At Lazy T Farm, a holistic cattle ranch near Halkirk, Alta., and a short drive from my own family farm, the future really is female.
Jenna Hauck and her mother, Clara Nibourg, represent the fourth and fifth generations of women in Nibourg’s family to take over the farm.
With that kind of history — a farm being passed down through five generations of females where duties are equally shared, especially most recently — it’s a given that the women have had to overcome some big obstacles to get to where they are today.
Both Hauck and Nibourg said they have experienced their share of sexism.
“I’m an equal partner, and we’ve always run it that way,” Nibourg says. “Whenever people would call with a land issue, no one would ever talk to me. They had to talk to the man.”
Although Nibourg says she’s seen a lot of progress since taking over the farm in 1987, her daughter says she’s experienced similar issues, including with someone she and her husband, Brett, have been working with during the farm’s transition.
“He can’t wrap his mind around the fact Brett is coming into the farm and I’m the farmer’s daughter,” Hauck says. “He still calls me the wife of the farmer.”
Nibourg and Hauck are members of a statistical trend in Canada. According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, the number of female farmers in Canada has risen by 1.8 percent since 2011 to 28.7 percent, or 77,970.
Among new farmers, people who have entered farming in the last five years, that number is more than double. In a 2015 survey done by the National New Farmer Coalition, 58 percent of new farmers surveyed were women.
These statistics have been widely reported, and in most cases, celebrated. But the celebration can be problematic.
Females still only make up just over one-quarter of all farm workers. As well, the statistics don’t address the fact that females have been farming partners for as long as farming has existed — they just are rarely identified that way.
They were, as I’ve heard many farm women say and I’m sure you have too: “just the wife.”
My great grandmother kept their mixed farm afloat by selling eggs and butter, all while caring for seven kids. She wasn’t considered to be a farmer.
My own mom, a stay-at-home mom of five, kept laying hens and meat chickens, planted, cared for, and harvested from two giant gardens, did the farm books, and hosted dozens of people throughout the year. But after 30-odd years of this, she still doesn’t identify as a farmer.
Often the female in a farming relationship becomes invisible because her contributions can’t be measured — there’s no yield when it comes to raising children, and no paycheque when a hot meal for 20 hungry workers is on the table.
The numbers are increasing now because women are beginning to identify as farmers and they’re redefining what it means to be a farmer. The proportion of females operating horse, goat, and mixed vegetable farms, on their own or with a counterpart, was significantly higher than other types of agriculture, including beef cattle and feedlots.
As well, more young women are taking on the risk alone. The number of farms operated solely by females under age 35 rose by 113.3 percent, compared with a 24.4 percent increase in male operators younger than 35.
There are also more opportunities. One example is that of Young Agrarians (YA), a grassroots network of young ecological and organic farmers. In 2017, YA Alberta received a $96,100 Status of Women grant from the provincial government, which is designed to empower young female farmers and encourage women to enter a largely male-dominated field.
YA Alberta program manager Dana Penrice says most of the money is going toward the YA apprenticeship program, a mentorship program, workshops, farm clubs and coaching services.
It’s also helping set up babysitting and kids’ programs at farming conferences, so farming women with kids can attend without having to worry about child care.
Since receiving the grant, Penrice says she’s probably had more conversations with male operators than female, who are saying things like: “Why did you get this money?” Penrice says many men seem to be suggesting the grant funding isn’t fair.
“(The grant) opens up the dialogue. You can talk about how generally it’s the females taking care of kids, so we need to encourage them to come to these things; to help them get there,” Penrice says.
She adds most people she talks to are farming couples or families, and that the money isn’t just for women — there’s the added benefit of the women being able to bring the knowledge gained at conferences back to the farm and to their communities.
She says the program needs to be about more than recognizing women in agriculture. It should also challenge the structures that have proven to disadvantage farm women.
I want to, and I do, celebrate the statistics — I am one of them. But I also want to see a system that sets females up for success, that cultivates a welcoming space for female farmers, and that encourages the question: “Who is the best person to talk to about this issue?” rather than: “Can I talk to your husband?”
Nikki Wiart is a new farmer living in Castor, Alta., writing when her garden, bees, chickens, and pigs allow