This is the fourth of a four-part series looking at the role women play in agriculture, how it has changed and what the future holds.
When Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced two women would fill top posts on federal commissions earlier this year, the press release indicated each would serve as “a model to young women considering a career in agriculture.”
Jennifer Hayes, named a commissioner to the Canadian Dairy Commission, and Patti Miller, who now heads the Canadian Grain Commission, both have strong agricultural backgrounds and sector involvement.
Their appointments indicate the value the government places on women involved in the industry, says Liberal Alaina Lockhart, a rookie MP who represents Fundy Royal and who sits on the standing committee on agriculture.
She said MacAulay often talks about and with women who farm or are involved in the industry.
Last summer, for example, he spent time at a University of Guelph roundtable where he met with women to discuss their issues and role in agriculture.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also been vocal in his support for gender parity.
But how that translates into action, particularly for rural and farm women, is unclear.
When Advancing Women in Agriculture conference creator Iris Meck appeared before the standing agriculture committee last December she noted she wasn’t able to apply for any government funding, although some participants were eligible for some under federal-provincial programs.
She pulled no punches in response to a question from NDP agriculture critic Ruth Ellen Brosseau about how the government could encourage more women to be involved in agriculture:
“I think it’s important that the government does get involved in not only funding the women who attend this conference from the farmer and rancher perspective or group, but the government should also take the opportunity to fund speakers at a conference such as this.… I find it very frustrating being an entrepreneur when a government association can get funding to hold six meetings across the province to write a report, while I have 2,500 women coming to conferences, 500 at every conference, which is basically unheard of today, and I don’t get one dollar.
“Sponsor a speaker. Do something to show your involvement and support of the women who come to this conference.”
Lockhart, who has a background in human resources, said that after hearing from Meck she consulted with women in two agricultural associations in her own New Brunswick riding.
They told her that at most meetings half the attendees are women.
“ ‘We’re getting what we need and we’re at the table,’ ” Lockhart said they told her.
She said in some respects women face different challenges than men — flexible hours for child care, for example — but in others they need exactly the same support, such as strong business risk management programs.
Mary Robinson, past-president of the Prince Edward Island Federation of Agriculture, says there is a danger in staking out too much territory for women when what they really want is equal consideration.
She said farm organizations must consider what skills they need around their boardroom tables and then do a better job of finding the right person for the job.
“I’m not really interested in a women’s group because I think it kind of further fuels the bias,” she said. “I like the idea of us breaking down the barriers in our organization.”
Kim Keller, one of the founders of Saskatchewan Women in Ag, agreed that barriers need to come down. Although members of Women in Ag are looking for some specific mentorship or support from other women, men are also welcome to their events.
She said the best government support would be to promote agricultural awareness and that there are jobs for everyone.
“I think there’s a place for government to support all minority groups in agriculture,” she said. “I don’t know if that support means financially or just bringing awareness to the fact that women are playing a bigger part in agriculture.”
Keller said new organizations could benefit from government funding for things like learning how to set up a board and govern.