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If the door is open for more women to take on more farm roles, it’s because we need them

"Women have always had an important role in the farming operation and making decisions, but it’s becoming more visible now.” says Rachael Werwey.

Undoubtedly, some of the momentum that’s creating more opportunities for more women on Canada’s farms can be traced to various women’s movements over the past century. But not all of it.

Not surprisingly, we should be praising the generations of farm parents who have provided great role models too. And yes, let’s admit that some of the credit goes to technology as well, and the way it has eliminated many of the physical barriers that fed the gender prejudices of the past.

But now let’s also recognize the real driver:

We need for our daughters’ skills, commitment and vision.

Have your doubts? Well, then go onto almost any farm where women are playing larger and larger roles, and talk to the family, as I did recently on the Verwey farm near Portage la Prairie, Man. There, from an early age, Rachael Verwey and her sisters were determined to keep up with the boys, but weren’t really worried about being treated any differently.

With three older male cousins and a younger brother all helping out on the farm, everyone was just family and, equally important, they all saw themselves as pieces of the overall farm jigsaw, the same way everyone else did.

“Growing up, I wasn’t necessarily a girl on the farm,” Rachael says. “I was just a farm kid.”

Her early days in a mixed group weren’t a political statement, they were just what it took to keep the farm going.

“I grew up following them around and doing whatever they were doing,” Rachael says. “I was always checking equipment and working in the barn with the cows, and I was trained the same as everybody else. We all hung out together and played together when we were little, and then we all grew up and worked together really well.”

It’s similar to how Rachael’s mother, Jill, grew up on her family’s mixed farm an hour west near Neepawa. Jill says there wasn’t any gender bias on their farm in those days. “I was the one that learned how to drive a tractor and deep till, and drive the grain truck in the fall and help with the cattle,” she says.

Growing up, I wasn’t necessarily a girl on the farm,” says Rachael, here with mother Jill. “I was just a farm kid.” photo: Sandy Black

Gender bias wasn’t something Jill even thought about until she left high school and went to the University of Manitoba to take her diploma in agriculture, and found herself one of only eight women in a class of 88.

Of course, that’s very different now. When her two daughters, Rachael (23) and Lindsay (21) graduated from university programs, the gender ratio was pretty much 50:50.

Both Jill and her husband, Raymond, who now operate the multi-generational, family farm near Portage, grew up on busy farms where it was all-hands-on-deck all the time. “Our parents approached it as everyone basically was called to do any job that needed to be done,” Jill says.

Now, it turns out, this may also be the right recipe for today’s young farm parents who want to raise their children with equal opportunity.

With the Verweys’ 6,000 acres of grains and oilseeds, Charolais beef herd and dairy operation, there are a lot of jobs to be done. “Our kids were involved from the time they were about five or six years old,” Jill says. “They were in the barn during milking, helped feed the calves, and helped clean up in the barn, so there’s always been a job for everyone to do. We’ve always approached it that way as opposed to any limitations where gender would be involved.”

As the kids have grown, so has their dairy operation, which just means more opportunities for everyone who wants to be involved in the business, says Jill. “We milk about 140 cows now, so it’s a sizable operation,” she says. “All of our kids take part in the fall work where it may be driving a four-wheel drive tractor, or haying in the summer, they’re all involved and have learned all of the jobs right from the ground up.”

Strong role models

When she graduated from high school, Rachael, the oldest of four Verwey children, admits she didn’t see where she would fit on the farm. Her dad was encouraging, and knew she would stay in agriculture, but he also recommended she get out and see what else there was to offer within the agriculture industry.

“I remember him telling me ‘the farm will always be here, go learn and meet different people and come back when you’re ready.’ That has always stuck with me as I continue to learn and grow my career off the farm,” she says.

Rachael has also had some strong female role models that reinforced her desire to work in agriculture, if not on the farm, then in some other capacity. “Our agronomist on the farm, who is my auntie now, was one of my biggest role models for picking the role I wanted to do in agriculture,” she says. “I looked up to her as an agronomist and thought it would be something I might enjoy.”

"It starts with women stepping up to do what they’re good at, and knowing that they can do whatever they want.” – Rachel Werwey. photo: Sandy Black

After talking it over with Mom and Dad, Rachael went on to pursue a degree in animal science at the University of Manitoba, but half-way through was becoming more and more convinced that she didn’t want to give up on the farming life altogether.

“I started to see where my skills would fit into the farm, and as I started to get more knowledgeable I began to speak my mind a bit more about some things we could be doing and asking more questions,” says Rachael. “I think that’s where the shift started about me possibly coming back to the farm some day.”

She believes it wasn’t unexpected; her parents knew that she loved agriculture and encouraged her to do her best and be whatever she decided would make her happy. Rachael is a full-time agronomist with a local Co-op, but is still involved in the family dairy farm part-time, as are all her siblings.

“When I’m home from work early, I’ll help milk our cows. Saturday mornings I help feed the cows in the stockyard and in winter especially, when all the cows are home, we’re busy, and we kids are always the first to ask Dad what’s going on today,” she says. “I try to be there as much as I can. I can’t be home to jump on the combine or that sort of thing anymore, but even though I might not be involved in the day-to-day operations, I’m still in the loop about what’s going on at the farm.”

Her parents have each influenced her in their own ways, both on and off the farm. Jill is currently vice-president of Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) after serving as a regional representative for many years, and she also serves on the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba advisory committee and is a long-time member of various local boards and foundations.

“When I used to go to different meetings and they were talking about the push for gender equality on boards, I was always confused because my Mom’s been on any board that she’s wanted to be on just because she doesn’t care what anybody thinks,” says Rachael. “If she thinks that she’d be the best person for the job, everybody else does too and she gets voted on and seeing that has bestowed confidence in me.”

Rachael has held every position in 4-H except treasurer, sat on the Canadian Charolais Youth Association’s national board, and also served as Manitoba Charolais Junior Association’s president. “My parents pushed me to get outside of my comfort zone and not be afraid to fail,” says Rachael, echoing another common strategy that today’s farms use equally with their boys and girls. “I ran for a couple of positions and didn’t get them, but they taught me that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try again.”

Raymond has never been scared to speak his mind, and Rachael says she’s a lot like him in that regard. “Growing up with parents that are outspoken and well-spoken people, I watched and learned,” she says. “I can go and ask my Dad and my uncle questions because they’ve inspired me to have the confidence to ask them.”

Raymond and Jill, through their farm management and industry involvement, have modelled skills that are vitally important to today’s farm business, and key among those is the ability to recognize each person’s specific expertise and aptitudes, and to help them develop those skills to the benefit of both the individual and the business.

It’s all rooted in their belief that for a farm business to succeed, it needs the very best people to do the jobs that they are best suited for.

As parents, their approach has been to allow their kids to explore their capabilities and interests. Then, regardless of gender, if they decide the farm is where they want to be, it needs to be on the basis that they will make a contribution, and also that they will be happy doing what they do.

Education builds confidence

Secondary education is also something the Verweys have pushed for their children. “I’m a strong advocate of the diploma program that they have at the University of Manitoba,” says Jill, who took the program herself. “Getting those two years of experience in the ground level of agriculture teaches you that the opportunities are endless.

“For a course that was originally intended for young guys to take and come back to the farm, I think it has really grown into a course that offers a lot of other opportunities in the agricultural industry for anyone.”

Brice (19), who fully intends to return to the farm, is currently taking the diploma course and it’s likely that Randi, who is still in Grade 11, might, says Jill.

“With our generation, our dads were good at saying we just need good help,” Rachael says. photo: Sandy Black

For Rachael, her university days have added, of course, to her technical knowledge, but also to the confidence pool, which she believes is hugely important, especially for women in agriculture, who in the past haven’t always had the advantage of environments that encouraged them to speak their mind or offer ideas.

“Once I got into specific classes, like the dairy course or the beef course, I took what I was learning home and I’d be able to say, ‘What if we do things a little differently, like I’ve learned in class,’ and it’s facilitated better conversations,” says Rachael. “Women need to be more confident in our roles, and in our knowledge because we grew up on the farm beside our brothers, we know exactly what we’re doing. It starts with women stepping up to do what they’re good at, and knowing that they can do whatever they want.”

Rachael and her siblings feel fortunate that they never experienced any gender bias growing up on the farm, and certainly haven’t seen it as a barrier so far to achieving their goals. Interestingly, many of their female peers have had the same experience, which is perhaps an indication that some of the traditional male and female stereotypes in agriculture are beginning to crumble with a new generation that thinks more about ability than gender.

“I have quite a few girls that are really close friends and some of them are farming full time now, some are transitioning and starting to take over their dad’s farm,” says Rachael.

“With our generation, our dads were very good at saying we just need good help so we’re going to train everybody to be good help,” she says. “Looking around at all my friends and the girls that I know in the industry, I think they were all pretty much treated the same as we were, and they’re good farmers so they’re sticking around. I think our generation didn’t feel it as much as maybe Mom’s generation, where the girl didn’t get to take over the farm. I don’t see that nearly as much in our generation.”

Succession by ability

Transition is a topic that is on everyone’s mind but hasn’t been formally discussed by the family yet, says Rachael. Her parents and uncles are far from retirement age, but the plan is percolating for the day when it will happen, and there’s no gender bias in sight.

“We haven’t had a sit-down discussion with my dad and mom and our uncles about where the farm is going and when we’re going to start that transition,” says Rachael. “We are pretty good at separating the family from the business and so we can sit down at the table and say, ‘This is where the business is going, this is what we have to do to keep it going in that direction.’ As family, we all know who’s good at what — whose personality type would be good at what — and then we can pick who’s going to manage that sort of thing. I think it’ll be a really good dynamic once we get to that point.”

With things changing in the industry, the onus is on women to find some space for themselves at the table, and that includes finding space to be away from the farm and household responsibilities as well.

“As my children are on the farm and working on the farm, I think both partners in the operation — the husband and wife — are taking a more public view,” says Jill. “I think that women have always had an important role in the farming operation and in making decisions, but it’s becoming more visible now and those women are attending more meetings and having more of a voice at the board table or being involved in local boards.”

A big change has also been industry conferences that are specifically geared towards women, such as the Advancing Women in Agriculture events held twice a year in Ontario and Alberta.

As the line blurs in agriculture in terms of male and female roles, Rachael says she’s learned that families, farms and communities only function when there is respect and recognition for everyone’s contribution, regardless of gender.

“I was raised as one of the farm kids and treated just like my brother and cousins were, but I also got to see how awesome being a farm woman is too,” says Rachael. “I still love the culture of a rural community… I think the woman side of it is pretty cool.”

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Angela Lovell

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