Forget ‘Farmer Joe’ – Who Are the Young Women Farmers of Canada?

The edge of Jess's new farm in Northern Alberta, Canada.

The edge of Jess’s new farm in Northern Alberta, Canada.

The cluster of white poplar trees stood static as the raised fur on the back of a dog’s neck, and the sun beamed blinding light off the crusted snow banks. I squinted my eyes against the glare and looked down at the metallic snowshoes – light as a feather – that I’d strapped to my big winter boots. Walking on snow like Jesus walked on water, I laughed to myself.

Jess, a childhood friend, glided beside me on toothpick cross-country skies, as we moved forward along the cutline that followed the perimeter of her new quarter section of land in North Harmon Valley of the Peace River country.

Jess pointed out the black marks scarring the silver-white bark of the poplars. Black bears. Jess knew the Peace Country bush well, having grown up on her family’s acreage to the north as an avid horseback and trail rider. She knew how to spot a bear den, and what to do if she met a bear on the path. Sit, spin – run!

I sucked back the frigid Northern Albertan airs and my lungs cringed – weakened by a year living away from the kind of winter that I’d grown up with.

I had to laugh to myself. Only ten-days earlier I had been paddling the silky waters of the Rio de Sábalos in Nicaragua’s southwestern tropics. No matter, the landscape today was as beautiful as Nicaragua’s rainforest. A true blue sky, empty fields of glistening snow, and those brave little birds darting to and fro the highest naked thin limbs of the poplar stands.

Harlan - the Highland steer, a heritage breed.

Harlan – the Highland steer, a heritage breed.

And the conversation with Jess, an emerging farmer who’d just bought the land with her boyfriend, six months before, was no less inspiring than the stories I encountered with women in Nicaragua only weeks before.

As she showed me around her snowy property and mapped out their plans for the farm – the future pastures and chicken coop, the newly purchased tractor, and the bales of hay to feed their one “experimental” heritage-breed Highland steer, Harlan – I grew increasingly excited and proud of my friend’s efforts and ambitions.

Two years ago she was dreaming about getting into farming, and today she was one step closer (and one season away) from beginning.

Jess standing in front of her future chicken coop.

Jess standing in front of her future chicken coop.

Women Farmers in Canada

As I focus now on women involved with food production and distribution in the enormous backyard of my own country, the most notable difference with the research I’ve done in Latin America and East Africa is, straight up, the numbers of women.

To glance at two extremes: Ugandan women in agriculture form largely the majority of the national population. That is to say – women who grow their own food and eke out a livelihood from agriculture are more common than women who do not.

But my good friend, Jess, and the other women I’m planning to interview in Western Canada, represent the minority of the national population. In general, Canadian farmers represent only 3% of the national population, and within that number, 73% are men and only 27% are women. Beyond gender, age plays a factor, too.

How are Canadian women challenging the 'Farmer Joe' stereotype?

How are Canadian women challenging the ‘Farmer Joe’ stereotype?

The ‘Farmer Joe’ stereotype – you know, the old guy dressed in jean overalls, a plaid shirt, mesh farmer’s hat and a grass between the teeth – isn’t so far off from the truth (maybe minus the dress-code, bit!) The average age of Canadian farmers was 49.9 in 2001, 52 in 2006, and 54 in 2011.

Smaller-sized farms are shrinking fast in Canada, while large-scale corporate family farms are expanding. It’s reported that farms that earn over $1 million a year in revenue have grown by 36% since 2006 and represent the fastest growing sector in Canadian agriculture.

These statistics, alone, set the stage for understanding many of the challenges that women farmers, and emerging women farmers, including Jess, are facing in Canada.

But some would argue (including me) that there’s been a recent a surge in Canadian women (and young women, at that) who are becoming involved in alternative forms of agriculture to the corporate farm, or the traditional family farm. Women, who are self-taught, even city born. Women who’ve learned the trade by traveling, WOOFing, volunteering, experimenting – and doing. Women who are growing food and raising livestock, not only out of necessity, but ethics.

In the next four weeks, my research will ask: who are these young Canadian women and why are they interested in farming? Why are they giving up desk and computer jobs, taking pay cuts, taking risks and intentionally getting their hands dirty? Where and how are they farming?

So I’ve got just four weeks left in Western Canada to spend time with different women farmers in the Peace River country of Alberta’s north, the Edmonton capital region, and then over to beautiful British Columbia, specifically in the Victoria and Salt Spring Island area, before flying back to Uganda to continue my work and, of course, to write the book!

Now having interviewed over 80 women farmers between three countries – Uganda, Guatemala and Nicaragua – I’m excited to add the Canadian voices and perspectives to the evolving book, and to continue to marvel at the striking similarities and differences of what it means to be a woman committed to feeding her family and community.


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