by Deron Johnston
There was a very interesting article published online recently by the Globe and Mail. It was titled, “The future of farming is female”. The author, Trina Moyles, also authored the book “Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism and the Fight to Feed the World”. The author states that women who are involved in agriculture are always assumed to be the farmer’s wife, instead of the farmer themselves. The 2016 Agricultural Census demonstrated why that assumption may still be out there. Only 28% of farms in Canada are operated by women, but that is a 1% improvement from the census in 2011. Greater change appears to be on the horizon, with British Columbia having the highest percentage of female farmers at 37.5%. There is even a growing trend in Atlantic Canada that the number of female farm operators is on the rise.
In post-secondary education, men are still holding the majority of the teaching positions in agriculture. That also appears to be about to change, as women students are outnumbering men in agricultural and natural sciences post-secondary education programs. Even alternative agriculture workshops on subjects like permaculture are now dominated by women.
The census also says that more young people are farming now, which is very good news, because it seemed that more farmland was being sold off because of a lack of interest on behalf of the next generation in taking over the family farm. The number one reason for the decline had been that it was difficult for farms to make money. Rising costs of raw materials, equipment, etc., was outpacing farm revenues, making it harder to build equity and keep debt ratios low on the family farm.
In her article, Trina asserts that, over the past several years, she is witnessing a new generation of young women who are motivated to farm despite the social, economic and psychological odds that are stacked against them. Women in agriculture seem to be relying on innovation, imagination, and a certain amount of risk-taking to be successful. In her book, Trina wanted to look beyond the statistics and document stories of women who were not only fighting gender inequality, but who also want to revolutionize how food is grown in Canada.
One of her subjects was Dawn Boileau, an Alberta farmer who operates a small 12-acre organic vegetable, fruit and edible flower farm in Onoway, Alberta. Dawn and her wife, Kate Hook, take a variety of vegetables to the Strathcona Market in Edmonton every week. The produce may include crops like microgreens, butternut squash, wheatgrass, and Nantes carrots, which are all grown by hand without any machinery. Dawn likes to grow food vertically which, she says, maximizes her yield and requires less land.
Her willingness to experiment has been a key to her success. In 2009, she pivoted away from only growing field crops to delving into indoor cultivation of wheatgrass, other microgreens, radishes, sunflower, and pea shoots. Today, these niche products generate half of her income, but require only a fraction of the labour and space of crops such as carrots and squash.
Dawn believes that “society does not encourage girls to pursue careers that involve heavy work”. “But women can accomplish just as much on the farm as men by working smarter, not necessarily harder.” It appears that, to be a farmer in today’s agricultural world, you need courage, resourcefulness, imagination and inner strength. The future of farming may lie in the hands of women.