They’ve toured farms and foundrys, vacation farms and bird sanctuaries, Hutterite colonies and grain elevators. They’ve formed lifelong friendships. They’ve helped enrich lives and deepen appreciation for rural life.
Now the Southwest Farm Women’s Network (SWFWN) adds a national award for outstanding achievement to its list of accomplishments.
The grassroots women’s group in southwestern Manitoba was awarded a Canadian Agri-Food Award of Excellence for Voluntarism earlier this month.
Manitoba farmers Kathy Heaman and Valerie MacKay, both longtime volunteers with the network, accepted the award on its behalf at a special ceremony held at the Royal Agriculture Winter Fair in Toronto November 10. This is the eighth year the fair and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have co-sponsored the award to recognize outstanding leadership.
It’s a big honour for a group taking a quiet and humble approach to working on behalf of farm and rural women. The Southwest Farm Women’s Network has been linking women together for educational opportunities and informal networking since the late 1980s.
MacKay, who presently chairs the network, has been with it since its start. She was a young mom raising a family on their Belmont-area farm when she remembers getting a call about it.
Local home economists suggested the region’s women would benefit from a networking initiative geared towards their specific needs and interests.
“They thought it would be a good way to get people together, for some bonding and pooling of ideas,” she said.
The idea interested women like MacKay, who began devoting a few hours a month to building a network. A core group of volunteers first
organized seminars for women. Topics ranged from how to run a co-operative or start home-based businesses, to marketing and building effective community groups.
On the road
In 1994, they ran a one-day bus tour that proved so popular they switched to that instead of seminars. The tour takes a busload of women around to sites of interest throughout the southwest. More recently the network has co-ordinated a summer garden tour, arranging carloads of women to visit each other’s gardens. Each January, the network hosts seminars held at Manitoba Ag Days and provides a core of volunteers to help run the annual Manitoba Farm Women’s Conference.
Today the entire network consists of about 800 women whose names are on a database to receive a newsletter and notification of upcoming events.
All the work – database administration, newsletter mail-outs, event and seminar planning – are done by farm women who set aside time for it. They meet a few times a year to plan the tours and seminars, staying in contact by phone and e-mail the rest of the time. MAFRI’s own rural leadership specialists continue to support the group.
The time involved does add up to many hours a year – yet these women give of themselves gladly. They work collaboratively and share the various jobs to keep the network running. This is one of those rare rural organizations not suffering from volunteer burnout.
That’s because it’s personally enriching to be involved, adds Heaman. “I enjoy the people and I certainly enjoy the education myself that comes back out of it,” she said. It’s a way to connect with other women sharing the farming experience. Plus, they learn about their own region – often seeing things they might otherwise have missed. “I have seen things and met people that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been involved in an organization like this,” she said.
Rural leadership specialist at the Minnedosa GO office Ann Mandziuk, one of the home economists who helped start up the network, said she was happy to hear the Southwest Farm Women’s Network had won this award.
“This validates all of the volunteer time and all of the work they’ve put into providing a forum for farm and rural women in southwest Manitoba,” said Mandziuk.
Five other awards recognizing outstanding achievements and leadership were awarded at the Toronto ceremonies in areas that included youth leadership, innovation, agri-food export, environmental stewardship and agricultural awareness and education.