by Shannon Jones
I remember when my partner Bryan and I first started our farm and were applying for a loan. We noticed that the lending officer started off speaking to and facing Bryan. However, I was the one who kept replying to the lending officer and only then did he realize that he needed to shift his position to face both of us. The same thing happened when we went to buy a tractor.
This happened despite the fact that women make up the majority of food producers globally and, closer to home, numerous surveys from Canada and the U.S. show that more than 50 percent of new farmers in North America are women.
Why has the stereotype of men as farmers become so prevalent? Maybe it’s coming less from the reality on the farm and more from what we see at many farm association meetings, conferences, and tradeshows, and among various boards of directors and committees. Too often, even in the 21st century, when I attend agricultural meetings, I don’t see enough women in attendance or speaking up.
In late November, I attended the National Farmers Union (NFU) annual convention in Ottawa. Besides meeting with MPs at Parliament, hearing panelists speak on diverse issues such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Indigenous solidarity, and debating on resolutions with farmers from across the country, I was also elected the NFU’s women’s vice-president.
The NFU has held specific leadership positions for women and youth since the 1960s. Even back then, the farmer members recognized the importance of women’s voices and their work both on the farm and in agricultural policy and advocacy work.
I think a primary reason we don’t see enough women representation or hear enough women’s voices speaking up is that women are not always encouraged enough to take on leadership positions. The NFU has encouraged women leaders by having the specific positions of women’s president, women’s vice-president, and women’s adviser for each region of Canada. This doesn’t mean that the positions of president, vice-president of policy, and vice-president of operations (and any other position) aren’t also open to women. In fact, the NFU’s current president is a woman who was previously the women’s president.
Cultivating female farmer leadership is not just about asking someone to sit on a board of directors. It’s important to think of new and different ways to help people feel their voice is wanted and respected. Doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result is never a sane strategy.
Last winter, along with other women from across the Maritimes, I helped organize a women farmers retreat. It was a two-day sleepover event and we all brought food from our farms to contribute and prepare meals together. We identified topics for farmer-to-farmer conversations that were much more holistic than many of the production, marketing, and business events we each attend. We spoke about farming with our partners and families, farming alone, and work-life balance. The retreat served to nourish, inspire, and rejuvenate us, while strengthening our sense of community and support. We are all looking forward to another one this winter.
While the NFU has encouraged women and youth leadership since it started, the women’s caucus (made up of the women’s president and vice-president, women advisers from across the country, and the membership of women at large) has identified a need to encourage more diversity and inclusion. Like what? Well, diversity of ethnic background, inclusion of new Canadians, diversity of gender identification (not everyone falls into a clearcut male or female), and inclusion of those of different sexual orientations, Indigenous people and different ways of relating to the land, and domestic and migrant farmworkers.
It’s also important to realize that childcare is not a women’s issue, it’s a family issue. So, when a family member cannot make it to a meeting or serve in a leadership position due to childcare issues, meeting and conference organizers should be thinking of ways to support family farmers with childcare options.
While many agricultural issues are not gender specific in the least, a lack of women’s voices (and diversity of voices in general) speaking on behalf of the farm sector should be a concern for everyone in this day and age. I’m proud of and grateful to all those who have encouraged my own confidence to speak up and voice my opinion. My hope is to do the same for others.
(Shannon Jones is a first-generation farmer in River Hebert, Cumberland County, N.S. She and her partner Bryan Dyck make their living by growing organic vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers on a small-scale, organic farm called Broadfork Farm. They sell directly to their customers at the Dieppe Market in New Brunswick and to restaurants and small retail stores.)