Women in Canada are choosing farming careers but barriers persist

A growing number of women are choosing careers in farming, but advocates say there is still work to be done to overcome stereotypes, keep land affordable and include women on agricultural boards.

Rising land prices and entry onto agricultural boards are still obstacles despite recent gains

Women are playing an increasingly larger role in agriculture, experts say, both on the farm and in the broader industry. But hurdles remain, including land costs. (Tory Gillis/CBC)

It was Nicole Fossheim's grandfather who first decided to set down roots near Edson, Alta., and start a family farm. Her dad followed in his father's bootsteps, raising cattle and a family of five on the land.

But when the time comes to pass the family business down to the next generation of Fossheims, she's not expecting her brother to inherit the mantle.

Instead, she wants to carry on the tradition.

"I'd really like to go back to the family farm and probably dip my toes in there, purchase a few of my own cattle and, yes, hopefully take over one day — hopefully with my sister," said the 20-year-old agriculture student at Alberta's Lakeland College.

Not so long ago, such an idea — two women running a cattle farm — might have seemed extraordinary. Today, she is part of a growing number of Canadian women entering the profession.
Josie Van Lent, dean of agricultural studies at Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta., said roughly half students in the school's agricultural programs are female over a five-year period. (Supplied)

But even as women make inroads into farm work, advocates say there's still work to be done to overcome dated stereotypes and get more women onto agricultural boards.

"It's a little bit of a haul to be able to be recognized in the agricultural industry," said Iris Meck, a former grain company executive and founder of the Advancing Women in Agriculture conference, which drew more than 400 farming women to Calgary this spring.

"But there are a lot of great women today in the industry that are making great strides."

Proportion of female farmers, students rising

The federal government's most recent census of agriculture, showed the number of farm operators in Canada is going down, but the proportion of women is going up.

Women accounted for 28.7 per cent of all farm operators in 2016 — nearly 78,000 of nearly 272,000 farmers in total. Women were most prevalent among farm operators between the ages of 35 and 54, representing nearly a third of the group.

That proportion of female farmers is up from 2011, when 27.4 per cent of farm operators were women (nearly 81,000 of nearly 294,000 farm operators).
A Senate committee report this spring said rising farmland prices threaten the viability of the family farm. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

People who teach agriculture are also watching the number of female students enrolling in their post-secondary programs increase.

Josie Van Lent, dean of the school of agricultural sciences at Lakeland College, said enrolment in the school's agricultural programs over a five-year period would average out to be roughly half female students.

"I've always seen women as partners on farms over my whole career," she said.

"What we're seeing is, particularly in the last 15 years, a large number of women who are entering the ag industry now ... on a professional basis, working for all of the various companies that support the ag industry, right from machinery dealers to crop life sciences companies to feed companies." 

Van Lent said women are also taking on more leadership roles in the industry and research.

Representation on boards a problem

Despite those successes, Van Lent and Meck both say women continue to be underrepresented on agricultural boards. 

"A lot of boards are male dominated, if not all male," Meck said.

Meck said addressing the problem is a two-way street: men need to acknowledge the role women can play and women need to go after the opportunities that exist.

While some advocates argue that quotas are a fast and effective tool for raising female representation on corporate boards, Meck disagrees with the strategy. 

"Women should be considered for a position on the basis of their knowledge and expertise and their willingness to contribute and the role that they can play in that position," she said.
Iris Meck, an advocate for women in agriculture, said men need to acknowledge the role women can play on agricultural boards and women need to pursue existing opportunities to be on them. (Supplied)

Art Froehlich, a longtime executive and board member on a number of agricultural groups, said he has seen improvements at the board level, with more women joining boards and more women prepared to do so.

"It's actually a move in the very right direction," Froehlich said.

One reason he thinks things are improving is the agriculture isn't just focused on production anymore.

"We are producing a product that has to be consumer ready, consumer appreciated, consumer understood," he said. 

"And there's no question, I think, women bring that perspective to the board table more so than men have done."

Yet, women still deal with some old attitudes about their role in farming or more general stereotypes. Meck said it's one reason why women who work in the sector need to support and mentor each other, and why there needs to be conversation that ensure there is fairness in the workplace.

Cost of farmland also an issue

Social media is a big part of a growing network of support, providing an avenue for practical advice like equipment repair when it might otherwise be difficult to get.

But no amount of connectivity can help farmers overcome the cost of land.
Trina Moyles, author of Women Who Dig, said the rising cost of agricultural land is a barrier for women who want to farm.

It's a major barrier for women trying to enter the profession, said Trina Moyles, Canadian author of a new book on female farmers around the world, Women Who Dig.

"Starting out as a farmer can be really prohibitive just by cost," Moyles said. And I think that also speaks to women that I've met globally as well too."

Indeed, a Senate committee report this spring said rising farmland prices threaten the viability of the family farm.

The average price of an acre of farmland rose by 10 per cent in 2015, with Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec experiencing double-digit increases.


Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.


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