from each other.”
Kristen Ritson-Bennett, an Innisfail agri-food business owner who participated in the program, appreciated “being around like-minded businesswomen who also have 500 other things going on at the same time.”
“We’re all managing households as well as farms and businesses, so we can all identify with some of the things that come along with being a woman,” she said.
“You don’t generally get men being asked, ‘What do you do with the kids? How do you manage it all?’ It’s kind of a given for women that we just have to figure it out.”
But that has become easier and easier over the past 15 years as women have come together to support each other, said Keller.
“It’s really just about supporting and empowering women across the industry in whatever role they want to be a part of.”