What a difference a decade can make.
Ten years ago, as the Manitoba Farm Women’s Conference celebrated its 20th anniversary, many of the organizers were wondering quietly if it might be time to consider wrapping things up.
Attendance had been falling, the membership was, like in many farm-based groups of the time, aging, and the small core of organizers were by their own admission starting to feel a bit burned out.
Flash forward to last week in Portage la Prairie, where the organization convened its 30th annual conference, and the change was unmistakable.
While many of the organization’s mainstays were still in attendance, they’d been joined by a cohort of young farm women, eager to learn, network and connect.
“It’s just wonderful to see,” said event chair Ann Mandziuk. “You look around and there’s a lot of young faces here and I’m so happy to see that.”
The themes of the conference this year were financial literacy and gender equality.
Few would be better suited to talking about both than keynote speaker Brenda Schoepp, a cattle producer from Rimbey, Alta, just northwest of Red Deer. She owned her first farm operation at 18, managed her first cattle herd at 19 and now mentors young farmers and ranchers of both genders, and has recently completed a Nuffield Scholarship.
“Often I was the first and only woman in the room,” she said.
When she was trying to start her career back in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was hard for a woman to be taken seriously, both at the local coffee shop and in the local banker’s office. She related one tale from early in her career when she’d only been in business a few years and thought she was doing well, making a bit more money every year and making every payment on her loan down at the bank.
“A new branch manager came in and I got a call and was told they were calling my loan,” Schoepp said. “I asked why and she said, ‘Because you’re a woman and you’re not educated and you will fail.’”
As a measure of how much times have changed, Schoepp now sits on the board of directors for Farm Credit Canada, the largest agricultural lender in the country.
That doesn’t mean things are perfect however, as women can still struggle to be taken seriously, especially in emerging economies. A large part of Schoepp’s international studies under the Nuffield program focused on this. She said there are some systemic issues that need to be worked out, and some things women can take into their own hands. For example, she says women often undersell themselves, lenders have told her.
“Women don’t ask for enough,” Schoepp said. “They ask for only what they need, the loan amounts are too small and lenders say, ‘They’re not worth our time.’”
The solution, Schoepp said, is to think bigger and ask for more.
Lenders also say women entrepreneurs also need to develop better business plans to make the case for their loans.
Women still face challenges in agriculture today, according to one young woman who was part of a panel discussion.
Chelsea Boonstra grew up on a dairy operation near Meadows, Man. and earned an agriculture diploma from the University of Manitoba. Today she still works on the farm and has an off-farm job as a sales agronomist.
“I think for women in agriculture, often we’re seen by the guys as being at the bottom of the ladder,” Boonstra said. “But the truth is we rock and we’re rocking this industry. Let me go out there and show you what I’m capable of.”
Boonstra’s conviction is backed up by the numbers, as more and more women study agriculture. Since the late 1990s women have been the solid majority in the agriculture schools and colleges in all three Prairie provinces, including Manitoba, according to media reports from the time. In recent years that trend has only accelerated.
One way young women are changing the industry is their willingness to engage in advocacy work, especially through online channels. Boonstra posted a video on her Facebook page that showed her family’s farm and her conviction caught the eye of a producer of an agriculture podcast, who invited her to become a regular contributor. It’s taken her in surprising directions, she said, but added she continues to think speaking up for the industry is the right thing, and encourages others to join the conversation.
“Social media is your best friend, Facebook is probably the easiest way,” she said. “But it can also be your worst enemy.”
Boonstra said she’s found a lot of people have a real interest in the business and just need a way to find out more.
“Virtual farm tours are an awesome way to show off our way of life,” she said. “You really can put up one video and have it be viewed millions of times.”
Organizer Mandziuk says the group has consciously tried to present topics that will be of interest to younger farm women and so far that strategy seems to have worked. She also noted that the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation’s Bridging Generations Initiative that rewarded farm management credits with reduced mortgage payments helped drive interest because a number of the events on the program for the past couple of years have qualified.
“I like to say that we’ve got them in the door with the education credits, but we’ve hooked them with the conference,” she said with a chuckle, noting that many of the young attendees are now on their second or even third conference.
Program co-ordinator Sandi Knight confirmed that the effort was paying off, and noted that the rejuvenation also coincides with the recent influx of younger farmers when the economics of farm production improved a few years back.
“I think most groups like this can be cyclical, and we’re at the point in the cycle where we’re attracting a lot of new participants,” Knight said.