Aug 22, 2014

Farmher in the Dell: Women in Agriculture

By Nicole Shaw /
Farmher in the Dell: Women in Agriculture

Itʼs a cool spring day in Merville, BC as Moss Dance, sole proprietor of Ripple Farm, unfurls irrigation lines along tightly spaced rows of lettuces. Itʼs early in the season, but there are already fresh greens, radishes and onions ready to harvest for the weekly farmersʼ market.

Dance is a part of a growing movement of small-scale women farmers. She emphasizes that she has always been drawn to outdoor professions, “I just canʼt help it—Iʼve always been that way, even as a kid. For me to be a healthy person, I need to be outside, working with my hands. Iʼm passionate about plants and vegetables—growing nutritious, safe food for people. I love people. I love food. And I love collaborating with others.”

Once she entered agriculture, “political reasons followed suit”. Sustainability and social justice both factor into her reasons for farming. She is an advocate who contributes significant amounts of time participating in various community round-table discussions and conferences addressing food security, food sustainability and policy. She and Arzeena Hamir of Amara Farm in Courtenay, have formed a cooperative of their two farms called ʻMerville Organicsʼ. The two women formed this partnership to work together, offering a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that delivers a weekly vegetable box to customers; plus, they share the responsibility of selling their produce at farmersʼ markets.

Growing awareness

Worldwide, women account for 85% of agricultural workers. Here in North America, farming as we know it today—with mechanized machinery—has traditionally been a male-dominated industry; however, in recent years, women have quickly become the fastest growing cohort of people getting into agriculture. For example, the number of farms owned by women in the U.S. almost tripled between 1982 and 2007.

Hamir confirms, “When I helped to launch the Richmond Farm School in 2010, we found that over 60% of the participants were female. In fact, the only males in the first year were husbands! The same seems to be true with the ʻYoung Agrariansʼ [a movement to connect young farmers throughout Canada] and with most of the farmersʼ cooperative work I’m doing as well.”

“It’s very evident here in Alberta,” says April Reeves, of Carrot Creek Farm in Bowden. “Women lead the way on many farms: strawberry U-picks, permaculture, vegetable production and even ʻBig Agʼ & factory farms. Women also grow backyard gardens and often expand on their talents and knowledge base from it.”

Jen Cody of Farmship Cooperative in Cedar, BC, believes “it relates to the growing awareness in society that we are not food secure. In BC particularly, we share the understanding that the safety, quality, and access to good food is compromised. We have gathered around this issue for years.”

Reeves, who spent 13 years in marketing, knew she wanted to grow food. She feels a “deep connection” to both industries, “Itʼs more than just an interest; itʼs a calling”.

“I moved into agriculture for a number of reasons,” she shares. “First was a desire to connect to the earth. I was raised on a small commercial nursery and veggie production farm, so you can say it was my ʻrootsʼ. Putting your hands in soil does something for your soul that no other therapy can.”

“Secondly, I moved to Alberta and 80 acres to connect agriculture with community, both on the farm and with customers.” She describes her vision: “I believe those of us with land need to open it up to others and collaborate. I see this land as having several homes and people growing food, where everything is harvested and sold on the farm through a farm gate store along with numerous spin-offs like canning, baking, medicinal herbs and other cool, small-farm manufacturing. I have a vision of a few young families raising their kids here and everyone enjoying the land for what it gives.”

seatoseed-199 Photo by Zipporah Lomax

Reeves reveals her third and, what she calls the most important reason for personally getting into agriculture, “Our planet needs us, period. Those in small-scale agriculture with select clients will fare the best and roll through a potential world disaster. Think of the list of what humans need to survive: FOOD, water, shelter, clothing. A recession proof business—that's how it's done.”

Wholistic choices

The salient points made by women farmers time and again included self-sufficiency, sustainability and wholesome, healthy food.

Cody states, “One way to address our ability to be self sustainable in terms of access to health and nutrition, is to grow food for ourselves. Extending that to involve providing food for the community to both generate income and create a mechanism to assure access to good food, makes the choice sustainable. It is logical that women would choose to engage in agriculture as a profession once they have connected the activity to their values and economics. Entering agriculture is a logical extension of implementing action to create a healthier and more sustainable community. Furthermore, the activities associated with farming can be nurturing, healthful and diverse which provides a way for women to see how they can be successful in this area.”

“For me,” shares Hamir, “farming was the opportunity to feed my kids a healthy diet and educate them about where their food comes from. I’ve been self-employed for a number of years before starting my own farm. Farm life has allowed me to avoid a ʻ9 to 5ʼ office job. I love how every day at the farm is different and challenging. I’ve also had a lot of support from other farmers—most of whom are women too!”

Cody observes, “We have worked with families that have young children. If one is organized, women of child bearing age in agriculture works well. As a group working together, families can collaborate to ensure there is childcare to provide positive experiences for both parents and children.”

She says that farming has a diversity of activities which can be employed to match the pace and meet the needs of both adults and children alike.

Hamir adds, “I know many women are attracted to the nurturing aspect of farming. I wonder if this is also because farming, especially market crop production, requires multitasking and developing networks of customers and support but isn’t so dependent on the heavy machinery which can be a bit daunting to those of us who don’t mind physical work but haven’t a clue around an engine.”

This may be a key point in discovering why women are drawn to small-scale agriculture. In general, women tend to be more collaborative and co-operative—they do business differently from their male counterparts. They also enjoy working together, networking and sharing information. The nurturing aspect of food and farming fits well with the nature of relationships and children.

As reported by Sena Christian in ʻYes! Magazineʼ, U.S. “census data from 2007 showed that women were more likely than men to operate farms with a diversity of crops, and to own a greater percentage of the land they farmed. Women farmers also tended to sell food directly to the consumer rather than to large food-processing corporations—an approach that [a] United Nations report has found to be important for improving food systems.” She also reported that “Leigh Adcock, executive directory of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, said she believes the U.S. food system will be healthier when more women farm.”

After the industrial revolution, farming became more and more mechanized until it became the domain of machines that we see today (primarily run by men). The “bigger is better” dominance of mono-crops, chemical applications and industrial, factory farming resulted in a disconnect from the land, severely depleting the soil. Conversely, the new (old) paradigm of small-scale farming and permaculture methods tap into a more harmonious, instinctual relationship with nature, which includes protecting and rebuilding the soil.

Dance suggests that women have always held a significant role in agriculture. She explains that because our society socializes women to not speak up, that this “has contributed to the invisibility of women in farming.” When she got started in farming in 2003, Dance asserts, “All my role models were women. The Saanich Organics folks inspired me a lot.”

She explains, “We tend to have this stereotype of a farmer being a white man, but there are all kinds: women, people with disabilities, and queer farmers coming out of the woodwork!”

IMG_2880 Photo by Steph Wetherell[/caption]

Cody concurs with Dance that women have a long track record in agriculture. “While I can see from the stats that there is a growing trend of women entering agriculture, it is not wholely my experience. When I think of my colleagues, they are mostly women, and they have been involved with agriculture for decades, anywhere from 10 to 50 years. Of the four members of Farmship, two are women. Most of the leaders in agriculture and food systems are women. On Vancouver Island alone, I can think of many women leaders in agriculture, young and old.”

Current changes in agriculture

“I also see a resurgence of interest in traditional skills and values beginning to surface in our society. I see many young women with an interest in growing food, preserving food, providing fresh food for their families and taking care of their family's health in that way.”

Connie Kuramoto is an Organic Horticulture Instructor who has taught for Vancouver Island University, Gaia College and North Island College. She has been teaching the Organic Master Gardener Course for six years and is currently teaching the Horticultural Apprentice Program.

Kuamoto has noticed a difference in the gender of students taking ʻorganicʼ courses versus ʻstandardʼ horticulture.

“In the organic focused classes, there are definitely women in the majority. In fact some classes are 100% women, and I have never had a 100% male class. In the standard horticulture classes I teach, the percentages are more even, or favour men.”

Kuramoto has also found that there are more women in her classes these days who are already farmers or are looking to become farmers. She explores the various reasons why this may be:

“I think one of the reasons may just be that in hard economic times many other good jobs are harder to come by and there is also still a measurable amount of discrimination against woman in the workplace. According to the Statistics Canada publication ʻIncome Trends in Canadaʼ, women’s annual earnings have been about 70% that of men’s since 1972. To add to this inequity, it has been found that more women are hired into part time jobs than men—in fact, 72% of part time workers in Canada are women, and many of the part time jobs tend to be minimum wage jobs. It makes a lot of sense given these factors that women would increasingly look to find some way to produce income in a self directed job situation where a woman is not held back by her gender. It is difficult to imagine why a woman would chose a minimum wage job at a fast food place, be treated poorly, and have to force herself and possibly her children into a rigid set schedule on top of paying for daycare if she has the option and the choice to farm and enjoy the many side benefits that farming offers.

“I think we are seeing a return in women wanting to be active in raising their children and farming is a way for women to stay home, or at least have a flexible schedule, and still make some money. With farming, a woman has the possibility of adjusting her schedule somewhat to suit the schedules and needs of her babies as well as eliminating child care costs. It has the added benefit of providing good food for her family at little or no cost.

“I also see a resurgence of interest in traditional skills and values beginning to surface in our society. I see many young women with an interest in growing food, preserving food, providing fresh food for their families and taking care of their family’s health in that way.”

With the dominance of the global food system, Kuramoto states, “There is a growing mistrust of our food in the stores, and women—especially mothers—seem to be increasingly willing to take responsibility for their family’s food and health.”

She continues, “Women who have come to age during the last twenty years have also had the freedom to develop their physical strength in ways that were not encouraged in the forties and fifties of the last century. This empowers them to revel in using this strength to accomplish good. Another factor is that I think that women, in general, tend to honour and trust their instincts and observations; this, and the fact that they tend to be flexible and adaptable, are all traits that make them well suited for farming.

Farming also satisfies a creative instinct that tends to be very strong in many women. There can be a lot of freedom of choice in farming, and the challenge to creatively deal with changing factors and forces. I think that woman have always made good farmers because of this, and I am overjoyed to see them return to this, here in North America. In many other parts of the world, women have always done the majority of farm work.”

One of the strongest indicators of change in our society is the exponential increase in people returning to the time honoured tradition of growing food for themselves and as an occupation. Women of all ages and backgrounds are entering agriculture: from those fresh out of university, and those who have inherited a farm, to those who are making drastic changes in their line of work to go “back to the land”. Women are clearly holding a strong lead in the changes weʼre seeing in agriculture, particularly as it is reflected in small-scale farming. These leaders and role models are also willing and excellent teachers, passing on their skills to others. It will be very interesting to see in the not-so- distant future how the movement of women growing food flourishes, and to witness the impact they will have on our current food systems.

Among other things, Nicole Shaw is an organic farmer, feminist, activist, artist (, publisher, founder of a women’s barter group and a keen observer of nature.

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