'Jane of all trades': Island women urged to consider careers in farming

The P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women is applauding the province's Department of Agriculture and Land for being the first to develop and implement a gender diversity and inclusion policy. 

'I even came from an agriculture background, and I still didn't really consider it'

Since 2018 the agriculture department has focused on encouraging opportunities for women in the industry. (Al McCormick/CBC)

The P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women is applauding the province's Department of Agriculture and Land for being the first to develop and implement a gender diversity and inclusion policy. 

It's something the group looks at as part of its Equality Report Card: encouraging government departments to make strategic plans when it comes to making the province more inclusive to any people or groups who may be systematically excluded. 

Jane Ledwell, executive director of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said other provincial departments have started that process — but Agriculture and Land has made exceptional headway in recent years.

"They're the only department that has a formal plan that's been published," said Ledwell. 

"But most importantly of all, they've set out goals, specific strategic goals with targets and timelines for what they want to achieve, to make the work of their department respond to the needs of people in the community." 

Since 2018 the department has focused on encouraging opportunities for women in the industry. It has funded projects aimed at increasing diversity. And developed policies to promote gender, diversity and inclusion in agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries. 

The P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women executive director Jane Ledwell said the systems that women have right now are set up to give them not quite enough to survive or thrive. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Ledwell gives the example of translating COVID-19 public health safety protocols into multiple languages for migrant workers on Island farms — and said efforts like that go a long way toward promoting inclusion. 

"Those things matter," said Ledwell.

"To access information in your language of origin or the language that you speak most comfortably, it makes a difference to being able to thrive in the community and do your work for Agriculture and Land that benefits all of Prince Edward Island." 

Seeking insights from underrepresented groups

Ledwell said she's hopeful other provincial government departments will look at the model created by the Department of Agriculture and Land, and commit to similar initiatives to hear from under-represented individuals and groups. She said that's the best way to figure out what the needs are — and how to respond to them. 

"If you don't ask the Black Cultural Society or the Immigrant and Refugee Services Association, if you don't ask what the needs of those communities are, then there are all kinds of insights that you're missing," said Ledwell. 

For Bobby Thomas Cameron, who spearheaded this process with the Department of Agriculture and Land several years ago, understanding the barriers came first. Until April 2022, Cameron was the director of strategic policy and evaluation with the department. He now works for the federal government. 

"We started completing research," said Cameron.

"We did a number of interviews with individuals from underrepresented groups. We did public surveys. We did surveys in English, French, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish to make sure that we were accessing groups that were traditionally underrepresented, really, to identify barriers and enablers for underrepresented groups to join industry."

Addressing labour shortages

He said it isn't just about ensuring promoting equality and inclusion — it's about addressing major labour shortages in the agriculture industry and finding ways to make that work more accessible to people who may not have considered it in the past. 

"We know from looking at the demographic profile of agriculture in Prince Edward Island, but also across Canada, that there's certain groups that aren't represented as much," said Cameron.

"So it's both for reasons of equity and equality, but also for labour as well."

Cameron said the department has received a lot of positive feedback on its efforts, on initiatives that promote community food security, and an agriculture awareness program — as well as projects that work to connect persons with disabilities with opportunities in the agricultural industry. 

"We've heard from those groups that these projects are effective and that people are learning and becoming closer to agriculture and the food system, because of these programs," said Cameron. 

He said in terms of addressing labour shortages, he's heard anecdotally that these efforts are helping — but firm data won't be available until the next federal agriculture census is released. 

"What we've heard from our stakeholders in the industry and underrepresented groups through consultation, et cetera, is that we are moving in the right direction. But I'll be very interested to see what the statistics show the next time the census results are out," said Cameron. 

'Jane of all trades'

Farmer Keisha Rose Topic grew up working on her family's potato fields, though she didn't always know she would end up with a career in the agriculture sector.

Keisha Rose Topic holding her daughter at her family farm. (CBC)

"I even came from an agriculture background, and I still didn't really consider it an option in high school," she said. 

She said the Department of Agriculture's policy will help women and other people who may never think of getting into agriculture realize that it's an option that's open to them.

But Rose Topic said other factors make that decision difficult for women. With a four-month old daughter to take care off, she said she would like to see more supports in place would help other women who may want to start families enter the industry.

"Having a family is not necessarily a barrier, but there's new challenges that come up every day that I have to figure out. And as I try to stay as involved in the business as possible. and also as involved in my family as possible, I find that it's a balancing act for sure," she said.

"I wouldn't be able to be in this industry if I didn't have the support network of my family … If I didn't have a support network like that, I don't think I'd be here."

As for those who do choose agriculture, Rose Topic said they'll find working in the fields very rewarding.

"I would say to other women, definitely don't count yourself out of a career such as this," she said.

"It's kind of a 'Jane of all trades,' I would say … If you're kind of being open to learn and like working outside and, yeah, kind of enjoy working on your own or with other people, then this is a career [that] you should consider, for sure."


Jessica Doria-Brown


Jessica Doria-Brown is a videojournalist with CBC in P.E.I. Originally from Toronto, Jessica has worked for CBC in Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, and Ontario.


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