Women’s place in ag changing …..by Myrna Stark Leader Feb. 2018
This year’s Golden Globe Awards shone a light on greater empowerment, equality, and recognition of women across the film business – issues paralleled in agriculture.
Oprah’s inspirational speech talking about women and people empowering each other produced accolades and visions of orators like Marten Luther King encouraging people to rise up. For women in the agriculture industry, rising up to equality continues to be a challenge but times are changing.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census of Agriculture, 28.7% of the 271,935 farm operators on agricultural operations or 77,970 were women, an increase since 2011. Women were most prevalent among farm operators aged 35 to 54 years (30.7%), followed by those aged 55 and older (27.7%) and those under 35 years of age (26.4%).
More rural women, once isolated from peers and support by distance and workload now have instant connections online and through social media. The channels are enabling women to connect like never before.
Right after Globes, the Agriculture Women’s Network (AWN) Facebook page carried a post seeking advice. By coincidence, not plan, Mary Ann Doré, a dairy farmer, reached out.
A salesman had come to their 90-cow operation near Kitchener, Ont. It was a welcome visit because the farm, which is Doré’s family farm and where she and her city-raised husband are now partners, needed some new equipment. When the salesmen arrived, her reached past her outreached hand twice to shake the hands of her brother and husband before sitting down. She left the barn in anger and asked the group what she could have done.
“How often do you say something? I’m not level headed enough to say something at the time,” she wrote. “Joe (husband) said he’s going to speak to the owner about it, but I’m just so tired of this still happening.”
Within minutes and for days following, responders acknowledged her situation and shared advice and stories.
Responders understood why the situation upset her. Most encouraged her to stay in the meeting. Suggestions included: place a call the salesman’s boss; have her husband and brother introduce her as a partner; be bold, temper her emotion and put her hand forward and introduce herself.
After listening, Doré followed up with the salesmen and his company via email sharing this back with the group: “The owner and salesperson both emailed me back and he explained it was a complete accident and he was horrified that I felt that way as he is an equal partner with his wife.”
“With my scenario last week, it ended up being that he apologized and it taught me that I should say something and stay in the room and how to process that really helped me,” Doré, a seventh-generation dairy farmer, explains.
As a volunteer administrator with the Ag Women’s Network, Doré says it’s the kind of situation she and a group of friends where hoping to address with when they started the group two years ago.
“AWN is able to connect people who don’t normally get connected., people who are isolated…What I really like is that outreach of support. When I joined, we’d recently moved and I didn’t know any other female dairy farmers in my area and I felt like I was the only person working fulltime on a farm. But you quickly realize that isn’t the case. Everyone is just so busy so you don’t see them.”
AWN largely serves southwestern Ontario, but there are similar networks in Saskatchewan and BC.
“There’s talk of us joining forces but right now, we’re happy to have anyone join in,” Doré explains referring to AWN. “We’re always trying to get more people to post and share ideas. There’s so much wealth in people’s experiences and there’s so many people on the channel that you really just have to ask and someone has been in the same situation.”
Speaking up or asking for help still work in progress for some
“People don’t feel confident enough or they don’t have the support of their family…I can only think of once where someone dismissed me. He was a demolition expert and was elderly and asked whether this was my husband’s farm or my dad’s. I just let it go, but any other times, my family will stand behind me, but I know friends that don’t have that,” says Doré.
People on the channel show each other respect and posts don’t often need moderation. However, she says they have discussed women who make it to the top of organizations but are threatened or not confident enough to give other women a leg up which is a shame.
“Women are often the harshest to each other,” says Doré. “And we moderate for that.”
Still too many stories of challenge
Enough examples have been shared on the AWN pages to demonstrate equality in the field of agriculture still needs work.
“This woman, her husband took the paternity leave as was company policy, and he never lived it down. They made fun of him for years and I want to make it go away,” says Doré.
Another woman said she always introducers herself and Curtis, her husband. She’s not Curtis’s wife. Yet another, writes that her husband sells iron and she reminds him every day that if he doesn’t work his ass off to kill the patriarchy, his daughters will never farm and their legacy will die.
“It's unfortunate that this goes beyond the sales aspect of ag,” wrote another woman. “I attended a district commodity meeting yesterday where one of the key speakers had interspersed a few sexist jokes into his presentation. And only hours before, the meeting had opened with the commodity group asking for "more female leadership". No wonder they are having a harder time finding women willing to be on their boards! Maybe think twice about who they allow to speak and ask for a copy of their presentation... the sad thing is, another woman in attendance said she had seen this presentation before, so it's not like it was completely out of the blue.”
“Something that really stood out in the comments to me was what to do when a speaker at a conference or at a meeting says something sexist, how do you address that, not only on your own farm but in the face of many male peers,” says Doré. “It’s good we’re talking about this and what to do about it and very publicly instead of complaining to other woman about how annoying that is.”
Agronomist Jenn Doelman, who farms on a 2,600-acre cash crop farm about an hour northwest of Ottawa, was watching the AWN thread. She’s describes Eastern Ontario as a cross-section of the independence of Northern Ontario and Western Canada tied in with a Southern Ontario flavour. A third-generation seed grower, Jenn’s family farm was principally seed production & cow/calf and feedlot operation. They exited cattle pre-BSE. Now, in addition to their wholesale seed production, they operate a full-service crop inputs and feed retail operation.
“Growing up, the stereo types existed. There was a big split in age between my siblings. Mom was a nurse and dad farmed and I did a lot of the child rearing,” Doelman says adding the reward for helping was being able to help on the farm with the equipment.
In high school, she wanted nothing to do with the farm and was going to be a physiotherapist until she visited the U of Guelph, fell in love with the campus and became a crop scout. When she graduated, her parents needed help and asked her to come home. She did and began to manage the family’s farm supply business.
She says it was tough being the only female seed person in the area, even though there were previous female role models and she’d always experienced her mom participate as a full farm partner even with her nursing career.
“I was able to hold my own because I really new my stuff, so if a guy did tell me he wasn’t interested in buying seed or fertilizer, I would just put a few new pieces of information in his ear and prove that I was worth talking to. It probably took about four years of being at home managing the business where people finally stopping coming in and asking for “the boss” - wanting to talk to my father. Eventually, dad would just say, ‘I don’t know, that’s Jenn’s department.’ It takes strong men to ensure you have the resources and not be threatened by it,” says Doelman.
Today, she and her husband are equals sharing all the duties because, she says, that’s how his mother raised him.
“Sometimes, we forget that the best way to make change is to show our son’s and daughters how to treat people properly.”
But change takes time especially when it’s transformational and breaking generations of behaviour. Her dad took over from his dad, and often it’s still the son who is assumed will be the next generation. Ironically, the business, named when she was a child, is still Barclay Dick and Son Farm Supply. She says some things are not worth raising at this point.
What she can more easily change is not making assumptions about the sex of anyone in any position, not being content to be in the background even if it means having always to be the one to stick out your hand first, encouraging younger women to be bold and changing how the business operates today. That includes hiring women. She says her Quality Assurance Manager is a transgender woman who first started as a male summer student. It’s about acceptance. “Jesse is the same remarkable person she’s always been – now she just isn’t stuck conforming to male stereotypes. Equality is about respect for each other and embracing our differences as strengths not weaknesses.”
She says women need to gain confidence in themselves and having a network of support like AWN is helpful. So is learning not to make cultural assumptions like the sex of who is running the farm or of the person working for a business that supports the farm.
She says she is working to stop referring to everyone as “guys”. While it’s a small change, she believes it’s important and will become more so with farm successions taking place across Canada over the coming years.
Systematic changes required
Diane McKenzie also saw the AWN thread. She’s a cattle and grain farmer at Warner, Alberta, south of Lethbridge. She calls herself “a mature farm woman” who went back to school at close to 50 years of age. She’s now pursuing a Master’s Degree and the working title of her thesis is A History of Rural Women and the Intergenerational Transfer of the Family Farm.
Using a feminist approach to rural women’s history, she hopes to better understand generational changes. She is interviewing 15 to 20 rural women across three generational cohorts in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – 30s, 50s, 70s.
“It’s such a complex issue,” says McKenzie. “I am thinking about the conditions that surround rural woman. I am working to better understand generational changes around those conditions that impede rural women’s full participation in agriculture.”
She says Dore’s post was good and so was the follow up conversation, but she believes we need to go one step further to look at the systematic structures keeping women in ag in check.
“Sometimes the discussion is about empowerment but I’m not sure what that means to each member of the group. We talk about the incident – the man reaching past her – and we hash that out, but more and more I think about how the system functioning underneath the discussion doesn’t get dug into very often.”
She hesitantly names it patriarchy.
“The system is not designed for women’s full participation,” she says. “One of things I’ve tried to use as an example is when there is an article or advertisement about succession of the family farm with pictures in a magazine, how many of those pictures show three or four generations of men standing in the field? And I understand that it’s changing but that is our cultural norm.”
She hopes people will do more critical thinking about why things are as they are and how things may change in a real way, not a token way, to include women.
“I was reading something the other day about systems where an author said these types of doors do not get opened very often because you can’t close the door once you’ve opened it and looked in. So as an example, once you’ve opened the white privilege door, and analyzed what is inside, you can’t shut that door. Once you’ve started that awareness, you have a different perspective and you approach life differently. The status quo is in question.”
McKenzie says change eventually happens once people’s eyes are opened.
“I hope to work as a facilitator with families in farm succession. I’m also very interested in speaking to people in the rural community about rural women’s participation in agricultural business. I’ve already found using words like feminism, patriarchy and gender, the walls fly up, and so I’ve been thinking about ways to deliver my message. The last time I was involved in a rural women’s association it was Herford Belles, which folded years ago. We certainly weren’t discussing women’s issues then, so times are changing but we’ve have a long way to go.”
She’s also pursuing research about property ownership. First-born sons are still a pretty popular choice.
“That’s my argument, it’s the system that needs to change and it may take another 100 years but you have to start somewhere and you start by becoming more aware of the actual system, not the symptoms of the system. I finally opened the door pretty late in life and now I can’t close it.”