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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: The future of Family Farming: empowerment and equal rights for women and youth

Debra Pretty-Straathof
Debra Pretty-StraathofCanadian Federation of AgricultureCanada

Hello. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this forum on the future of family farming: Empowerment and equal rights for Women and Youth. 

We have been asked to contribute as individuals but as a Canadian woman who serves on several ag-based boards (Ontario Federation of Agriculture,  Canadian Federation of Agriculture as a working group chair on taxation issues, and vice-chair of Ontario AgriFood Technologies, and as the CFA rep on the WFO Women's standing committee) I feel I must try to contribute in a broader context than just my personal observations.  

That said, each of our views are shaped by personal experience. I have been married to a dairy farmer for the past 30 years, as of today.  I naively thought that we would farm together, as partners, but I did not foresee a cultural roadblock; abetted by a  succession planner who warned farmers to beware of "the daughter-in-law."

I was raised on a small beef farm. My parents both came from farms; Dad from dairy, Mom from beef, and I am the only one in my generation of family cousins (after 200 years of farming in Canada) living on a full-time farm that does not depend on off-farm income to survive. We are very fortunate, with much thanks to all my hard working in-laws, and to having Supply Management in Canada.

I cleaned calf pens, baled hay, milked cows, raised three children and looked after "the home front" but finally realized I would never be at the decision table. I went back to college to sharpen my communication skills.  I had become involved with county (local) level farm organizations and wanted to be a more effective advocate for agriculture.  I found I could help make a positive difference.  Others reached out and asked me to become involved. We need to keep doing that (approaching farm women and youth)  for organization renewal and to bring new ideas to the table.

So that's where my views start...I was hesitant, hence the last minute submission, to comment on the key challenges that women in agriculture face.  I find it interesting that the first question refers to many rural areas in the developing world that aren't stimulating places for youth to live and develop.  I would say that even in our very privileged country of Canada, this applies to even those of us close to urban centers, if the farm focus is on work 24/7. As farms grow ever larger the rural connection shrinks and the social fabric is diminished. It still exists of course, but at 56 I can see the changes from my youth.  Hospitals are closed. Same with schools; agricultural societies that organize and host local fairs are struggling to survive in some areas. These services need to be maintained in rural areas or the youth will leave. Bit of a "Catch-22."

Some of the key challenges : Canadian farm society is as much a mosaic of attitudes and social norms as the rest of society, albeit perhaps a tough more conservative.  While we all have the same legal rights, I believe some women are held back by outdated views, however there are many Canadian farm women who are full partners and also sole proprietors of their farming ventures. I admire them more than words can express.

A lot has changed since my mother applied for her first bank loan,  and as a general comment beginning farmers, male and female, face similar challenges: get the proper education, access to capital, rural child care...create a credible business plan, etc.

Programs and initiatives to help: I was one of very few women on our general farm board 15 years ago but I now see more female representatives.  I see young, educated women today smashing stereotypes who want to farm and help shape policy, leading.

I see young women attending the events we host for young farmers to introduce them to our organizations and to help empower them in the farming sector.

We must continue to make them feel welcome and valued. We must encourage women (and young men too) to consider primary agriculture as a viable,  rewarding career.  

Through agri-food education, the Local Food Act, through advocating for a National Food Strategy we can help empower our new generation of farmers, both men and women. 

The OFA, CFA and other farm organizations in Canada help this effort by respecting and nurturing their involvement at county, provincial, national and international levels.  In 2006 Laura Johnston Monchuk wrote a report for CFA and it contains information still quite credible today:"Many farm women hold full-time jobs, both on and off the farm,while continuing to be the primary caregivers of children and elderly relatives," according to Professor Belinda Leach, University of Guelph’s Chair in Rural Gender Studies. 

The report also quotes Statistics Canada numbers that show that while small, the number of women farm operators continues to grow.

There is a new trend in Canadian agriculture which is seeing young city women getting into the sector.  They of course face the same high startup costs, but armed with a business and ag education and an entrepreneurial spirit second to none.

We need youth to sustain our industry and if they trends of more women and more youth in general are showing an interest, thanks in part, to improved commodity prices, things are starting to look more positive for farming. 

A 2013 CTV news report detailed the growing number of young people entering farming. Those numbers were in decline in the last decade, but are up 35%. 

Women are seen as more comfortable and confident on various industry boards, and are not content to toil behind the scenes any more.  The industry is becoming a lot more inclusive and that's good news for everyone.