Women always played pivotal role in agriculture
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Decision-making on the farm I grew up on in the 1960s was shared between my parents as equal partners, even though most of the world didn’t see it that way.
It was always worth a giggle watching the faces of supplier representatives who knocked on the door and asked if the “boss” was around.
“You’re talking to her,” my mother would say. Some individuals were quick to see their gaffe and backpedalled, recognizing that having her onside would be crucial to their success.
Others simply didn’t get it and kept on digging themselves in deeper.
I wasn’t the only farm kid who witnessed these expressions of matriarchal assertiveness.
“We didn’t have John Deere on our farm for a while because when my mom went to get a price on a John Deere tractor, the salesman told her to send in her husband and they’d make a deal,” Beef Farmers of Ontario director Joe Dickenson told a recent panel discussion on women in agriculture, organized by the Canadian Agricultural Policy Institute.
Tyler McCann, the institute’s executive director and the panel’s moderator, observed that the sad thing is this still happens today, despite decades of so-called progress in advancing women in society.
Women have always played a pivotal role in agriculture and food production, but their contributions have traditionally been through unpaid or underpaid labour, undocumented and subject to systemic barriers that have made it difficult for them to gain access to capital, land and support.
My mother’s role as a farm operator wasn’t recognized officially until 1991 when Statistics Canada changed its data collection to allow for up to three farm operators per operation.
It’s a global issue highlighted in a report released this week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, characterizing the lack of gender equity in agrifood systems as a trillion-dollar issue.
“Closing the gender gap in farm productivity and the wage gap in agricultural employment would increase global gross domestic product by nearly $1 trillion and reduce the number of food-insecure people by 45 million,” the report says.
“Globally, more than a third of working women are employed in agrifood systems. It’s time to recognize their contributions and to make these agrifood systems work better for women. It is simply unacceptable for women’s roles to be marginalized while they still lack access to land, inputs, finance and digital technology,“ FAO deputy director-general Beth Bechdol said in a release.
Statistics Canada made waves late last year when it released a paper highlighting what the latest Census of Agriculture uncovered about Canadian women’s changing role in the sector.
The proportion of women farm operators in Canada has been increasing since 1991. Even though the total number of farmers dropped by nearly 33 per cent over that period, the rate of decline was steeper for male operators.
However, the latest census found the actual number of women operating farms increased for the first time since 1991, a growth of 2.3 per cent to just under 79,795. Male farm operator numbers dropped by 5.8 per cent over the same period.
A 26.5 per cent increase in female farmers reporting as one-operator farms fully accounts for that increase.
More than 60 per cent of female farm operators in Canada are over the age of 55, which implies many are either continuing to farm after the loss of a spouse or taking over the family farm from their parents. It also speaks to the looming succession issues the industry faces.
This age category also makes up half of the female operators who work off the farm.
The highest increase in female farmers — nearly 30 per cent — is among those who operate farms in the top three revenue classes. Those in the top sales category with sales of more than $2 million saw an 86.3 per cent increase.
Reports such as these are adding new context and doing a better job of quantifying how women contribute to food security and the sector’s economic performance.
The costs of not taking them seriously are much bigger than a red face or a lost sale.
Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at email@example.com
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.