Challenges and Opportunities: My Perspective as a Woman Working in Organic Agriculture
Allison J. Squires is the Owner and Operator of Upland Organics, a family-run certified organic grain farm located near Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan. Upland Organics farms over 2000 acres and produces several crop types including pulses, cereals, and oilseeds.
I wasn’t born into farming. Far from it. Luckily, I experienced several life defining moments that led me to choose my career as an organic farmer. Now I am proud to say that I am a farmer operating a mixed organic grain and cattle farm in Southern Saskatchewan along with my husband and three kids. And like most other humans, every day we try to contribute in a positive way to our environment and our community.
When my husband and I bought our farm together, I did not have much of a pre-conceived notion of what my role should be as the “wife of a farmer”.Expectation is not commonly shared amongst the majority of hardworking women farmers in Canada. The total farm population in Canada is close to 50/50 males and females1. When we start to look at who is running the farms, we find that 71% of all males who make up the total farm population self identify as farm operators. Contrast this with the female population of which only 29% identify as farm operators. Why is this? What is stopping women from identifying themselves as owners and taking the credit for all that they contribute to the farm?
I believe that gender equality is not about being treated as special or different because I am a woman. Neither is it about proving that women can do whatever men can do. Gender equality is about placing an equal value on the contributions made from each person, regardless of their gender. Unfortunately, contributions by women are traditionally seen to be lesser in value than those given by men and so women continue to make them unseen, unrecognized, and taken for granted.
Women working in agriculture in North America face a wide range of challenges both due to their gender and their rural location. Lack of childcare, reliable high-speed internet and access to healthcare are daily realities for rural residents in Canada today. Governments, from local to national, need to recognize that these challenges are major factors impeding the advancement of women in agriculture and mobilize the necessary resources to eliminate them. Despite these challenges, we have it lucky. We can own land. We can have a credit rating. We can access capital funding. We can get a driver’s license. We can vote. There are women all over the world that are facing these and other significant barriers and who are fighting just to obtain what we now take for granted as basic rights.
A study published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that “Gender equality is essential for attaining food security, nutrition and achieving all the Sustainable Development Goals”2. Women make up almost half the agricultural labour force in developing countries despite also shouldering the majority of childcare, food preparation and household work. Given the chance, women can contribute in an incredibly significant way to improving the nutrition and living conditions across the developing world. However, as food producers they still face challenges such as reduced access to land, education, extension, technology, financial services, and equal representation in government.
Looking at the composition of the major national producer groups in Canada we can see how much of a difference equal representation can make. In the three national organic associations (COTA, COG and OFC), I found they mirrored the farm population statistics in that women make up 51% of the seats on these boards. Contrast this with non-organic groups and we see a different story. I looked at six4 different national non-organic producer groups and found that women make up only 12% of the positions on these boards. It is important that we model what we want to see in the next generation, and I believe the organic sector is ahead of most sectors in agriculture when it comes to modelling gender equality.
Attending as many organic conferences and events as I have over the years, I have seen extensive women representation on farmer panels, keynote speakers, organizing committees, and in numbers of registered attendees. I also had my first experience with provided childcare at an organic conference, which as a Mom of little ones, is a service that I value highly. This meant that both my husband and I now had the opportunity to attend together, rather than one of us being regulated to standing in the back of the room or worse yet, notable to attend at all. It is these types of support services which end up ensuring the equal valued inclusion of both genders.
At the end of the day, I know my worth. I know that my contribution is valued and respected. I also know that I am lucky. I know that this privilege that I enjoy as a woman who is fully supported and encouraged to be her true self is not something that every woman experiences. I have been very honoured to have many inspiring female farmer mentors and leaders in my support network who never fail to encourage and hold me accountable. My hope is that with every opportunity that comes we will keep working together, pushing each other forward and setting the stage for the success of the next generation.
4 I examined the following six groups: Canola Council of Canada (https://www.canolacouncil.org/), Pulse Canada(https://www.pulsecanada.com/), Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (https://www.cattle.ca/), Diary Farmers of Canada (https://dairyfarmersofcanada.ca/en), Grain Growers of Canada (http://www.ggc-pgc.ca/) and the Canadian Oil Seed Producers Association (https://copacanada.com/)