Preparing women to be career farmers

Fifteen expert ideas for a better start to a woman’s career on the farm

As more women join the ranks of primary producers, they still find out there are some challenges working in an industry where they are in the minority. How can young women best prepare for a career as a farmer? How can their families help them.

Country Guide asked a variety of experts from backgrounds as varied as the barn and boardroom for their advice on how to get a great start.

These days, with agriculture getting so much more complex, “producer” and “manager” perspectives are both essential for anyone planning a future in the industry.

Amanda Hammell, a senior financing specialist with RBC Royal Bank who also operates a dairy farm with her husband near Dobbinton, Ont., says that when it comes to approving an application for financing, the applicant’s education is an important consideration.

Formal education pays, but Hammell also puts value on farm experience and knowledge of the industry, so she encourages young people to make use of the many opportunities available to gain industry knowledge, all the way from Twitter to attending producer meetings.

Brenda Schoepp, a farmer and mentor from Red Deer, Alta., advises young people to get some training in human resources for today’s increasingly complex farms.

Schoepp also encourages young women to spend time away working off the farm, travelling. When they return to the farm, these young women are more confident and their value will be recognized, she explains.

Marg Rempel who has been farming near Steinbach, Man. for more than 40 years, first with her husband, then on her own for 12 years after his death, and now for the past three years with her son, agrees that cultivating self-confidence is critical for young female farmers who will find themselves outnumbered on boards and at industry meetings.

On a more philosophical note, she advises young women to get clear about their objectives. “Knowing the difference between wants and needs will help you understand where true satisfaction and serenity lie,” she explains.

Developing a core team of advisers is also essential. This team could include a banker, lawyer, accountant, and crop specialist. “These should be people you like and trust and feel comfortable asking questions,” says Hammell. Rempel agrees. “Find a core ‘support group’ where opinions can be shared openly and honestly… the folks who will listen when you’ve had a terrible day or horrible harvest weather and the folks who will challenge you to be ever conscious of your role as an environmental steward.”

Also look for the learning opportunities in everything you do. Ask questions, our experts advise. It’s one of the best ways to keep on the path to success.

“Learn all you can. Ask farmers, professors, crop consultants and family members you respect for their wisdom,” says Rempel. “The old adage about ‘two ears, one mouth’ bears heeding,” she says. “Listen lots, speak carefully.”

Sandi Brock who has a flock of 450 breeding ewes near Staffa, Ont., agrees. “Don’t be too proud to ask questions,” she recommends.

Also keep your eye open for mentors, Brock says.

When she first started farming after university, Brock worked in a broiler breeder operation and says she learned a lot from two men who were highly respected in the industry. She says she asked a lot of questions and they liked helping her.

“I was keen and enthusiastic and it didn’t matter to them that I was a woman,” she says. She also gave the men feedback on how their ideas worked out.

Mentors can come in different forms and in different ways, continues Brock. “Latch on to the ones who are in the right place at the right time.”

When Brock later decided to get into sheep farming, another producer became her mentor. She helped him with his chores and in return she learned how to care for the sheep. When he got out of the business, she bought his sheep and set up her barn like his, she says.

But also be alert for role models. Having women as role models is proven to help young women succeed in male-dominated professions. According to Dr. Christine Logel, a professor at the University of Waterloo, studies in social psychology consistently show that when girls have examples of women who have succeeded in a male-dominated field, it helps them handle the stress that comes with constantly having to prove themselves.

Also, remember all the kinds of help that parents can provide.

Hammell thinks helping their children develop financial literacy is one of the most important things parents can do. If a son or daughter is taking over the farm, they should understand the financial statements, she says. They need to understand the farm’s potential revenue and expenses, and where these numbers come from.

If you’re a young woman looking to start a farm, a related idea is to do the books yourself rather than hiring a bookkeeper because it helps you develop a better, and more detailed understanding of how money flows into and out of the operation. “Otherwise you may have dug a hole before you realize it,” Hammell says. “You have to be able to evaluate every decision. It’s easy to want the new tractor, but will it make you money?”

Focus on succession planning as well as financial planning. Attend meetings with accountants, lawyers and others when farm succession is being discussed.

Hammell says she sees far too many instances where a son or daughter is planning to take over the farm but isn’t at the succession planning and purchasing decision meetings. They need to make attendance a priority, she says.

Schoepp agrees that financial literacy is crucial. Both men and women need to have a full understanding of the finances and a strong business plan.

While Hammell says all applicants at her bank are evaluated with the same standards regardless of gender, age, or race, Schoepp thinks there may be situations where women face some lingering discrimination when it comes to accessing capital.

Also consider building a separate enterprise of her own.

This can be a great way to develop financial literacy, Schoepp says, and she suggests young people purchase a house while at university or start an agri-business of their own, separate from the farm, to gain money management skills.

Schoepp also suggests parents have a contingency fund for each child so that they can travel before taking over the family farm. By travelling, people learn new ways of doing things, gain independence, responsibility and resiliency.

And also… don’t forget that your attitudes toward work are crucial.

Brock credits her parents with instilling in her a work ethic that she considers to be her most valuable asset.

Growing up on a dairy farm with only girls in the family and no hired help, Brock says she and her sisters did everything. She learned skills such as how to fix things that are still useful today on her own farm.

“The best training was to get in there and do it,” Brock says.

While Brock doesn’t think she works her own teenaged children as hard as she worked herself growing up, she says her children have gained excellent critical thinking skills on the farm. She and her husband, Mark, who runs the cash crop side of the farm, regularly discuss all aspects of their farm and their industries with the children

“We talk about the good, the bad and the ugly,” Brock says. “If my children do decide they want to farm, there won’t be any surprises.”

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