Canada: New boss on the farm

Posted: 28 April 2004

Author: Sabita Majid

In recent years, with organic farms growing at the rate of 20-25 per cent a year in Canada, a whole new world of leadership and freedom has opened up for women farmers, as Sabita Majid reports.

Women on conventional Canadian farms have long been farmer's wives: cooperating in the business, managing animals, independently running the dairy and greenhouses, but retreating when the time came to take the big decisions. Organic farms however, are providing women the opportunity to be equal partners in the movement for sustainable agriculture.

More women are taking a leading role in organic farming in Canada.© WFSAbra Brynne
More women are taking a leading role in organic farming in Canada.© WFSAbra Brynne
More women are taking a leading role in organic farming in Canada.© WFSAbra Brynne

Organic farms are found mainly in Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia (BC); the crops here include buckwheat, rye and caraway (a plant of the parsley family) as well as a variety of fruits and vegetables. BC has reported the highest proportion of women who run farms and the highest proportion of women who do so without help.

Cathleen Kneen, who lives in BC and is the editor of a local magazine on organic farming, has joined other organic farmers who have rejected conventional methods of farming because she believes that these are not protective of the environment. She also believes that, organic farms provide a better gender balance.

"Women have taken leadership positions in organic farming; and even where a husband and wife team manages an organic farm, there is generally equal partnership," says Kneen. Both divide the work in such a way that neither of them feels overburdened. And crucial decisions are taken jointly.

Nuturing nature

Susan Moore, sole proprietor of a 126-acre farm in Sorrento, BC, claims the proportion of participation on organic farms is exactly 50/50 among men and women. She feels that organic farming comes naturally to women due to their nurturing nature.

Moore, in her mid-50s, starts work at 6.30 am and often works 14 hours a day, seven days a week, in the peak months from May to September. Moore bought her farm eight years ago and has always been an organic farmer. "I couldn't make a fortune out of it, but I do make a very adequate living from it," says Moore who found herself managing the farm single-handedly when her partner left her. She doesn't run her farm for profit but for the satisfaction of working with nature and for the good quality food it provides.

Management for her includes organising work for the six persons she employs throughout the summer for the planting season, while she herself "loves getting on the tractor" and is also adept at working with weeding equipment and irrigation machines.

Internet solutions

Organic farming doesn't use hi-tech machinery as much as conventional farms generally do. "These farms tend to be on smaller acreages and more labour intensive; the focus is on management rather than machinery," says Kneen. With a high level of literacy and internet resources, organic farmers surf to find solutions to problems. Networking among organic growers is strong too, she observes. Women also appreciate that in organic farming they don't have to use chemicals to increase yields or minimise pests.

"Sure, they use compost blowers and sophisticated irrigation machines," says Kneen. Organic farming is more a synthesis of pre-industrial agricultural methods and modern technology and knowledge.

Kneen observes that women (in organic farms) still tend to work less on grains and oilseed farms, and more on fruits and vegetable. But compared to women farmers in several countries, women in the Canadian farm sector are better informed - many have heard of activists like India's Vandana Shiva and her significant role in promoting organic farm produce in India.

High price

One big challenge for Canada's organic farmers is pricing their products in the market. The price charged for organic food is still much higher than non-organic products. "If you buy organic food straight from a farm gate, it could have a mark-up of 20 per cent, but at a grocery store it could be 200 per cent," says Kneen. She feels that the Canadian government isn't doing enough to regulate the organic food industry which is why it remains an elitist shopping exercise.

Organic food from the US is cheaper in Canada than Canadian-grown organic carrots or lettuce, because the American government has assisted its organic sector, says Kneen. In Canada, there is too much emphasis on research and large-scale export agriculture, including genetically engineered food, she insists.

Although organic farms make up only 1-2 per cent of the total land under agricultural use - the organic farm industry has set itself the lofty (but apparently achievable) goal of producing 10 per cent of all retail food sold in the country. The movement to provide cleaner, better quality organic food is growing fast despite its limitations, and women are proving to be its strongest supporters.

In Canada, the organic food movement has several women at the forefront. Debra Boyle, who won the Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year (2003), is recognised for her impact on the local economy - specifically, on the Canadian organic food sector. In 1990, Boyle founded Pro Organics in Vancouver. Armed with sheer determination and a passion for organic food, today Boyle sources and distributes organic food to Canadians across the country.

"Organic food is the best choice that we can make for our health, for the environment and for our children's future," says Boyle.

Sabita Majid is a freelance journalist based in Canada, with an interest in environment and development issues.

Source: Women's Feature Service.