There’s a sign in one of the Martens family’s farm buildings that says “Jacob Martens and Sons.”
“It’s kind of like an icon in my mind of what has changed in one generation,” said Clare Martens, 25. “Now it could say ‘Ben Martens and Daughters.’”
Clare and sister Jill, 22, farm alongside their dad and uncle near Boissevain. They have two sisters and no brothers.
“We get a few stares from older people who aren’t used to seeing women operating farm machinery or driving semis,” said Jill. “We are also very lucky to have parents who empower us to do whatever we want.”
Clare and Jill are the fourth generation of their family to farm in Canada. Ancestors on both sides of their family were Russian Mennonites who came to Canada in the late 1920s.
Their dad Ben moved to the current farm site with his family when he was a young teenager. At the time it was a grain farm. Ben started with a few cows, and built his herd to the current size of 140 Charolais. They also grow crops for seed production, including several varieties of edible beans.
As youngsters, Clare and Jill never had a shortage of farm chores. When they were a bit older, they were paid in cattle, so both have small herds of their own. Jill still has her first cow, Ellie, which she joked is her prized possession.
Jill’s interest in farming as a career began in high school when she became interested in where food comes from.
“Being able to see our farm as a place where we can produce quality food using responsible practices. That really made me appreciate the farm more,” Jill said.
She started working full time on the farm in 2016. She has her Class 1 licence, so she does a lot of hauling for the farm. She’s also an artificial insemination technician.
Clare came back to the farm about a year ago after graduating from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. She worked as a summer student in the U of M’s soil science department, and spent another summer tree planting in B.C., but she always hoped to return to the farm.
Tree planting was hard work, with very little investment in the final product. Clare said she realized that putting work into her family’s farmland had far more value and meaning to her. About a year ago, Jill moved to Winnipeg to pursue her diploma in agriculture, leaving a natural opening for Clare to return to the farm.
“For me it was a hard decision,” Clare said. “It’s a challenging job for sure.”
Ultimately she decided to make the move and farm full-time. Clare has taken over some of the office duties, and works alongside her sister with the cattle, crops and seed.
“Having the lifestyle where we work really hard to grow crops and raise cattle, but we can also make time for things like (hobby) beekeeping… things like that is really attractive for me,” Jill said. “I love working outside and I love working with my family.”
Clare agreed. “We have a lot of fun, like I really like working here with Jill and my Dad and Uncle John. We all get along pretty well. So it’s been a lot of fun and you can learn a lot.”
Clare wasn’t wrong, though. Farming is a hard job, and the long hours and rural isolation has taken its toll.
“One thing for us as women is that we don’t have very many peers who are also females in our career,” Jill said. Most of the younger farmers in the area are men.
For Clare and Jill, most of their friends are supportive, but they aren’t farmers. It can be a little tough to be driving a combine on a Friday night when friends are hanging out.
“Farms in the past have always had a lot of help from women in really important roles and really powerful roles that have maybe been a bit more traditional, but women are underrepresented in farm labourers and farm managers,” Jill said.
Not that they don’t come from a heritage of strong, farming women. Their mom, who works off-farm as a counsellor, would drive a combine in the busy season and does the accounting for the farm.
“I think it’s important to not to downplay the traditional work, because it’s very essential work too,” Clare said.
She said she knows many wonderful farm women in the area who have taken on more traditional female roles, but she’s also had women of her mother’s generation approach her to say how good it was to see her and Jill out in the field because they weren’t encouraged to develop those skills.
Jill and Clare said they also were shaped by travelling and seeing women farming in other parts of the world. Jill travelled to Rwanda with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Her family is part of a Boissevain-Morton-Whitewater project which plants 300 acres of crops each year to fundraise for the Foodgrains Bank. The trip allowed Jill to see where their donations were going, and to learn about conservation agriculture and food security.
“It makes me look at the way we farm differently, and just really be appreciative of the resources we have,” Jill said.
Clare travelled with a friend to Guatemala and saw women farming there, often without the same autonomy and freedom she enjoys.
The sisters added that they know they’re lucky to not farm alone. They have their dad, uncle and each other.
“I find a lot of encouragement and inspiration from Jill,” Clare said.
“And it’s mutual,” Jill added.