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Plowing the glass ceiling

The farm wife of 1962 has become the farm partner of 2012. In operations all across the country, she has gone from keeping the accounts to managing them, and a lot more besides.

Plus, on a growing number of farms, it’s a woman in charge.

It took a long time coming. But now that it’s here, is it making a difference? If you’re working in a woman-dominated operation, or if the cousin that you’re running a partnership with now comes to meetings as a husband-and-wife team, have the rules somehow changed?

Heather Watson, general manager of Farm Management Canada starts by telling us to keep it in perspective.

“We’re seeing more recognition of the contributions of everyone as a vital part of the success of the farm operation,” Watson says. In other words, there’s more going on than just this one trend of increased involvement by women. Instead, most farm families are more aware than ever of the benefits of collaboration and team building, and they’re consciously trying to get the best out of everybody.

Still, women are engaging more fully and effectively in farm management functions than ever before. Even on “traditional” farms, women are making decisions and managing human resources. They are actively participating in business and succession planning, plus they’re keeping the farm on top of changing regulatory requirements and they’re dealing with environmental and on-farm safety issues, all while knee deep in financial and production decision-making.

Maybe women always had more clout than they were given credit for. But now there’s a different dynamic around the kitchen table.

The great leveller

One of the great change agents in agriculture — as it has been elsewhere — is technology, which is finally letting farm families allocate human resources based on aptitude and attitude instead of muscle power.

“We can farm without having to rely on brute strength anymore,” says Margaret Rempel, a hog producer from Ste. Anne, Man. “We have ways to use technology and mechanization to overcome any physical shortcomings.”

But that’s only the start of technology’s impact on this story. Technology has also changed the jobs that might traditionally have been thought of as women’s work.

Computer software means women no longer are as submerged in double-ledger accounting. But at the same time, computers have exposed the farm to an information tidal wave.

Now, the tedious hours that most farm women used to spend keeping the books have been replaced by more hours spent managing the incessant flow of information.

In fact, while the men worked around the clock during seeding and harvest in the past, now women often burn the midnight oil throughout the year. Plus, as farms get bigger, the logistics and planning involved in running them consumes more and more time.

“I find there is just so much more work overall with keeping everyone organized and productive, whether it’s getting parts or fuel to somebody, payroll, keeping up with ag programs, meeting food safety requirements or other record-keeping, that I try not to book myself into the outside work any more than I have to,” says Bertha Campbell, co-owner with husband Vernon of Mull Na Beinne Farms near Kensington, P.E.I.

Computers and wireless technology may have simplified some field and barn jobs, but not enough to make up for all the extra hours that need to go into business and information management.

“In today’s world you are bombarded with so much information, you have to be able to manage it, recognize what’s important and utilize anything that will help,” says Jeannie van Dyk of Lellavan Farms, who has plenty of experience with assessing and managing information. Van Dyk was the first woman to conduct extension work with the Nova Scotia government’s livestock branch as a provincial swine specialist. In the early 1980s she left that job to join husband John building their modest 18-cow dairy farm into the 95-cow operation that it is today, and in 2007 she became the first female chair of the Farmers Cooperative Dairy.

Today van Dyk is involved with everything from milking and animal care to administrative, financial and planning functions for the farm near Noel Shore, N.S. She’s also a partner with her brothers Peter and Charles in Van Dyk Blueberry Enterprises, a low-bush blueberry operation with 600 acres of blueberry land and 400 acres of forest.

Rempel too spends more than her fair share of time at her computer. “Hog farmers in Manitoba over the last nine years have seen 44 additional regulations placed on us, and all of those carry paperwork,” she says. Rempel has received at least six Top Ten Producer awards, as well as the Swine Stewardship Award for innovative farming practices and dedicated community service. None of these are achieved without a lot of time spent paying attention to details.

“The amount of time that farmers are required to sit at their desk and make sure the paperwork is up to date is very different than a few decades ago,” Rempel says.

The triple threat

Farm management is being reshaped to meet the increasingly complex challenges of food production, which recognizes that agriculture is arguably more vulnerable than any other industry to a triple bottom line.

“In today’s agriculture, if we are going to be sustainable, the environmental and social costs have got to be figured in as well as the financial ones,” says Campbell, who adds that balancing profitability against the health and well-being of the farm’s soil, environmental assets and employees is paramount.

In fact, it might be this total-sustainability sort of environment that plays into women’s management strengths.

“Women lead with their minds, hearts and hands,” says Watson. “I believe women have a holistic approach to situations and decision-making, and we’re able to read situations to pick up on nuances that may play a significant role in the outcomes of decisions.”

“The diversification of our farm has led to practices like rotational crops and using manure to decrease commercial fertilizer use. It’s made us a better holistic operation,” agrees Campbell, who sits on a provincial environmental advisory committee. “There’s been a lot required of us from an environmental standpoint over the last 30 years, and for the most part we have been able to successfully build that into our operation.” The Campbells were named to the National Soil Conservation Hall of Fame in 1999.

New business strategies

Sometimes women find they also bring a different business perspective. Marie Gosselin is a leader with vision who fully understands (and incorporates) the concept of a triple bottom line. As president and CEO of Les Serres du Saint-Laurent, one of the largest greenhouse growers in Quebec, she was the driving force behind a new greenhouse complex, the first of its kind in Quebec, heated with biogas from a landfill site.

Yet one of the breakthroughs that Gosselin forged didn’t have much to do with plastic and steel. Instead, when she signed on 20 years ago, it was her marketing and sales skills that made the difference.

Gosselin had a vision to develop a new brand (Savoura) for the company’s products. The associated advertising campaign that she developed featured a slice of bread sandwiched by a tomato with the motto “Le goût prend le dessus” (taste comes out on top) and has helped the company secure a 60 per cent market share in Quebec.

Still, Gosselin wonders whether women are being held back, and whether the industry is being held back too because of it. Gosselin is vice-president of the Syndicat des Producteurs en Serres du Québec (UPA) and director of the Quebec Produce Marketing Association, and she says it’s at the policy and upper organizational levels where the glass ceiling for women seems hardest to crack.

“I find that there are not yet enough women occupying high-level functions in agriculture,” says Gosselin.

What still distances many women from the glass dome is visibility and perspective. “While women have always been leaders, it is the recognition piece that is missing and deserves cultivation,” agrees Watson.

Professional quality

Campbell, who was a public health nurse before leaving to farm full time in 1992, felt she was suddenly no longer viewed as a professional when she joined the farm. “In nursing I felt that my input was valued,” she says. “It took a lot of getting used to the fact that people didn’t recognize the value of my role on the farm as clearly as they had in my previous occupation.”

Most of the hurdles which made it tough for women to assume agricultural leadership roles in the past are gone. No longer are women farm owners unable to take out crop insurance, and increasingly the agricultural lenders at local banks are women. Women head agricultural research teams and farm organizations. They build careers in agronomic extension work.

It could also be that women and men perceive leadership differently. “Perhaps we equate leadership with the leadership as demonstrated by and recognized in men,” says Watson. “I believe both the physiological and psychological differences between men and women are to be embraced and appreciated rather than the latter trying to fit the mould created by the former.” CG

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Angela Lovell

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