International Agriculture News

We need to do more to attract women to agriculture

To gain their skills and passion, agriculture needs to tear down the barriers that stand in their way

There is a gaping hole in agriculture that needs filling with young, vibrant souls.

It is not only for farming, but for all linkages in the food chain. There are 60,000 to 124,000 jobs that need filling. We need women to farm, process, market, advance, innovate, research, manage and create in the food space.

What is a farmer?

Borrowing from food advocate Danielle Nierenberg, farmers are more than food producers. They are the nutritional gatekeepers of the world. They fight on the front line of climate change. They play a multitude of roles in our society and in business. They are the protectors of biodiversity and the globe’s largest group of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Even as farmers nourish agro-ecological practices and promote soil health, they are often cast as the enemy of the environment: producers of methane and fake food, elite industrial capitalists who have no sense of struggle, environmentalism, or animal welfare. Or they are portrayed as workboot bumpkins who only get off the combine long enough to stand in line for a handout.

How do we address the layers of misconception and at the same time bring agriculture to life as a desired way of living for women and girls?

First we must ask: How do we see ourselves?

As farmers, do we understand the depth of our contribution to society? Are we casting a wide enough net in environmental practice, soil health, innovation, and animal welfare to attract the attention of those outside of our space? Are we great business persons who have financial literacy and are investing back into our communities?

If not, then the tarnished reputation might be earned. If so, then let us tell the world.

Leadership takes on many forms.

Fellow farmer and Nuffield Scholar Carla Mayara Borges shared her data on women in leadership roles in Brazil. As a member of the massive organization Women in Agribusiness, I was curious as to what she had to say. In its most recent survey 61 per cent of women said they had no problem taking leadership roles, but 9.4 per cent said their leadership was not taken seriously. Although nearly 70 per cent of the respondents either owned a farm outright, had shares or executive positions in the farm, nearly half of them lived off the farm.

This is something I experienced in Argentina as well. Managing food production does not mean having to live in the middle of it.

As for being an attraction, 36.2 per cent of the women said they like being on the farm, but only 10.7 per cent saw it as a job opportunity.

That brings us back to the beginning. Why not?

Checking in with farm women in India where 75 to 85 per cent of the farm labour is done by women, they feel tired and that their jobs in agriculture are ‘thankless’ and that they ‘have little choice.’ They are not alone in the tired department and women seek balance in life to attend to their families.

Are we burning our women out before we can nurture their gifts? Are we taking their boundaries seriously?

As a young woman, I worked extraordinarily long hours for the family farm, missing many firsts of my children — first steps, first date, and the like. I was strong and capable, but I did not get that time back. Younger women are looking for ways to be in agribusiness that allows for them to be nurturing moms and community builders as well. Just as South American women have chosen to live off the farm and own or manage it, Canadian women should have broader options for engagement in agribusiness.

In Canada and around the world in the food-processing lines (with the exception of red meat), the majority of field, factory, and processor workers are women. They stand in freezing cold sorting lettuce or slicing chicken for 12 hours a day while a male supervisor walks around behind them. They cannot chat because of the noise. They cannot move around because of the speed of the line.

Yet even on the production floor, a workforce with decent breaks and exercise is more productive. I have seen this in New Zealand at a Kiwi co-operative. The nearly 100 per cent female workforce had a large coffee area, exercise rooms, and were helped to find homes, childcare and transportation. Management asked what they needed and then responded. A trusted workforce and a broader community were built.

Giant job search site Monster does an amazing piece on the exciting opportunities in agriculture, treating it with healthy respect as a profession. Perhaps what agriculture needs to recognize is that the days of the ‘hired man/woman’ and ‘farm/factory labourer’ are over. And that we need to engage at a level that builds a sense of community and belonging, empowering folks to their fullest potential with new models of learning and doing.

In that way we all — urban and rural — become advocates for agriculture. I surmise that only then will women be tempted to fill the estimated 60,000 to 124,000 spots in Canadian agriculture.

Brenda Schoepp: