by Melanie Epp
When I was first asked to write a regular column for Women in Ag, I was excited by the idea. To my knowledge, there are no other publications aimed at women who work in the sector. My excitement was quickly replaced by apprehension. In full disclosure, I am not a farmer – I didn’t even grow up on a farm – and although I am a woman, I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as a ‘feminist’, at least not in the modern sense of the word. What business do I have writing a column for women in agriculture? And do we even need a magazine just for women in agriculture? Turns out we do, and I might be just the right person for the job.
To write a strong column I was going to need strong ideas, and who better to ask than women who actually work in the sector. The most obvious place to start was my own network, so I reached out to a ‘women in ag’ Facebook group in Canada. First I asked them if they thought there was a need for such a magazine. I asked because I wasn’t sure myself. If we see ourselves as equals, do we need a magazine that sets us apart from men? And if yes, why?
I then asked the group to provide examples of the types of topics they’d like to see covered. The feedback was incredible, and while I realize that a group of Canadian farmwomen do not and cannot speak for all women in agriculture, their comments were thought provoking and universal in their nature.
One of the first to respond suggested we highlight the stereotypes and sexism still faced by women in the sector, especially in cases where they hinder farm succession or career advancement. While I like the idea of exploring the challenges around the suggested topics, I’m not keen on focusing on sexism.
One Alberta beef rancher agreed. She said it’s pointless to rehash past issues and wrongdoings. She wants uplifting stories that help her improve life on the farm. “I don’t care if the business is run by a man or a woman,” she said. “I want to know what has made them successful.”
Another echoed her concerns, saying she was tired of hearing accounts of bias and bigotry that focus on how hard it is to be a ‘farmer’s wife’. She wants to read inspiring stories about powerful women who are ‘kicking butt’ in leadership roles. I like this idea, but my aim is not to canonize successful women. I want to inspire others through their stories.
Another farmer flat out said she didn’t see the need for a publication geared towards women in agriculture. For 40 years she’s worked alongside her husband as a full partner on their beef and cash crop operation. She’s confident in what she’s doing and doesn’t see the need for ‘hand holding.’
“In fact,” she said, “I feel that the more we claim to be singled out negatively, the more negativity we invite.”
While many agreed with her comment, including myself, others reminded us that not all women are as lucky. Many still battle inequalities and fight to be heard on their farms. We don’t get to decide when their battle is done. In writing more positive stories, I will not exclude, silence or gloss over negative experience, but I will not seek it out either.
For the most part, though, the comments were positive in nature. The women who responded are excited by the idea of a publication aimed at sharing and enhancing their lives. And they have great ideas.
One commenter, for example, asked for pieces that focus on trends in clothing, cooking and farm equipment. It’s challenging to find work clothing that fits women and children, she said, and oversized tools and too heavy hitches and hydraulic hookups are cause for frustration.
Turning to life in the home, women asked for tips on how to balance farm work with childcare. They wanted to know how to improve on-farm safety, and specifically asked which tasks can be done safely while pregnant – and which are best avoided. One woman highlighted the importance of wills on multi-generational farms, and another asked for advice on how to care for elderly parents who still want to be a part of the farm. These topics are rarely, if ever, tackled in traditional agricultural publications, but they will certainly be considered here.
Top-of-mind concerns included the current pandemic and how it has altered roles on the farm. Pointing to a shift in focus from farming to cooking, cleaning and childcare, one woman said the pandemic has set women back by pushing them into more domestic duties. In many countries, lockdown has left parents responsible for their children’s education, a role most are not equipped nor interested in taking on. Some were dismayed, when taking on that role, by how little information the school curriculum includes on primary food production. Early education, they said, is key to bridging the urban-rural divide.
Many women asked for articles to help hone new skills and improve the ones they have. Specifically, they asked for pieces on new apps and computer programs, tips for better bookkeeping, and how to hire the right employees, including a nanny.
Mental health was highlighted as a major area of concern. While some women are looking for ways to find or improve work-life balance, others struggle with farm-related stress, mounting debt and health issues. For many, these concerns are compounded by the fact that they live in remote locations where access to common resources is difficult at best.
The Canadian women I spoke with wanted to know what they could do to diversify income on the farm. They asked for stories on women who have successfully launched agritourism, farm-gate and niche market businesses.
They also want to read about women who do non-traditional jobs like grain marketing, equipment sales and even the rodeo circuit.
Finally, many women expressed the desire to do more. They want to volunteer, but don’t know which roles to take on. They want to sit on boards, but don’t know how to combine the additional workload with children and chores. They want the women we feature to have some answers, and they will.
After reading the 85 or so comments from Canadian women in agriculture, I can confidently say that we’ve got something here. There is a need for a ‘women in ag’ magazine. While I might not be a farmer, I get to work with them every single day.
In Canada, I’ve met women who drive combine, raise children, sit on boards and still find time to play hockey. In Tanzania, I listened to a village matriarch tell how she built a successful women’s dairy cooperative. “This, despite the odds,” she said, nodding to a group of men who were trying to get our attention by loudly revving their motorcycle engines in the background. I met a Hilltribe farmer in Northern Thailand, who brought herself out of poverty through poultry production. I drank tea with an elderly Vietnamese woman who single-handedly improved food security in her village by teaching local farmers how to produce rice better. These women are an inspiration. Their stories are uplifting, and with their permission, I will share them here.
Melanie Epp is a freelance agricultural journalist from Canada. She writes about everything from potatoes to poultry, soil health to livestock production. But she’s happiest when she’s writing about farmers around the world – who they are, what they do, and how they do it. Melanie has been living in Belgium since 2014.
Text: Melanie Epp – Photos: Melanie Epp & Tim Foster
This column was published in Women in Ag Mag 2021-1. Click here to read the magazine.