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Women more likely to run non-conventional farms: report

EQUALITY | Access to land, social capital and difference in interests, skills may account for the trend

While women are less likely than men to farm in Manitoba, inequality appears to be lower for women in direct marketing or non-conventional farms, according to a recent report from the University of Manitoba.

“There is a dynamic that women face that young men don’t face entering farming, but I also think that that’s changing in the local food movement and in the organic scale,” said a university agriculture instructor quoted in the study.

Nearly half of direct marketers the researchers spoke to were women, while only 29 per cent of conventional farmers participating in the study were women.

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The data comes from a study into “Becoming a Young Farmer in Manitoba” written by Annette Desmarais, a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba, and master’s student Hannah Bihun.

The study examined the farming journeys of 48 young farmers in southern Manitoba, of which 16 were women (including couples farming together).

When young farmers were asked if they thought women faced different challenges than men as farmers, 66 per cent of conventional farmers said yes, while 38 per cent of direct marketers felt women had different challenges.

Access to capital

Why are women proportionally more represented in direct marketing or ‘alternative’ farming?

One explanation lies in a problem that both men and women farmers face – access to land and capital. These were the No. 1 and 2 barriers to farming, the study found.

“To get into farming, it takes a whole lot of capital,” Desmarais told the Co-operator.

Unless they’ve grown up in a farming family and have secured family support, like access to land, then buying land and equipment for a large farm is out of the question, she said.

The report notes that men and women engaging in organic or alternative styles of farming, more than half surveyed were first-generation farmers, and just over 40 per cent were women. Whereas among conventional farmers, 94 per cent of farmers were from a farming family and 29 per cent were women.

“Starting with a very small farm is a way of getting your foot in the door,” Desmarais said.

Direct marketing, particularly intensive horticulture farming, can generate more money for a small farm, said Phil Veldhuis, president of Direct Farm Manitoba.

“For instance, you might generate $4,000/ac. with a horticulture enterprise, instead of $400/ac. growing wheat,” he said.

Women may also have less ‘social capital’ than men in the farming community, the study noted.

“I think in ag social capital means a lot,” said Michelle Schram, who runs a direct-marketing grass-fed beef, lamb and beekeeping operation with husband Troy Stozek near Cartwright.

It can change which resources you get access to and the people you can get advice from, Schram said.

A different style, skill set

Women may also be more likely to be attracted to this style of farming.

“As the local food movement was gaining more ground across the country, there has been an increase in the number of young women who are interested in farming,” said Desmarais. “They are particularly interested in engaging in producing food in socially just and ecologically sustainable ways, as well as developing social connections with those who purchase the food.”

Developing these social networks takes a lot of time, but is vital in direct marketing. Among farmers interviewed, women were more likely than men to talk about how interested they were in this kind of work.

“When I was a kid, I always had an interest in sort of an entrepreneurial spirit. I was very attracted to the idea of selling things to people, and marketing a product and the pride that comes with that,” said Schram.

Schram noted her husband is very good at talking and networking with people, but she is primarily responsible for customer service and correspondence on their farm.

For Schram, available skills and comfort level also played a role in how she and Stozek decided to farm.

Schram is a third-generation farmer, but when she and Stozek (a first-generation farmer) began working her grandparents’ former farmstead, she had to learn a lot of new skills.

“I wasn’t necessarily taught some of the same things that my brothers were,” said Schram. One of her younger brothers ended up taking over the family farm.

“I acknowledge that part of that was that I wasn’t as interested maybe too, but I maybe wasn’t as interested because I wasn’t being engaged in a way that really challenged me to learn those things,” she said.

Schram noted that it was a surprise to her family when she decided to farm — she’d previously moved to Winnipeg for work and education — but they have been very supportive ever since.

Schram said the mechanical nature of grain farming was intimidating, and she lacked the experience to feel safe working cattle on her own.

This contributed to their beginning with vegetables and chickens. Later, as she and her husband learned more skills, they added larger livestock.

How women traditionally see their roles may also play a factor, said Jeanette Sivilay, who has researched and organized within Manitoba’s local food community. Sivilay co-ran a CSA (community-supported agriculture) vegetable farm at Canadian Mennonite University.

She said there were always more women than men working the CMU farm.

“I think it goes back to that mentality. That, that kind of growing food is more associated with women’s work,” she said, adding she thought men may be more likely to see farming as involving big machinery.

Historically, women often supported their families through eggs, butter and vegetable gardens, said Sivilay.

“My grandma would be picking cucumbers in the yard to send to the McCormick’s plant in Winnipeg when my grandpa would be out on the seeder or doing some more of that larger, conventional kind of work,” she said.

Women often do work that is vital to the farm but might not be recognized as ‘farming,’ said Schram.

“I sometimes feel like the type of work that is done by women on farms is a bit more ‘invisible’… for example, me doing the administrative work on the computer in the home office,” she said.

“Many women on conventional farms are also doing the books, marketing and behind-the-scenes logistics (often in addition to parenting) that I don’t think gets acknowledged enough,” she said. “More women deserve to call themselves ‘farmers,’ rather than just the ‘farmer’s wife.’”

A different dynamic

Women can bring a different dynamic to farming conversations, said Schram. In young farmer peer groups she and Stozek participate in, she’s observed that there are almost as many women as men (both conventional and alternative farmers). The women are more likely to bring up the emotional side of farming, such as mental health and the challenges of raising a family.

“Some of the things that women have brought to the table that I’m not sure that a lot of the men around that table would have the confidence to initiate,” she said. “Bringing up, how are we doing? How are our farms doing? Even being more open about the financial side of things and being able to talk about that with others… acknowledging that there’s a lot of challenges emotionally and psychologically in this line of work.”

She said the men are very engaged in these conversations but are less likely to start them.

At conferences, the higher concentration of women seems to result in more whole families showing up, said Schram. Childcare is more likely to be offered. Older kids sometimes end up learning alongside parents.

“I think that it’s really important that girls and young women see other women in agriculture and in ranching and that they see opportunities for themselves,” said Schram. She added that two farming and ranching women she knew in childhood had a big impact on her.

Many viewpoints are an asset to the community, said Sivilay.

“I think whenever you have people with different orientations and people with different lived experience entering into a sector or a community, you’re going to have differences and I think you’re going to have more challenges but greater successes as well,” she said.

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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