How women are changing the face of the family farm

Reporter Katrina Geenevasen talks about the story, its purpose, and why you should explore this site.


There are salespeople who don’t like to deal with Heather Bailey.

The spry Stirling-area farmer makes many of the farm’s purchasing decisions, and isn’t afraid to haggle.
“There are a few salesmen around here that don’t like to deal with me,” says Bailey. “One guy left and said he had to leave before he lost his pants.”

Bailey is one of many female farmers in Ontario who are changing the face of agriculture.
They work beside, not behind, the men in their lives to keep the farm going.

According to the 2001 Canadian Census of Agriculture, 26 percent of Canada’s 346,200 farm operators were female. Mostly, they work on two-operator farms where the other operator is male, likely a spouse.

They take part in day-to-day decision-making, understand the meaning of hard physical labour, and know how to run a tractor.

Some of these women even argue they are better at farming then men.

“We have more patience,” says Joyceville farmer Marie Sonoveld. “We tend to not fly off the handle as quickly. And for me anyways, I tend to follow the rules, whereas the men will kind of play it by ear and do what looks good. I like to know what I’m doing in terms of giving medicine to a cow if she is ill, instead of just mixing up a concoction and hoping that it works. I like to know what it is I’m doing.”

Bailey has similar thoughts, and says women are thriving in agriculture because they look at farming from a different perspective.

“It’s a concern for us, what we eat, as mothers and as caregivers, people who feed,” says Bailey. “We worry about where our food comes from. We want it to be good food, we want it to be food that’s safe, and we want it to be food that’s healthy.”

Bailey feels women are aware of how the world is changing.

"We’re wondering how we can be healthier in what we’re feeding our families, and how we can have the best food available with the least amount of harmful sprays and things like that.”

Women also think about farming as food that goes to family dinner tables.

“I think women are seeing food as more of what they feed their family more than just what’s grown.  Whereas men, they just look at wheat in the field as wheat in the field. Women look at that wheat in the field and think, ‘That’s going to somebody’s house to feed somebody.’”

Monica Haller has been working on her family’s farm since she was a little girl, so the busy lifestyle comes naturally to the mother of four.

She says women are better with cows.

“We’re more gentle, men are harder on the cows,” says Haller.

Bailey agrees.

“I look at calves, and I see babies, I don’t necessarily see calves. I think that as a temperament, we’re much more patient, we’re much more loving, and we just look at our animals as part of our family, rather than just a bunch of animals in the barn.”

Women may be proving themselves in the barn, but being a wife, a farmer, and a mother isn’t always easy.
“As a woman, I have to run my house and do this and have my kids and still be out here [in the barn], and I don’t think a man is expected as much to do all that,” says Haller.

While women are leaving a footprint on how farming is done in Ontario these days, it’s getting harder and harder to keep family farms running.

Among other things, the high cost of land is rising and corporate competition is pushing small farms out.

“Farming is becoming less of a family business and more of a big business,” says Bailey. “It’s an industry almost, like a factory. And I think the government is treating all farms like they’re a factory, and we’re not.”

She says a lot of family-run farms are still family-run businesses, and they need support to continue farming.
“I think it’s going to be a real fight for the family farm to continue,” says Bailey. “It’s very expensive to keep farming, the costs are all there. And more and more, the government is making it harder for small farms to keep going. There is more legislation, there are more stipulations, there’s more paperwork, and things like that.”

While these troubles have some Ontario farmers worried, Bailey has high hopes for the future of her family’s farm.

“For our farm, I'd like to see it continue,” says Bailey. “Our children are fifth-generation farmers. That’s not something you see a lot of, of young people wanting to continue farming, and being able to.”
And younger generations of farmers are getting primed to take over the industry one day.

Julia Blackett, 15, is one of them.

Although she isn’t a farmer in the traditional sense of the word, Blackett has a stable full of animals she has paid for with her own hard-earned money.

Like most kids, she spends her nights doing homework, but then heads out to the barn to feed and care for her animals.

“I’m learning so much,” says Blackett. “I have learned about all the work that goes into keeping animals.”
Girls like her are leading the future of women farmers.

“I think the next generation of women are going to be the ones to watch,” says Bailey. “I think they’ve really got a mind of what they want, and they’re going to achieve it.”