Donna Lee Brown was a young mom with two small children when she started going to the fall Manitoba Farm Women s Conference.
That was the mid-1980s, and she and her husband were just beginning to farm near Brandon.
Now, with a son old enough to do the same, Brown is still going to the annual women s conference. This year she chairs the now 25-year-old event.
What s drawn her back all these years? The sustained friendship and support this event has fostered among women across Manitoba, says Brown. Lately, she s been struck with how long it s lasted; some of those 1980s moms, after all, are now grandmothers.
You were in one generation 25 years ago, says Brown. You re in a different generation now.
It was back in 1986 long before the buzz about “social networking” that s all the rage nowadays that a fall conference geared specifically for women who farm was first proposed among women in the Portage la Prairie area.
Graysville farmer Linda MacNair, who chaired the first event, said the idea initially was to form a women s farm policy organization that would be tied into a national farm women s conference taking place at the time.
But as we started looking at it and started talking to different people we kind of came to the conclusion that we were perhaps making a mistake in forming another organization geared toward policy, recalls MacNair. It was felt that would only draw people away from Keystone Agricultural Producers and dilute human resources that could be involved with it.
We decided that the thing to do was kind of overcome the hesitancy to get involved in what was then a primarily male-dominated organization and start to be involved in farm policy through that means.
Instead, the annual gathering became a post-harvest event for networking, listening to speakers on topics of special relevance to women who farm, and providing a mental health break for multitaskers rearing families, running households, and managing farms.
The event clearly met a need, with waiting lists and full slates of registrations in the early years. Rotated between Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg, the event has more recently attracted between 100 to 150 annually.
Still, the program, prepared by a grassroots volunteer committee, is nothing if not relevant to farm and rural women. It always offers up a mix of topics, from dealing with stubborn stains to effectively communicating with agricultural lenders.
Organizers have tried to keep programming current, says Brown. Some issues are perennial with speakers regularly brought in to talk succession planning, farm safety, business start ups, farm innovation and health and wellness.
I can guarantee that if you went back to the original program, there s similar issues we re still addressing today.
They ve also tried to help demystify technological changes in agriculture by introducing women to some new technologies.
One of the things that we re really proud of, and this goes back to that very first year, is how we re trying to keep women interested in farming, Brown said. We ve been trying to encourage people to farm and farm successfully.
This year they re introducing a new approach by making conference attendance an opportunity to earn credit courses applicable to the farm s Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) loans.
Inspiration through stories
But if women are coming once for the information they get in a good program, they re coming back for the inspiring stories told at the conference. Some are shared quietly in small groups. Some come from the podium.
Women have told stories about starting businesses, entering nontraditional careers and politics, taking the helm of organizations in times of crisis.
Others have shared candid, heartfelt accounts of taking farms in unconventional directions or making heart-wrenching decisions to continue to farm or not.
Still others have laid the road maps, telling stories of seeing the building of child-care centres in their towns, or warning of the lack of routine care rural women get in light of rural doctor shortages.
MacNair says that she sees the biggest benefit of the continued conference coming from having shared those stories.
I think the primary benefit is sharing ideas and sharing knowledge and experiences and ways of dealing with the different issues that come up as farm women, she said. You almost talk a different language when you re a farmer. It s very valuable to share those experiences and learn from each other.
Brown says they d love to see the large crowds attending that came in the first years. But they temper their expectations, knowing there are fewer farmers around and fewer farm women who aren t working full-time, off-farm jobs.
One of the biggest changes for farm women over the past quarter-century has been a massive shift to off-farm work; studies done in the past decade have shown more than 50 per cent of all women on farms have off-farm jobs.
Women are also much more directly involved in farm management than they were 25 years ago too, adds Brown.
We have become a far stronger voice in farming decisions and in the way the farm is run, she said.
Sisters of different natures
They remain informally paired with the Manitoba Women s Institute, which sends a representative to serve on the planning committee and in that way continues to bring rural women to their event. The conference and the MWI see themselves as two sisters with different natures, said Brown. We re both focused on agriculture and similar things, but we re two different entities addressing different things.
And while the future of the farm women s conference has been up for discussion in recent times, Brown says that s entirely dependent on volunteers willing to serve on a committee and keep planning it.
For her part, that s never been a chore, but a benefit, she adds.
It s a good time and I enjoy it, she said. The people on the committee become your friends.
Austin farmer Louella Jedel (left) visits with another delegate during the 2010 Manitoba Farm Women’s Conference. Many who attend the three-day event say meetingotherwomenwhofarmandsharingfarmandlifeexperiencesisthebestpartoftheconference.P hoto: LorraineStevenson
for more information
The 25th annual Manitoba Farm Women s Conference takes place November 13 to 15 in Brandon, Man. For more information including registration log on to: www.manitobafarmwomensconference.ca/or telephone (204) 834-2477.