Trina Moyles is the author of Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World.
“People often think that the farmer is the man. [Some] assume that I’m the farmer’s wife,” says Dawn Boileau with a wry look on her face. A farmer in her late 30s, Ms. Boileau runs Sunrise Gardens, a small-scale organic farm operation in Onoway, Alta. Every Saturday, Ms. Boileau and her wife, Kate Hook, haul a bounty of organically grown Nantes carrots, butternut squash, along with trays of electric green wheatgrass and microgreens, to sell at the Strathcona Farmers’ Market in Edmonton.
“When you say ‘farmer’ in Alberta, it’s typically assumed you have cows, a thousand acres of land, and that you drive a tractor most of the time,” says Ms. Boileau, whose 12-acre vegetable, fruit and edible-flower farm rubs up against an ocean of grain operations run mostly by men.
“ – And that you’re a man,” I add, and she nods and laughs.
The “Farmer Joe” caricature of a silver-haired, paunch-bellied man with apiece of grass stuck between his teeth has long persisted in North American imagination. And for good reason: According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, only 28 per cent of Canadian farms are run by women (up one percentage point the previous census in 2011). Nationally speaking, the average Canadian farmer is 55 years old and farms more than 800 acres of land.
But change is under way on Canadian farms today. British Columbia has the highest proportion of female farm operators (at 37.5 per cent) in Canada, while new research suggests that the number of female farmers are on the rise in Atlantic Canada. In postsecondary institutions across the country, women outnumber men in agricultural and natural-science faculties. Permaculture and alternative agricultural workshops are often dominated by female participation, although frequently facilitated by male instructors.
On the prairies, Ms. Boileau is bucking the Farmer Joe stereotype on all fronts: the five-foot-tall female farmer prefers to grow food by hand, not machinery, to build her own organic soil, to grow food vertically – maximizing her yields on less land – and to generally “experiment with farming on [her] own terms.”
And she isn’t alone.
Over the past several years, I’ve been witnessing and writing about a generation of young Canadian women who are hungry to farm – despite the social, economic and psychological odds stacked against them – and are doing so relying on innovation and imagination. In my book, Women Who Dig, I peer beyond the statistics and document the stories of women who are working to address gender inequality and revolutionize how food is grown in Canada – and by whom.
“Society does not encourage girls to pursue careers that involve heavy work,” Ms. Boileau says. “But women can accomplish just as much as men on the farm by working smarter, not necessarily harder.”
Ms. Boileau credits her willingness to experiment as key to success. In 2009, she shifted her energy from solely growing field crops to experimenting with indoor cultivation of wheatgrass and other microgreens, including radish, sunflower and pea shoots. Today, this year-round niche product generates more than half of her farm income, yet demands significantly less labour than field crops, such as carrots and squash.
Perhaps the biggest barrier facing women today is the rising cost of farmland. Over the past 10 years, the average value of farmland in Alberta has gone up annually between 4.4 per cent and 17.4 per cent. “The cost of land has gone sky high,” says Mary Beckie, an associate professor in food-security studies at the University of Alberta. “It’s a huge investment to get into farming today.”
Many young, aspiring female farmers (some who are also recent university graduates and shouldering the burden of student debt) simply cannot afford to take on the capital costs of farmland and farm equipment, which can cost upward of a million dollars.
But women such as Cathryn Sprague, a 29-year-old farmer in Edmonton, aren’t letting the issue of land stop them from growing food. Several years ago, Ms. Sprague and her business partner, Ryan Mason, launched Reclaim Farm, one of the first urban-farming operations in Edmonton. Ms. Sprague set her sights on idle urban land plots. She asked owners for permission to repurpose the land to grow vegetables, often in exchange for providing them with weekly supplies of fresh produce.
“Our name ‘Reclaim’ has a lot of meanings,” Ms. Sprague says. “Instead of looking at the city as a series of private properties, we are looking at vacant spaces as places where we can grow food for the people who live nearby.” Several years ago, she stood up at a city council meeting in Edmonton to urge councillors to change city bylaws to make urban agriculture an official land-use activity. Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the bylaw change. “I’ve always been interested in how we can work to solve issues of hunger and food insecurity,” she says.
Many of the Canadian women whom I met were motivated to enact political and social change. Through their work on the land, sowing seeds, weeding, harvesting, and tending to livestock, I witnessed women striving for positive change in local and global food systems.
Lisa Lundgard, a 28-year-old farmer from northern Alberta, has joined ranks with the Young Agrarians, along with the National Farmer’s Union Youth Chapter, two organizations that are both actively working to support women in agriculture, and more broadly to lobby for increased government support for young farmers, regardless of gender.
Despite the financial burdens of farming, Ms. Lundgard is optimistic for what the future holds for young women farmers in Canada. “We’re at a crazy moment right now,” she says. “There’s an older generation of farmers waiting to retire, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with their farms. There isn’t a shortage of land; there’s a shortage of young farmers who are ready to farm.”
According to the 2016 Agricultural Census, only one in 12 farm operations reported having a formal succession plan for transferring the farm to the next generation of farmers. Ms. Lundgard is hopeful that,through the support of farm organizations, retiring farmers in Canada will be able to connect with young farmers to facilitate affordable access to farmland, and also provide key mentorship.
“If you really want to farm today, you can’t be set on where you’re going to be,” Ms. Lundgard advises. “You have to be ready to move to where land becomes available. You have to get creative.”
Indeed, if there’s one trait I’ve seen again and again among the Canadian women farmers I’ve encountered through my travels, it’s just that – creativity. Women are shaking up the old boy’s club, climbing into the tractor seat, breaking down gender barriers, running farms, building up healthy soil and finding innovative ways to grow more food in urban and rural communities alike.
So move over, Farmer Joe, and make way for Farmer Jane.
The future of farming is female.