Women are owning their roles on the farm and Canada's census shows it

For generations, the role women play in agricultural life was undervalued by society and by themselves, but that's beginning to change. The census shows that since 2016, more women are operating farms in Canada.

Census 2021 says number of female farm operators increased for the first time in 30 years

Angie Koch of Fertile Ground Farm in St. Agatha, Ont., carries two flats of kohlrabi transplants. This is her 15th season on the farm. (Submitted by Angie Koch)

Kathy Breen admits she had "absolutely zero knowledge of farming, let alone dairy farming" when she married her husband and moved from the city to the country in the early 1990s.

Her timing couldn't have been worse, either; the year she moved to Putnam, Ont., was abnormally wet.

"It just rained and rained," recalls Breen. "I remember calling home to my mother, bawling my eyes out and saying, 'What have I done?'"

Now, she's co-owner of Breen Acres Dairy Farm, a fourth-generation, 400-hectare dairy and crop operation that she and her husband purchased from his parents. 

Statistics Canada's latest census release on the state of agriculture in Canada found the number of women operating farms increased in 2021 compared to 2016. According to the census figures, in 2021 79,795 women counted themselves as female farm operators, an increase from 2016 when there were only 77,970.

According to federal agency, it's the first increase in the number of female agriculture operators since 1991, when Breen started her farming career.

Breen said her husband and his mother saw her as an equal in the business side of the operation, and that really helped in those early years. 

But it was her mother-in-law who really convinced Breen to stake out her place, officially, on the farm. 

Recognized for roles

"When they used to do farming and bookkeeping, she did all the bookkeeping, rode tractors when she needed to and helped out in any way she could — and they never would consider her an owner or a farm member," said Breen.

"So 30 years ago, when I came into the picture, it was her that pushed for me to be an employee or owner employee and get the benefits of filing EI, CPP, all the taxes and everything. So then as we retire, we get the benefits of that."

Breen is in the process of passing on the farm to her daughter, her husband and their three children, who will be the fifth generation to run the farm.

Once a city girl, now a proud dairy farmer in Putnam, Ont. (Submitted by Kathy Breen)

Angie Koch believes it's great that more women want to be outside like her working on a farm. She started her own operation 15 years ago and has watched it grow ever since.

"We were really small. At first it was just me on two acres pretty much alone and a heap of volunteers who saved me," said Koch, the owner and operator of Fertile Ground Farm in St. Agatha, west of Waterloo.

Now Fertile Ground Farm is up to about four hectares, with five seasonal staff. 

Growth in local, organic

Koch said she grows a long list of vegetables and greens and seedlings that are sold through community-shared agriculture and some local retailers.

Koch said it's great to see more women taking on roles in agriculture and it's being reflected in the census.

"This means there's more women who are in leadership roles and who are making decisions about their operations, and that seems like a really positive shift," said Koch.

She said there's been greater demand for local and organic products, and that could partially explain the growing number of female farmers.

"That is the place that we see a lot of women farming — is in the local and organic sectors. So maybe that is one of the reasons that there are more women in agriculture, because the sectors that we tend to work in have higher demand for those products."

Farmers are also getting older, with the average age of farmers going from 55 to 56 and the number of farms dropped between 2016 and 2021 as a result of both aging operators and farm consolidation, said Statistics Canada.

Kathy Breen of Putnam, Ont., is a co-owner of Breen Acres farm. She believes the reflection of female farmers in the census is fantastic — and finally shows an accurate depiction of how farms are run. (Submitted by Kathy Breen)