Resilience, resourcefulness, inequality: revisiting the ‘farm wife’

A fraught Twitter conversation raised deep questions of how women relate to agriculture, and how agriculture treats them

What’s a farm wife? The women of agriculture consider what an old term means in modern day.

Farm wife’ or ‘Farmer’s wife.’ Some women embrace these as near-heroic titles, while others feel they relegate them to supporting roles in their farm’s story. 

Either way, it stirs up strong emotions, as Megz Reynolds recently experienced after she posted to Twitter questioning the term’s longevity in the agro-sphere. 

“Why are so many in agriculture still pushing the ‘farm wife’ narrative,” she wrote. “Let’s recognize women as individuals not extensions of their husbands.” 

More than 170 comments and 98 re-tweets later (at time of writing) the post had generated some strong feelings. 

“I’m proud to be a farm wife,” one woman wrote. 

“Don’t read my bio than (sic),” wrote another. 

“I am a complete and full partner in a business and a lifestyle. I Am a Proud Farmer!!!” wrote one woman. “Please don’t call me a farm wife!!!” 

“If my husband left tomorrow, I’d still be a farmer. My job doesn’t depend on my marital status,” said another. 

All of that is fine by her, Reynolds told the Co-operator

Megz Reynolds. photo: Supplied

“The post was about women getting to choose their label and their role,” she said. “If they want to choose to be farm wife, there’s absolutely nothing wrong and I would never shame them for that.” 

Her issue is when people see women as “just” farm wives. “They see that as a negative connotation and they see that as a way to not engage her in the decision-making,” Reynolds said. 

A negative connotation?

The discussion led Pam Bailey down a rabbit hole, she told the Co-operator

When she thinks ‘farm wife,’ she sees her husband’s grandmother, said Bailey, who farms with husband Rauri Qually in Dacotah, Manitoba. 

“She worked so hard,” said Bailey. “She was definitely part of the farm and the farm wouldn’t have been able to exist without her.” 

This “grandmother-in-law” met her husband during the Second World War. He was in the Air Force, and they married before he shipped out. When he returned, his father gave them a piece of land and they settled down to farm. 

She took great pride that when she made a chicken dinner, “she not only raised the chicken... she either made or grew or harvested everything on the table,” Bailey said. 

She made and fixed clothes. A crack curler, she won money at bonspiels and bought helpful kitchen items. 

Pam Bailey. photo: Supplied

“I don’t have a word for how amazing and awesome that is,” Bailey said. 

Duelling with that heroic image, Bailey said she also thinks of a stereotype who likes the title of ‘farm wife’ but contributes little to the farm beyond a few meals. Instead, this woman watches soap operas and gossips about the neighbours. 

Bailey speculated that in the ’50s, farm women had very little choice in what role they played. As women gained more independence and entered the workforce, some may have thought those who chose to stay on the farm were “choosing to be dependent,” she said. 

Maybe some women felt that the farm wife, with her more traditional role, was “keeping the rest of us down.” 

The negative image of the title may also come from ignorance of just how much work women do on farms. 

“As a child, my ignorance (lack of knowledge) about farming led me to assume a lot of inaccurate things about farming, such as: it was easy,” said Sheila Elder in an email to the Co-operator

Elder has farmed with her husband near Wawanesa for about 20 years. She didn’t grow up in a farm family. 

“It is this lack of information and education that has many people assuming a lot of things about farmers in general; and about women,” she added. 

The negative part of the ‘farm wife’ image may be perpetuated by those e.g. sales people, who assume a woman is less knowledgeable or doesn’t have decision-making power on the farm. 

“There was definitely times where you’d be left out of the conversation, or they would constantly just direct questions to my dad or my brother,” said Kim Keller, who farms with her brother and parents in Saskatchewan. Keller is also a co-founder of the Do More Agriculture Foundation. 

Some people react with shock when they find out she owns land or operates all farm equipment, Keller added. Would they say that to a young, male farmer, she asked? “Probably not.” 

“My experience has been when I have not had the choice to define my own title, or been labelled without asking, the term (farm wife) was used in a demeaning and condescending way,” said Lesley Kelley in an email to the Co- operator

Kelley, known online for her blog ‘High Heels and Canola Fields,’ farms with her husband in Saskatchewan. She’s also a co-founder of the Do More Agriculture Foundation. 

“Others within agriculture have said to me, both online and in person, ‘What does she know? She’s just a farm wife.’ Or, ‘She’s just a farm wife who pretends to farm,’ or, ‘Quit talking and get back to the kitchen where you belong.’” 

Farm women are diverse

The reality is there are as many roles and job descriptions for women on farms as there are women on farms. 

Reynolds was a full-time grain farmer until 2019. She did the bulk of the seeding and often ran the combine with her two little girls in tow, she said. She began an apprenticeship as a heavy-duty mechanic and learned to run equipment. She’s now a consultant and works at an agriculture equipment company. 

Elder is her farm’s ‘on-farm agronomist,’ who has taken two levels of agronomy schooling at Olds College in Alberta. 

When she began on the farm 20-some years ago, she worked off farm because she had to — the farm simply didn’t bring in enough to pay her, her husband, and his par- ents a wage, and they wanted to be able to buy into the farm. 

Elder is on the Manitoba Crop Alliance’s Wheat and Barley crop committee. Besides scouting and agronomy duties, she does building maintenance on farm, deals with repair quotes, and maintains the farmyard. 

Kelley is on farm full time with her brother and husband. “On any given day, I am managing the operation’s finances, operating equipment, developing strategies and plans, creating business partnerships and opportunities, running for parts and cooking supper for the crew,” she said. 

Bailey and Keller have both farmed with their families while holding down off-farm jobs and working with foundations like Do More Ag, in Keller’s case, and the Manitoba Canola Growers board in Bailey’s case. 

“No one is just a farm wife,” said Keller. “It shouldn’t be a negative, because anyone on a farm is incredibly valuable.” 

Women often unequal, disrespected

Canada’s 2016 census of agriculture (the most recent numbers available) showed that women had increased to 28.7 per cent of farm operators from 27.4 per cent. About 31 per cent of farmers between 35 and 54 were women. 

Sheila Elder. photo: Supplied

“We’ve come so far,” said Elder, “but we still have a long ways to go and we are a very patriarchal society.” 

While more young women may be choosing to farm — Elder’s daughter, for instance, is the likely candidate to take on their farm — the general population seems to associate farming with men, Elder said. 

When Elder collected signatures to join a Manitoba Crop Alliance committee, many women she asked couldn’t sign the nomination because they didn’t own their farm. To vote in many producer groups, the woman must be paying checkoff dollars to the group, Elder added. 

“Men were very supportive of me, but it just showed how few women are considered to be ‘producers’ and how that limits their input,” she said. 

In many cases, farms are ‘protected’ from women who marry into the farm family in case of divorce, said Elder — though this may be changing, she added. 

However, Elder said she’s seeing a high percentage of female agronomists. 

“I would not be surprised if they were found to be over 70 per cent of agronomy students and agronomists,” she said, contrasting this with the about 30 per cent female farm ownership. 

There’s also the matter of harassment against women in agriculture. Replies to Reynolds’ tweet illustrated this. 

“Are you a cheating whore too?” one man replied. 

“This is a cry for attention,” said another. 

A man called her a “slut” and another called her an “alarmist.” 

“I’ve been called names on social media,” Kelley wrote in her email to the Co-operator. “Like ‘Agvoc#$!&,’ ‘Attention-whore,’ and ‘Crazy and Insane.’” 

“I have been cornered at ag events, felt unsafe and been touched inappropriately,” she said. “All to make me feel that I am not a valued and equal member of the ag community.” 

At times, she’s considered leaving agriculture, Kelley said. 

“Its (sic) threats, it’s calling employers,” Keller wrote on Twitter. “It’s trying to ruin future employment opportunities, it’s cornering at farm shows, it’s spreading of rumours and attempts at defaming.” 

A woman responded to her, “Most girls who read this tweet will have a specific memory of when one or more of these have happened to her.” 

The typical advice is to ignore it, said Keller. 

“You can’t,” she said, adding that sometimes the harassment comes from farmers you have to deal with at work. “It affects your livelihood.” 

What can be done?

Keller said she was thankful to see men speak up in the Twitter conversation. 

“That has to happen more often, and that has to happen pretty consistently,” she said. 

It’s also an education issue, Elder said. More respect has to be fostered, and in the case of farm ownership and leadership, perhaps counselling is needed. She said an intermediary, such as a succession specialist, could be a valuable resource. 

Elder said she’s known women who feel they’re walking on eggshells because they don’t want to upset the older generation. However, sometimes the older generation needs to learn to be less protective of status, things and sentimental feelings so the farm can continue to thrive in the hands of who- ever takes over. 

Diversity should be seen as a benefit, said Kelley. 

“In agriculture, we value diversity when it comes to our regions, sectors, varieties, crops, and farms, etc.,” said Kelley. “The same should be of our people as well. Agriculture is about growth and it takes all of us, women and men to make that happen.” 

Lastly, these conversations — no matter how tough — need to continue. This will start to normalize the diversity around women’s roles and, hopefully, give them the space to make their own decisions, said Reynolds. 

“My hope is we keep having this conversation and ask more questions, from a place of positive intent,” Kelley wrote. “These conversations are important to heighten our aware- ness, our biases and reflect on our responses. 

“Even with the challenges I’ve shared, I am proud to be part of agriculture and a woman in the industry,” Kelley added. “What I admire and respect about the ‘farm wife’ role and term is that it creates community where women can connect and support one another.” 

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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