Program helps women start business

New Alberta program is designed to help rural women tackle challenges of financing and time management

A woman’s idea for a rural-based agri-food business may be excellent but seeing that idea come to fruition can be fraught with obstacles.

She may be juggling many demands on the farm, such as machinery operation, child care, livestock care and an off-farm job. She might lack confidence in her business skills or would benefit from advice, mentoring and a network of like-minded rural women entrepreneurs.

A pilot project being developed by Alberta’s Agriculture and Food Council aims to eliminate some of those obstacles and help rural women bring their agri-business ideas to life.

“In our rural farm sector are diversification opportunities and in a lot of cases it’s the women taking the lead on those, so we wanted to kind of focus in rural Alberta and identify, are there barriers that you are finding, whether they’re gender related or just business barriers or a combination,” said Heather Broughton, the community animator for the Success for Women in Agri-Food project.

The AFC surveyed more than 200 Albertans involved in agriculture using online responses, interviews and focus groups.

It compiled the results and plans to launch a program in 2017. Broughton said various themes emerged around challenges faced by women who want to start an agri-business.

“Finance was identified by the masses … business management skills and basic finance,” she said.

Nichole Neubauer of Medicine Hat, who operates Neubauer Farms with her husband and also runs the Growing Minds agriculture education program, agreed that finance and business planning are vital.

Isolation can exacerbate the issue but “a bigger challenge yet is understanding the importance and validity of things like business plans, cash flow statements,” said Neubauer.

“You might have a great idea for a business project but you need some start-up capital from a lending agency to try and get the idea off the ground and so that’s where it becomes really important to be able to understand what you need to present and how to present it in such a way that you can secure a little bit of funding. Most ideas cost a bit to get rolling.”

Kristen Ritson-Bennett of Blue Rock Animal Nutrition in Innisfail, Alta., agreed that more knowledge about finance and business would have been a major advantage when she started the firm with a partner.

“I had no business training, so we’re winging it,” she said.

Combine that with a spouse who is an on-call veterinarian, an 18-month-old baby and a sheep operation at home, and Ritson-Bennett has no trouble filling her days.

“It has been really challenging to balance it all,” said Ritson-Bennett. “I am really looking for a female mentor who can tell me that it’s all going to work out at the end of the day.”

Broughton said one woman surveyed via AFC research noted that a banker, when approached for a business loan, asked what her husband thought of her idea.

Ritson-Bennett said she hasn’t encountered gender discrimination but as a woman working in a man’s world, she has felt that men don’t understand the pressures that motherhood can create in terms of time management.

That is also a challenge for Neubauer.

“Lots of women play key roles in the day-to-day operations of the farm, whether they’re working with the animals, the livestock, driving machinery … plus maintaining the home, getting the kids to where they need to be, so time management is another crucial factor.”

Broughton said that might be addressed in the upcoming pilot. In surveys, many women identified child care as a barrier to allowing them enough time to pursue a business startup.

“Child care came up in every session in every focus group simply because child care in rural Alberta is harder to find and be affordable at the same time, so unless you have a support system, i.e. extended family or friends who can help you out, that does prove to be a barrier.”

Broughton, Neubauer and Ritson-Bennett agreed that a system of networking or mentorship would be useful to rural business women, and modern technology may be able to address the distance and isolation issues faced by many.

The debut of the AFC-developed program on Nov. 19 will occur simultaneously in Fairview, Vermilion, Parkland County, Olds and Lethbridge.

The program itself, potentially a series of workshops addressing the various barriers, is expected to be launched in late January.

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