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Farmer Barbie?

Is Farmer Barbie just another way to keep our daughters out of the business of farming, or is something more serious going on?

Next time you check out the toy aisle you might be surprised to find a Farmer Barbie doll on the shelves. She comes ready to farm dressed in a plaid shirt, denim overalls and rubber boots, with a red tractor, pink trailer, and an assortment of farm animals.

Farmer Barbie is one of a line of over 200 “Barbie Career Dolls” that maker Mattel says inspire kids to “dream big and aim high.”

Could it be that Mattel has been looking over the latest statistics on women farmers? It seems that more and more women are taking on the role of farm operator. According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census of Agriculture, the number of women farm operators across Canada had risen by 27 per cent in just five years, bringing the total to almost 78,000. The trend is similar in the U.S., where 30 per cent of farmers are women.

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So maybe Mattel has got it right. Some farm women, though, have felt a bit indignant about Farmer Barbie. After all, they ask, haven’t we got past the stage where the girls are supposed to play with the dolls while the boys play with field equipment?

But then, could Farmer Barbie be a signal that a wider circle of gender stereotypes are getting challenged in farming, as they are in other industries?

On some scales, Canada is doing quite well, after all. When it comes to daughters coming back to farm and being integrated into the farm business, Europe is lagging behind, and so is Australia, where only 10 per cent of farm successors are daughters. According to farmer Katrina Sasse, who just completed a Nuffield Scholarship on the subject, such numbers portray a history of patriarchy and traditional ideas about succession in rural communities.

Katrina Sasse.
photo: Supplied

“Given the significant barriers women faced in the past, we need to be evolving away from the expectation and assumption that only sons are going to come back to the family farm,” says Sasse. “I think that more women-led farms, through family farm succession, are on the horizon. I have seen a broad range of ways women can get involved and develop their capacity.”

In 2013, after a successful career in agribusiness banking, Sasse returned to work full time on the family’s 8,200-hectare cereal and oilseed farm at Morawa in Western Australia. “My sister had taken on my grandad’s farm with her husband, which opened up succession discussions about where we were going as a family,” says Sasse. “My middle sister and I were interested in the family farm, my parents always encouraged us, and we were always involved.”

Sasse’s transition to a full-time farm manager was pretty seamless, but she realized that isn’t always the case for many other farm daughters, and she became interested in digging deeper into what is happening on farms where daughters are coming back to play an active role.

“I wanted to see how family farms have successfully integrated daughters into their business models,” says Sasse. “I wanted to see where farms were performing well with the help of their daughters and I wanted to share these success stories as advice on how we might move forward as an industry.”

Sasse applied for and was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship in 2017 to explore “the way forward for daughters,” focusing on strategies to encourage young women, particularly farmers’ daughters, to play an integral role in their family farms. She visited 13 countries and held approximately 100 meetings, mainly with farm daughters and their families, in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Nepal.

According to Sasse’s research, many of the farms — especially in Canada and the U.S. — that had engaged daughters in the operation were family corporations. “That was the most common situation,” says Sasse. “The parents had set up an entity where the daughters could buy shares and it was often done by monthly instalments, almost like a mortgage.”

Sibling partnerships were more common in Australia, with a brother and sister working with or without their partner to buy into the ownership of the family farm from the parents.

Family trusts are also common in Australia, reflecting the fact that tax implications are a major preoccupation that arises any time families talk about transition, regardless of location. “In passing the farm down to either a son or daughter, they had to make sure that they were setting up a structure that would reduce the tax burden and conflict,” says Sasse. A family trust generally reduces capital gains tax when selling the farm to offspring.

In Canada, many women, especially in Ontario, are taking advantage of contract farming, says Sasse, using custom operators for jobs like seeding, spraying or harvesting to reducing their need for purchased equipment and labour. “A lot of these women concentrated mostly on growing good crops and ensuring they got the agronomy and soil health right, and I believe this is not tapped into in Australia as much as we need to see,” says Sasse.

Some of the common characteristics of family farms engaging daughter successors include having long-term agreements either through a mortgage-type arrangement or vendor’s terms, and there is always early discussion about succession and ongoing communications, says Sasse. It’s also common to have a board structure in place, sometimes with outside advisors.

Daughters also need to own a portion of the farm in order to be engaged. “Fiscal responsibility is very important to motivate them to improve the farm,” says Sasse. “If they didn’t have it they were disengaged.”

Performance-based pay also kept coming up in Sasse’s research. “It’s a great mechanism for engagement when daughters have a share of the financial incentive based on yield or tied to animals or milk proteins or whatever,” she says.

Tax planning strategies to minimize tax implications were high on the list and very common in European countries, and in Canada, as noted above, generally involved some form of family corporation.

Often farm women also want less tangible support, such as the backing of their community. Sasse speaks about one young woman, the only one of six siblings interested in taking over the family farm, who owns 35 per cent of the farm’s operating company (in other words, the machinery and capital) and rents the land, still owned 100 per cent by her parents, with an agreement to gradually be issued more shares of the operating company based on the annual performance of the farm.

“This girl was highly inspirational, she was talking to me, talking to her dad and harvesting and emptying into the bin at the same time, and we had a very good conversation about the community and support,” says Sasse. “She said how everyone thought that she had come back to work on the farm just for the summer, but she wants to have a crack there and have some support. All the questions about ‘are you going to find a husband’ she flicks off, but it shows there are women out there that just want to have the backing of their community.”

Sasse uncovered many farm daughters, with and without university or specific skills training, fulfilling different roles on the farm that present tremendous opportunities for others, including in animal husbandry, agronomy, marketing and communications, and value-added or agri-tourism ventures that complement the existing farm business.

“Women view themselves in farming as custodians of land — they have a heightened ecological awareness, and they express a keen desire to be innovators, which could have huge implications for business competitiveness,” says Sasse. “They have a very clear picture of the needs for sustainability, are good collaborators and use gut instinct to seek the truth. There is enormous potential to tap into and capitalize on women’s strengths.”


The early years

Nuffield’s Katrina Sasse believes there are a number of steps the agricultural industry needs to take to enable more daughters to be farm successors.

In so many countries, daughters represent an untapped resource in agriculture, and while the statistics of female farm ownership are rising gradually everywhere, there’s still a long way to go.

What’s important is fostering an environment in farming and the industry that is inclusive of women, says Sasse, both on individual farms and in the sector overall. “We can reflect on the missed opportunities of the past for all those women who never had the chance to come back to their family farm, but it is more important to look forward,” she says. “Through assisting daughters with purchasing, leasing and share-farming to assume leadership roles on our farms, and the older generation’s explicit recognition of our contribution to farming, we can alter the patterns of male dominance in our industry.”

  • Encourage daughters to farm from a very young age.
  • Transfer skills and give daughters every opportunity to learn the ropes.
  • Encourage a paradigm shift in agriculture involving structural changes to the way farmers think and make decisions about transition.
  • Help build awareness in the industry about daughter succession. This is especially important to young, enthusiastic, potential farmers.
  • Make your farm gender neutral.

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