NFU has a long history of cultivating female farmer leadership

Shannon wrote this article for Atlantic Farm Focus. To read other articles they’ve published or to find out how to subscribe, go to their website.

female farmer


I remember when Bryan and I started our farm and were applying for a loan. We noticed that the lending officer started off speaking and facing Bryan. Only when I kept replying, did the lending officer shift his position to face both of us. The same thing happened when we went to buy a tractor.

This happened despite the fact that globally, women make up the majority of food producers. Many surveys from Canada and the U.S., show that over 50% of new farmers in North America are female farmers.

Why has the stereotype of men as farmers become so prevalent? Maybe it’s coming less from the reality on the farm, and more from what we see at many of the farm association meetings, conferences, trade shows, and among various boards of directors or committees. Too often, even in the 21st century, when I attend agricultural meetings, I don’t see enough women in attendance or speaking up.

In late November, I attended the National Farmers Union annual convention in Ottawa. Besides meeting with Members of Parliament, hearing panelists speak on diverse issues like NAFTA and Indigenous solidarity, and debating on resolutions with farmers from across the country, I was also elected as the Women’s Vice-President.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has held specific leadership positions for both women and youth since the 1960s. The farmer members recognized, even back then, how important women’s voices, and their work both on the farm and in agricultural policy and advocacy work is.

I think a primary reason we don’t see enough women representation or hear enough women’s voices speaking up is that women are not always encouraged enough to take on leadership positions.

The NFU has encouraged women leaders by having a specific position for Women’s President, Women’s Vice-President, and Women’s Advisor for each region of Canada. This doesn’t mean that the position of President, Vice-President of Policy, or Vice-President of Operations (and any other position) isn’t also open to women. In fact, the current President of the NFU is a woman who was previously Women’s President.

Cultivating female farmer leadership is not just about asking someone to sit on a board of directors.

It’s important to think of new or different ways to show people their voice is wanted and respected. Doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result is never a sane strategy. (I don’t mean to use the term ‘sane’ to denigrate those deemed otherwise, I’m referencing that famous quote often mistakenly attributed to Einstein “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”)

Last winter, along with other women across the Maritimes, I helped organize a Women Farmer’s Retreat.

It was a 2-day, sleepover event where we all brought food from our farms to prepare meals together. We identified topics for farmer-to-farmer conversations that were much more holistic than many of the production, marketing, or business events we each attend. We spoke about farming with our partners or families, farming alone, and work-life balance. The retreat served to nourish, inspire, and rejuvenate us, while strengthening our sense of community and support. We held our 2nd annual one a few weeks ago, hopefully we will have one for many years to come.

While the NFU has encouraged leadership of women and youth since it started, the women’s caucus (made up of the Women’s President, Vice-President, Women Advisors from across the country, and the membership of women at large) have identified a need to encourage more diversity and inclusion.

Like what?

  • Diversity of ethnic background
  • Inclusion of new Canadians
  • Diversity of gender identification (not everyone falls into a clear-cut Male-or-Female)
  • Inclusion of those of different sexual orientations
  • Seeking out the voices of Indigenous Peoples and different ways of relating with the land
  • Including domestic and migrant farm workers.

It’s also important to realize that childcare is not a Woman’s issue, it is a Family issue.

So, when a member of the family cannot make it to a meeting or serve in a position of leadership due to childcare issues, agricultural organizations or meeting and conference organizers should be thinking of ways to support family farmers with childcare options.

While many farming issues are not gender specific, a lack of women’s voices (and diversity in general) in the farm sector should concern everyone. I’m proud and grateful to all those who have encouraged my own confidence to speak up and voice my opinion. My hope is to do the same for others.

Garlic harvest

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