Women may be our best hope for the future of healthy, sustainable, local food.
By Frances MacKinnonIt’s a familiar scene every Saturday morning in cities and towns. Streams of urbanites strolling parking lots and parks, stuffing eco-friendly bags with fresh organic produce from local farms.
There is a very good chance that that food was grown (and harvested and loaded into a truck) by a woman. They’ve been there all along, but, somehow we’ve overlooked this fact.
While the farming sector as a whole (and by extension, our domestic food system) is in a worrying state of decline, with no sign of interest from the next generation, the organic farming sector is growing like a weed, and, women are at the root of it.
Wendee Kubik, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario has been studying women farmers for more than 20 years.
“The number of family farms is decreasing, and, there is not a lot of people going into farming in general . But, of the people going into it, the largest area of growth is women in organic farming.”
Organic farming makes up less than 5% of overall agriculture in Canada, but, from 2013-2015 it saw a jump of $1 billion in sales, and, and it’s not slowing down. COTA (Canadian Organic Trade Association) reports that more than half of Canadians buy organic on a weekly basis, and 80% “have maintained or increased their organic purchases in the last year.”
Kubik is quick to point out that women have been farming – doing virtually the same work as men, in addition to innumerable support and family-raising roles – since forever. But, they were what she calls “invisible farmers”, unacknowledged because they were women, or, not identified because census data only allowed for one farmer per household. In fact, Kubik argues, it is on the backs of such traditionally undervalued female farmers that we have enjoyed agricultural bounty and lower food prices for decades.
But, in this new era of farming, borne out of necessity and changing attitudes, more females are finding a fit on the farm.
“I know more women than men organic farmers,” says Ann van Der Heyden who started Wooler Dale Farm with her late husband 35 years ago.
GETTING CLOSER TO YOUR FOOD
Urbanites, women and men, are indeed trading the city vibe for the rural route. Couples, families and singles are seeking a healthier, more fulfilling, sometimes more affordable, lifestyle. “I know several that have left stressful jobs in Toronto and did a complete turnaround and started an organic farm.”
Today, Ann with her daughter and farming partner Nicole Prins are slinging eye-popping fresh vegetables and the occasional cooking tip as fast as they can to a steady line up of health conscious urban customers at Wychwood Barns Farmers Market in Toronto.
Their farm is a two-hour trek away from their city customers; their day begins at the crack of dawn, and ends late afternoon with a tear down of their stand, and another two-hour drive.. It’s an exhausting end to an exhausting week. “Market isn’t all just fun,” says Nicole. “You’re working so hard all week, and then on the last day of the week you make your income. It’s rewarding, but, it’s hard work.” Nicole has a bachelors degree in chemistry and math could be a poster-child for eating organic.
She’s a rare second generation farmer planning to take over what her parents started. But, it comes with a cost. A year ago she had her first child, Ava. “There is no maternity leave when you’re running a business. When you’re pregnant, or post-pregnancy, there is no time off.” Which means Ava is part of the farm chores. “Sometimes I bring her with me and she sleeps while I grade peas.”
Single women shouldering the entire responsibility of running a farm is an even smaller percentage of the whole farming picture, but those numbers are creeping up, too.
In 2007, Brenda Hsueh was living the dream of most young career women. A Bay St. job, a downtown Toronto condo, city life, the whole nine.
But, the version of success which she’d worked her whole life towards left her longing for a deeper purpose and meaning in life. At 33, she left it all behind, and bought a farm in Grey County, Ontario. She’s found her home. “I’ll be here until I die,” she promises.
“It was a moral decision. I look at the world and how we treat it and I’m horrified. I grew up a suburban kid who stayed inside all summer reading books and playing piano. But, I love the physical work of farming.”
A CHANGING FIELD
In case your perception of farming only includes the outdated image of a weathered, middle-age man driving a tractor and throwing bales of hay, you’d be wrong on a few levels.
For starters, on many farms, 75-80% of volunteers and interns these days are women. Sometimes even more. “And, they’re the hardest workers,” a (male) farmer recently piped up while I was chatting up his neighbour.
Add to that the fact that 90% of farming is large scale factory farms, and even if you shop at a grocer that sells ‘locally sourced’ products, you’re still likely buying from a mass producing farm. (*Ontario does not enforce regulations for products labeled organic. Several other provinces, do.)
“A picture of a farmer with an arm around a cow gives the sense of relationship with the animals. That’s the Ontario brand. It’s false.” In other words you’re buying what the marketers are selling, and this makes Angie Koch crazy. “It’s insulting to my sense of integrity”
If there is a rockstar in the world of organic farming, it might be Angie Koch.
Angie is 42 and sole manager of Fertile Grounds Farm just outside Waterloo, Ontario. It’s a two-hour drive and a world away from the Toronto skyline.
Angie is talking on the phone with me while eating her lunch, one ear on the walkie for any possible emergencies.
She’s already been in the field six hours. It’s full throttle harvest time and her 250 customers are expecting their boxes of produce to be ready for pick up.
“I’m a slave to the vegetables.”
The fact that she is going stronger than ever after 10 years of back breaking, isolating and near-burn out farming is to her, a miracle. “My body won’t do this forever. Thats the flip side of 42. I have chronic back problems, I have arthritis. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. Market gardening is extremely labour intensive work. ”
As far as being a female in the farming world, there are unique challenges.
“Women on the whole are not brought up to be mechanically minded. Most daughters are not taught how to fix a pipe when its broken, or change a tire. As far as we’ve come its still the case that women aren’t mechanically minded. A lot of things break on a farm.”
Fortunately, she is not alone.
“I have staff and interns and they’re mostly women from non-farming backgrounds. You go to craft field day at a farm and it’s 75% women interning.”
Exactly why women seem attracted to organic farming is up for debate.
“Is it community connections?,” she wonders out loud. “Small scale diversified farming is emebedded in relationships. Women are still more the ones who do the cooking and food tasks -is there more passion in what type of food we’re putting into our children’s bodies? All I can guess is there is a care-taking mindset to do things in a thoughtful, respectful way.”
In speaking with a handful of women farmers at the market, one leaves me with this thought:
“You’ll find most female farmers are feminists.”
Wendee Kubik says research has shown that stress on female farmers is great, and historically, there has been little support for their unique issues. “They do a lot of community work to keep community going. Some women do farm work, child work, household work and a ‘real’ job off the farm.
Her advice, if you farm, call yourself a farmer. Push for policy changes that benefit women. Join associations. “If you’re invisible nothing is going to happen.”
“The numbers are very small right now, but this is the wave of the future.”
To find out more about organic farming in Canada click here.