Why don’t farming women call themselves farmers?

Before we even start on this question, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: we don’t have a standardized definition for the term “farmer”. It means very different things to different people. And after talking to many men and women (farmers and non-farmers), it’s important to start off this discussion with a disclaimer. Our industry (and society at large), don’t have a consensus on what it means to be a farmer.

But let’s explore the opinions of a few women who farm but don’t use the term farmer.

Another label comes first

For many women, the label of mother is their most important descriptor. For example:

“Even though I am actively involved in our farm (I milk and feed calves every morning, as well as manage fresh and sick cows) I don't typically identify with the term "farmer". I’m not sure if it's because I feel the bulk of my day currently is taking care of my daughter, but I typically refer to myself as a stay-at-home mom.” - Steph Towers

“When the census came around I labeled myself as farm hand because at the time I was pregnant so was not a stay-at-home mom. Right now, I identify as being a stay at home mom and probably will bounce between that and farm wife until the in-laws are not as active on farm. At that time, I will be taking over the book work and calves, on top of the sheep flock that I already manage with my husband. I also feel that I change my occupation depending on who I am talking with. The occupational label doesn't matter so much to me because in these times everyone has so many hats to wear.” - Jessica Maitland

“I have three boys, 10 months, 2 and 4, and I stay home with them. I guess being a mom is first but then I help on the farm with books all the phone calls and check the birds. Usually when I get the response "Ohhh. You’re not working" I then inform them that I live on a farm and we're always working. I consider myself a mother before a farmer because the choices we make on our farm are to benefit my children and their future and the future of our farm.” Anneke Stickney

In the case of Tracey Smith Jardine, she uses a different label all together to better describe her occupation:

“I identify myself as a rancher even a cowgirl before I say a farmer. I own and operate an ag tourism business with horses. I grow hay and oats and cash crop some of my land. I still do farm chores raise livestock etc... but don't say I am a farmer. Funny now that I think of it. I guess I say Rancher as I deal mainly in horses.” - Tracey Smith Jardine

I’m helping on the family farm, but I’m not a farmer

Family responsibility is also a reason why women continue to support their family farm, even though they are nurturing off-farm careers. Christina Mol is like many women who help their extended family farm:

“I am a part of the family dairy farm which is officially a partnership of my parents, aunt and uncle, cousin and his wife and my brother and his wife. My sister and I help by milking and some chores but not full time. While very involved in farming, it is not the occupation I put first on any form when asked.” – Christina Mol

Interestingly, Christina is also paid only minimally for her work. “Sometimes I trade my time for fuel for my car. Sometimes it is just something I do,” she joked. But I suspect many women are in a similar situation.

Steph Towers and her daughter. While Steph does 6-7hrs of work on the farm, she does not always identify as a farmer.

Stephanie Szusz helps her family with chores and field work and acts as an important sounding board for her father and brother who farm full time, but she also works full time off the farm as an agricultural lender.

“I catch myself always saying that my family farms, never that I am a farmer. Since I'm not in "barn clothes" every day I feel like I can't hold that title. I also believe for me that part of it is out of respect for my brother. I realize that me saying I'm a farmer doesn't make him NOT a farmer, but I like to promote that my brother is home farming.” - Stephanie Szusz

The judgment of others

Stephanie’s comment on “respect” is a theme that came up in many women’s comments. They felt the term “farmer” is revered and holds considerable weight; not just anyone could use the term and they were cautious of using it too liberally.

“Strangely enough I have felt judgement with some women using the word farmer to describe themselves or others as farmers. I have friends who if I called myself a farmer would snicker because I don't do it full time, 24-7. But then others would refer to anyone with livestock and a garden as a farmer. It's funny when you really think it over how in agriculture, and as a woman in ag, one term can carry so much weight and definition to someone’s sense of self.” - Katie Keddy

“Do I farm? Yes. I would say I co-farm with my husband. Do I use the term to describe myself as a farmer? Yes and no. I don't do the budgets or purchasing, but I do handle what in any other business would be PR, human resources, safety, communications, administration, and machinery operation. My husband would say I am not a farmer, but he barely even is by his own definition. My father in law would consider me as a farmer (at least part time or as needed). My mother in law would say I'm absolutely a farmer.” – PJ Bailey

“I have had people (in the industry) get upset when I have described myself as a farmer as I am not full time. At one point in time, I had a job at the Lakehead Food Security Research Network, promoting local food production and organizing training for gardeners and farmers. I was milking at the home farm regularly but also helping the local health unit with brochures, going to remote First Nations for training and organizing local food workshops. One of my farmer neighbours did not like me calling myself a farmer.” – Christina Mol

“I also think that in my personal situation if I called myself a farmer I would feel like a fake. Like people who know me and my family well enough would find me calling myself a farmer laughable because I'm not farming full time. And that people view a true farmer as someone who does it full time. But maybe that's just a bias I hold in my own mind?” - Stephanie Szusz

Jessica who has a hog farm business with her husband, but also works off-farm, recently introduced herself as a farmer for the first time at a board meeting in her community. Why the change in title? She said it was because of the audience she was speaking to.

“To this group of people who are from my community but mostly outside agriculture I felt "qualified" to say that I'm a farmer. The same would be true of my Western business classmates or even my colleagues at OMAFRA. I would not generally use this title when talking with my husband's aggie classmates (where neither partner has an off-farm job) or the farmers that I work with through OMAFRA.” – Jessica Kelly

It’s about investment

Many women feel that there are qualifiers for being a farmer, most often linked to financial investment in the farming business or the requirement of taking on financial risk.

“To me it's a badge of honour to call yourself a farmer and it implies many things - hard work, resilience, financial risk, dedication, business unpredictability. Since my off-farm job comes with many luxuries not afforded to farm owner-operators -- predictable salary, benefits, maternity leave, sick days and vacation -- I feel like I haven't earned the title.” – Jessica Kelly

“Before having my daughter, I was a full time herdsman for one of the top herds in Ontario, and I still didn't refer to myself as a farmer, but a farmhand. Currently, I am at home with our daughter, but do about 6-7 hours of work on the farm each day, including chores and payroll. I have no idea what I identify as; I have a tough time answering when people ask what I do. I think the reason I don't identify as a "farmer" is because I don't actually own anything. To me, a farmer is someone who is putting in 18 hour days, and has a financial stake” - Steph Towers

Interestingly, Steph asked her husband what he thought. “He said he does consider me a farmer. His definition of farmhand is someone who is employed to perform daily tasks around the farm, but has no ownership. It's interesting that both of us tie the title of farmer to ownership. In reality, my husband’s parents own almost everything, but are not heavily involved in the day to day,” she explained.

But are these women farmers?

I have to say, it blew my mind when Steph said she doesn’t refer to herself as a farmer. I think my many friends who are unfamiliar with agriculture would certainly consider her a farmer. Especially considering she essentially works full time hours supporting the farm.

I’m also not convinced that financial ownership or investment should be criteria for the use of the term. All of these women show an emotional investment in their family farms, which is just as important in my opinion (and probably the opinions of many consumers).

I would love for our industry to empower these women to use the term farmer; to allow themselves to use the revered term. But the best thing about empowerment, is that it means people can define themselves however they want. Labels aside, these women are playing significant roles in agriculture and I think we need to work better at acknowledging it.

In my next post tomorrow, we’ll hear from women who prefer to use the term “farmer’s wife” to describe their contributions.

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