There are two stories here. Yes, the proportion of Canadian farm operators who are women has edged higher in recent years, but the total number of women who are farming is still on a downward trend, and is expected to keep on that trend unless and until numerous challenges are overcome.
Statistics Canada’s most recent census of agriculture showed women accounted for 28.7 per cent of all farm operators in 2016. That was up from 27.4 per cent in 2011, and from 25.3 per cent in 1996.
The number of women farming, however, actually fell.
And it may be even harder for women to farm as we get further into the 2020s.
The challenges remain
Pam Bailey, a co-founder and former chair of Ag Women Manitoba, points out high farmland prices make ownership a challenge for young farmers, and women in particular.
Women were most prevalent among farm operators between the ages of 35 and 54 at 30.7 per cent in StatsCan’s 2016 census.
“If young farmers cannot own farmland, or even rent farmland — regardless of gender — then our rural communities and food systems will further suffer,” Bailey says.
But the hurdle can be even higher for women, Bailey says, because women face additional barriers including the gender wage gap, which also extends to the agricultural industry.
“Hence, if there is available farmland that can be accessed by a young farmer, a male young farmer will be not only more likely to have more wealth built up than his female equivalent, but have more leverage,” Bailey says.
Women also shoulder what she calls the “Mommy Tax,” meaning women face more wealth setbacks by just having children.
Additional uncertainties in the form of climatic challenges and the ongoing cost-price squeeze also make it harder for young farmers — who are more represented by women — to enter the ag industry, says Amber Fletcher, a University of Regina associate professor in the department of sociology and social studies.
“So gender and large political-economic factors intersect to create particular challenges for women in agriculture,” says Fletcher, who also co-authored a recent report prepared by Saskatchewan’s Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub.
Between 1996 and 2016, says Cally Dhaliwal, an economist with the strategic policy branch at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the number of female farm operators declined by 20 per cent to 77,970, while the number of male operators declined by 33 per cent to 193,965.
“As a result of the disproportionately smaller decline in number, the female proportion of all farm operators rose from 25 per cent to 29 per cent over that period,” she explains.
Who owns the land?
Federal statistics show, however, that farm women own less of the land they farm than male farmers. Men on average own over half the land they work. Women own just over one quarter.
In addition, few farms in Canada were solely owned by women. The 2016 census revealed 80 per cent of farms with women operators had two or more partners, and that independent women operators accounted for only 20 per cent of female operators. The proportion for independent males, however, was 50 per cent.
“As farms grow larger and require more capital, it may be even more difficult for women to become primary operators in the future,” said the Saskatchewan report, which examined the current status of women ag entrepreneurship in Saskatchewan in 2020.
The report claimed that also stymying women’s ownership is farm succession. The report and Bailey point out women don’t traditionally inherit farms.
Although some families have adapted to include all children in succession plans, the change hasn’t been universal, Bailey says. She’s personally seen capable women whose parents refused to see them as possible successors to their farm business.
“The fact that we still have that as a barrier is hard to believe, but it is a reality for far too many,” Bailey says
She predicts fewer women as primary farm operators “for the next while,” but adds this is intertwined with the fact the number of farms and farmers are in decline.
The Saskatchewan report postulated men’s dominance in agriculture can at least be partly tied to gender roles on the farm. It said gender roles have positioned men as primary farm operators, with women as support labour.
The report found women most strongly involved in less visible operational tasks like farm management, marketing and accounting, whereas men’s most common jobs included seeding, spraying and combining.
But the report also found that gendered divisions of labour on the farm are weakening, and gender roles are changing.
“Men are becoming more involved in child care, while more women are performing traditionally masculine tasks, like operating equipment,” the report stated.
Julia Laforge, a post-doctoral fellow at Lakehead University, speculates the role that women play on farms “hasn’t changed that much, since women have always been involved in farm decision-making, accounting and labour.”
“What has changed are attitudes. Whereas that work would have been considered the job of the ‘farm wife’ and was considered unpaid labour in previous generations, now there is increasing recognition that this work is the same as their husbands’ and partners’, and therefore they are farmers as well,” Laforge says.
Iris Meck, founder of the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference, and Glacier FarmMedia’s director of conferences, also believes women are receiving more recognition that they’re involved in every aspect of farming.
In the 1960s, her mother took care of the farm books, but also worked in the fields and looked after livestock. These days, technology has made it much easier to communicate what farm women are doing on the farm.
“All you have to do is go to any blog or social media platform, and you’ll see women in the combines, the tractors, looking after cattle, and livestock of all kinds,” says Meck. “We’re recognizing that they’re there, and they’ve always done everything.”
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Peggy Brekveld predicts a continued decline of farmers across Canada, but a slow rise in women farmers, especially in regions that led the way with higher proportions of female operators.
British Columbia had the highest female proportion of farm operators in Canada at 38 per cent, followed by Alberta at 31 per cent, according to the 2016 census.
Women made up 29.7 per cent of Ontario farm operators in 2016, and Brekveld points out that while the number of farms in Ontario decreased by 13 per cent from 2006 to 2016, the number of farms with female operators increased by 12 per cent.
Laforge says her own research found that there is a growing number of young women farmers, especially on smaller, niche farms. They’re using direct marketing, including community-supported agriculture and farmers markets.
That aligns with the 2016 census, which reported female farm operators were more represented on farms specialized in serving niche markets, and on more diversified farms that produced a combination of products, such as fruits and vegetables, and/or poultry and eggs.
Interviews conducted for the Saskatchewan report supported the possibility that alternative forms of agriculture, such as organics and direct marketing, might provide a more inclusive environment for women in agriculture, says Fletcher.
“Due to the disproportionate financial barriers women experience getting into agriculture — which include the price of land but also the price of equipment and other inputs — less industrialized or less capital-intensive forms of agriculture might provide a more accessible route into the sector for women, or new farmers generally,” Fletcher says.
Brekveld thinks that positive examples will help bolster the number of women in farming.
“As young women see more role models who are succeeding in farming, on their own or in partnership with others, it becomes a natural career option to consider,” she says. The Saskatchewan report adds that role models and mentors can provide a crucial entry point into agriculture.
“Socialization is powerful: if young women are encouraged to enter the ag sector, they not only see it as a viable option, but learn important knowledge and skills along the way,” the report says.
Brekveld notes that support for farm women has grown, with farm magazines and social media outlets highlighting women in ag, and various groups providing networking opportunities.
Meck adds that after a couple of years of holding her conferences, she observed more articles about women in agriculture, including many more young women profiled in publications.
The report also highlighted emerging opportunities to help women in farming to access financing, mentoring, training and other support to build their businesses. Several programs offer support specifically for women entrepreneurs, such as Farm Credit Canada’s (FCC) loans for women ag entrepreneurs through its Women Entrepreneur Program.
Fletcher, however, says the report’s interview data revealed that sexism and stereotyping continue to exist for women in agriculture.
“There have been times where men have not wanted to deal with me because I’m a woman. ‘How could you possibly know as much as Joe about chemicals and cropping rotations and things like that?’” one interviewee said.
Others reported customers preferring to deal with the “man of the house,” and employees refusing to take direction from women.
“We need to ditch the stereotypes and include women — daughters, wives, daughters-in-law and sisters-in-law — in the conversation,” agrees Bailey.
She calls for major systemic changes that include gender pay equality in the agricultural industry, and rural child care that would allow for both partners to keep working.
“It would be nice to have a government program that supports women farmers specifically to address some of these major issues, but until these tremendously important barriers come down, it is only a band-aid solution.”