HALIFAX — Take a second, close your eyes, and picture a farmer.
You’re probably thinking of a man with a tanned, creased face. He’s grey-haired, sturdy, standing in a dusty field with a stern look on his face.
It’s an iconic image, but it’s one Amy Hill would love to see change.
“Growing up I never once saw a farmer depicted as a woman,” Hill, who owns Snowy River Farms outside Shubenacadie, says.
It’s something that frustrates her because that very specific idea of who a farmer is can make it tough for women farmers in Nova Scotia.
Hill, along with Shannon Jones and Amy VanderHeide, spoke March 3 at the Agricultural Minister’s Conference in Halifax. They shared their experiences running farms in the province and their thoughts on the barriers many women face going into the business.
One of the most glaring issues, all three agreed, is the perception of what women do (and don’t do) on the farm.
“I don’t always see my voice being represented”
Part of the reason Hill didn’t see women depicted as farmers growing up is because there are still a lot more men in the business than women.
The last time Statistics Canada surveyed farmers was in 2016. That year, there were 3,365 male farm operators in Nova Scotia, compared to 1,265 women.
Hill, Jones, and VanderHeide would all like to see that change and for more women to go into agriculture in the province—especially in positions traditionally thought of as the domain of men.
“I want to see women as bosses, women as managers, women in high-up positions in agriculture, women who are running farms,” Hill said.
However, all three said that can only happen if women are given the chance to envision themselves taking part in the industry—every part of it.
“A big reason for women maybe not feeling super confident going into agriculture might be that their lives are diverse and they’re not seeing their lives reflected in our current agriculture system,” Jones, who runs Broadfork Farm with her husband, said.
She pointed out that she serves on several agricultural boards and committees “not because my dream in life is to sit on boards and committees, but rather because I feel like I don’t always see my voice being represented, so I kind of feel like it’s a duty.”
“Seeing women in agriculture is the best way to attract women to agriculture,” Jones said.
“Where’s Your Husband?”
But how can women envision themselves as managers, or running farms, when so many in their communities still don’t?
Both Hill and VanderHeide said it’s all too common for men to ask them “where’s your husband?” or “where’s your father-in-law?” when they’re trying to conduct farm business.
Hill explained that there’s a very traditional set of duties many still think women should be doing on a farm: taking care of the kids, cooking meals, cleaning, laundry.
They all play into the idea of women in agriculture as the “farm wife” who should only be responsible for certain things. It’s a powerful stereotype that can even affect how women perceive themselves, she said.
“When [women are] left out of the conversation of other farm duties, it makes it really hard for them to picture themselves in different roles,” Hill said.
But as VanderHeide points out, women on farms have always done so much more than the typical “farm wife” tasks.
“We are filling these labour roles on farms, and have been for years,” she said. “It’s really just been the last few years that these roles are starting to be recognized,”
“Whether we mean to or not, women are also inherently taking on the role of cook, housekeeper, child-rearing, wife…while at the same time also farming,” Hill said.
Hill has bumped up against these perceptions herself—hard.
For the six years, she ran Snowy River Farms herself before she brought on her husband full time.
She recalls one trip to buy a trailer where every time she would ask a question to the salesmen, he would turn and give his answer to her husband. Never mind that she was the one who knew what she needed it for, how it would be used, and what she was willing to pay.
She also remembers loading up her truck one day, only to have someone tell her he hoped she had some “strong guys” at home to help her unload everything.
“But I just loaded it all up here myself, why the f–k would I need a man to help?” she seethed.
She believes that, until these kinds of attitudes change, it’s going to remain a challenge bringing more women into agriculture.
“You’re not just doing a job that’s difficult. You’re doing a job that’s difficult while at the same time trying to convince people you can do this job,” she said.
Can’t just strap my baby to my back
Another huge barrier facing women in farming is childcare.
“There’s also this idea that if you’re farming you wouldn’t need daycare anyway, that a farm woman is just going to strap their baby to their back,” Hill said.
She points out that you wouldn’t bring an 18-month-old baby to an accounting firm and expect to get any work done—so why would you on a farm?
“Trying to seed anything in a greenhouse when you have a toddler running around pulling out everything behind you, or just tipping over your seed trays is stressful and incredibly unproductive,” she said.
But childcare in rural areas isn’t always accessible.
The closest daycare to Hill’s farm, for example, is a 20-minute drive away. By the time she brings her kids there, drops them off, and picks them back up at the end of the day, she’s lost two hours of productive time on the farm.
There are some government programs meant to help rural farmers with things like childcare and maternity leave but she said they don’t cover enough expenses to make them worthwhile.
“I don’t know anyone who uses them,” she said.
Then there’s all the agriculture-industry meetings and conferences that are mostly held late at night or don’t allow you to bring children.
Even at the very conference she was speaking at, on a panel about women in agriculture, kids weren’t allowed. That meant she missed most of the conference, except for her own talk. If her youngest had been born three months later, she said, she wouldn’t have come at all.
These kinds of problems all link back to representation.
“If men were more in charge of childcare we would see more childcare options at these kinds of meetings,” Hill said. “But because it’s women we just don’t go to meetings. We don’t get to speak because we have other roles we have to fill, and that just kind of pushes us down.”
“Push back. Stand up for yourself”
After the panel at the Agriculture Minister’s Conference March 3, a young women stood up and asked what she and others like her going into the business can do to when faced with some of these problems.
“Push back. Stand up for yourself,” VanderHeide responded.
“We’re still in this arena where we have to stand up for ourselves and we have to make our voices heard. And the issue is that it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially if you are the only woman in the room or there isn’t a lot of representation of women.”
Jones said it will also take men in the industry being aware of these issues and being advocates for women in the agriculture community, even if they don’t necessarily know them.
She said that often when she’s at an agricultural meeting or event, she will intentionally stay seated while her husband offers to help clean up or serve. Even small gestures like that can help break the “farm wife” stereotype, she said.
“I definitely see the solutions being men standing up and saying ‘this isn’t right’ or pushing their wives forward, giving their female counterparts room to speak and be heard,” Hill added.
Another important thing, VanderHeide said, is farm women having more opportunities to break out of the isolation of farming and connect with each other.
She’s one of the founders of the Maritime Ag Women’s Network Facebook group, which gives women in farming a place to share stories, ask questions, and “get support from other people who have been there.”
Representation of women in agriculture in Nova Scotia “is changing,” she said, “but we still have a really, really long way to go.”