by Sara Wood, Director, OFA
Traditionally, agriculture has been a male-dominated industry, but women have always played very pivotal roles in farm businesses – just mostly behind the scenes or in a supportive capacity.
That is definitely changing, however. As a female farmer myself, it’s something that I can confirm first-hand, but it’s also backed up by data from the most recent Canadian Census of Agriculture.
In 2021, Canada had just under 80,000 female farm operators, making up 30.4% of the farm population compared to 28.7% during the previous census in 2016. In fact, this was the first time the number of female farmers in Canada has increased since 1991.
Statistics Canada attributes this increase to a rise in what they call “one-operator farmers” or women who farm on their own. The data also shows that more women are now running large farm businesses than ever before, and that Ontario is home to just over one quarter of our country’s female farmers.
Our family farm is located near the Perth County community of Mitchell, west of Stratford, where we raise broiler chickens and grow crops. For me, being an active female farmer has always been a given. That’s because our family farm is somewhat unique in our industry in that it has always had a woman as the main farm decision-maker – first my grandmother, then my mother and now me.
My husband and I have now taken over the day-to-day farm operations, so my mom has become more of an advisor, but she still pitches in if my off-farm activities, like serving as a board director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), take me away from the business.
Historically, involvement with farm organizations has also been mostly by men, but here too, things are changing. This week, for example, OFA members are gathering for our annual conference, where we’ll be saying good-bye to our outgoing provincial president, Peggy Brekveld, who is the third woman to lead Ontario’s largest general farm organization.
I’m currently one of seven women on the OFA Board, and two of the four candidates who have let their names stand for a director-at-large position on our board this year are female.
As more women, particularly from younger generations, become farm business partners and decision-makers, I believe it’s important that we are around those boardroom tables and that our voices are heard.
Women still face barriers in our industry, however. For example, we often still have to fight to have agricultural service providers, from animal nutritionists and agricultural lenders to farm equipment service managers and agronomists, view us as equal farm partners and informed decision-makers. It can also be intimidating to step forward to take on a leadership position, particularly in organizations where women haven’t previously played very visible roles. And just like women across Ontario and Canada, we face challenges like childcare and more when it comes to juggling work and community involvement.
These are the types of issues that helped lead to the creation of the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference that is happening this week in Niagara Falls. The event was created for women passionate about agriculture to provide training, networking and development opportunities unique to their roles in the agri-food sector, and it annually brings together hundreds of like-minded people in both eastern and western Canada.
The newest resource for female farmers is the AgriMentor program for Canadian women in agriculture, funded by the federal government. It offers six months of individual coaching in English or French for women in the agri-food sector and matches mentees with experienced female mentors working in agriculture nationwide. The OFA is proud to be supporting its francophone counterpart, the Union des cultivateurs franco-ontariens, in the launch and delivery of the program.
I encourage women across our sector to take advantage of these resources – and others – and to not be afraid to take a chance, whether it’s speaking up at a meeting, dealing with service providers or deciding to take on a leadership role. It won’t always be easy, but when it comes to farming, I believe that we can do everything a man does – we just may do it a bit differently.