They came from every province in Canada and five American states. They cheered, laughed, cried, tweeted, talked and networked.
About 560 women — two-thirds of them farmers — filled the banquet halls of the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Advancing Women conference at the end of March. Now in its third year, the two-day conference is fast becoming an institution for personal and professional development for women in agriculture.
Laurel Winter, a fourth-generation farmer, attended the conference for the first time with her future mother-in-law and friend Karen Weigum.
“More than anything, I attended to connect and network,” said Winter, who raises free-range organic turkeys with her parents near Dalemead. “Now that I’m here, that is happening, but more than anything, this is a celebration of women.”
Winter said she gained a lot of valuable information from the two dozen speakers. She was particularly moved by Bonnie Dupont, a consultant and former senior Enbridge group vice-president and Viterra director, who spoke about the power of mentorship and the important role that women play in agriculture.
“She said, ‘It’s OK to be the first, but it’s not OK to be the last. We’re paving the way for women in agriculture and women in the workplace in general,’” said Winter.
Many of the topics discussed were issues Winter has been thinking about in terms of personal and professional growth. She appreciated the words of Chantelle Donahue, vice-president of corporate affairs for Cargill, who also manages a farm with her husband near Biggar, Sask.
“Her message was about her journey as a woman in agriculture, and as a partner and as a mother,” said Winter. “And her journey was very relatable. She is running a farm and working in a business, and she is a wife and mom who feels spread too thin at times.”
Attending an all-women conference was empowering and important, she added.
“It enables us to have conversations that we may not have if there were gentlemen present,” she said. “And I do think that it’s important to see that this is happening. Like Bonnie (Dupont) said, ‘This never would have happened 30 years ago, but now we are watching it take place.’”
Karen Weigum, a seed grower from Three Hills, attended the conference with daughter Sarah last year, and came with Winter this year, because it was a simple way that she could extend mentorship, she said. Many of the messages shared by the speakers resonated with Weigum.
“We’re transitioning into succession,” she said. “Relationships and the business are so intertwined, so we better be talking about everything.”
Weigum was inspired by a talk from Kay Kuenker, who recently retired from Dow AgriSciences.
“For me looking to the future, I’m just putting down the wheels on the landing gear, but I still want to remain engaged and reinvent who I am. I don’t have to retire. What can I keep contributing? That’s what I am coming away with.”
Weigum was also impressed by the number of young women attending the conference.
Tiara Gowland, another first-time attendee, manages Jackson Agri-Business, a canola, wheat and barley farm near Strathmore.
She tries to attend as many agricultural conferences as she can, and came to the conference with some friends from her area.
“Motivational speaking is something I’ve always been around,” she said. “I grew up in 4-H. You need to reset your values and reset where you are going and you don’t get that in a hollow by yourself.”
She saw the conference as a new opportunity to learn and connect to other women in agriculture.
“To be surrounded by so many women is great. There are so many days when you wake up, especially being a farmer, and you don’t know what female support you have. Being able to reach out and have those opportunities to meet people in the industry is just great.”
The Advancing Women conference, organized by Iris Meck Communications, is held in both Calgary and Toronto each year.