The Manitoba Farm Women’s Conference wants female farmers to start thinking about the next century-and-a-half.
The 31st incarnation of the event landed in Brandon Nov. 19-21, taking on the theme, “Advancing Farm Women for the Next 150 years.”
Conference chair Donna Lee Brown said the theme is a play on Canada 150, marking changes in agriculture and women’s role on the farm since Confederation, as well as speculating on the future.
“It’s not that there’s going to be less hard work; it’s just going to be different hard work,” she said.
In particular, she noted the rise of “unsung heroes” in the farming industry, those women who take multiple roles both on and off the farm in comparison to pioneer women and their focus on the home.
“We have a lot of young women who are working off the farm as well as choosing to be a partnership on the farm as well,” Lee Brown said, adding that many of those working off farm have professional careers such as teachers, lawyers or nurses before returning home for a second shift as farmers.
Female farmers are on the rise in Canada, if 2016’s Census of Agriculture is to be believed.
Statistics Canada now reports that, while women are still in the minority, 28.7 per cent of Canada’s 271,900 farmers were female last year, up from 27.4 per cent in 2011.
Moreover, that jump was not only because women were joining men on existing farms, although those numbers rose as well. The majority (60.4 per cent) of farms are still run only by men, but the number of female-only operations is increasing, jumping from 5.6 per cent of farms in 2011 to 7.2 per cent in 2016.
It’s a particular trend for the young. Farmers under 35 years old in general increased (although they remain one of the lowest age brackets), but the number of farm women under 35 years old rose 113.3 per cent, compared to a 24.4 per cent rise in men.
Statistics Canada has taken those numbers to mean both male and female children are taking over farms from retiring parents.
The conference drew about 125 participants this year, counting day passes. The one-day rate has historically meant attracting attendees who would otherwise be unable to spare time off work.
“Part of what we try to strive for is a process of learning knowledge (and) sharing, how to take back that information to your communities, to your families, how to utilize some of it,” Lee Brown said.
While the conference is not closed to men, the overwhelming majority of both attendees and presenters are female.
Recurring topics such as work-life balance returned to the schedule this year. North Dakota farmer Katie Dilse opened the speaking schedule with a look at business management and family life.
She was followed Nov. 21 by Angela Fox, an Eddystone producer who lost her husband in a workplace accident in 2011, becoming the sole proprietor of their farm. The resulting emotional, legal and financial fallout “struck home” for many in the audience, participants later said, securing Fox’s presentation as one of the most cited talks of the conference.
Panel discussions on legal, financial, health and insurance considerations on the farm later bolstered Fox’s message.
“This year, I feel that there was more of a focus on the whole succession planning and the financial aspect of preparing for the future,” said Mallory Penner, a conference attendee and agricultural account manager with Access Credit Union in Altona.
Dilse’s presentation was also a highlight, she said.
“She just brought a great enthusiasm to it and just reminded us to have a little fun and enjoy life,” she said. “It is a very hard lifestyle for a lot of people and I think it was a really good reminder to just make sure you enjoy it and take time for the people around you, because that’s the important part.”
It was the second year the Altona resident has attended.
The conference was a novel experience for first-time attendee Debra Moffat.
The Strathclair resident has become more active on the farm since the 2003 BSE crisis required her husband to take a job off their cattle operation.
“You run into all sorts of obstacles because I’m the farmer’s wife; I’m not the farmer,” she said. “You had to educate people on how they treated you.”
Like Penner and Lee Brown, Moffat also cited Fox’s emotional talk.
“I’m sure most of us were in tears over the thing, but it’s just a reality of what could happen to any of us at any time,” she said, adding that she and her husband are in the middle of succession planning.
Food myths and public trust, farm safety, time-sensitive meal prep, community service, teaching financial literacy to the next generation and employee recruitment helped round out the speaking schedule.
The annual conference will return to Winkler next year, the same community that hosted it in 2015.