On a freezing cold late afternoon in February, 14 women gathered in a meeting room at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs office in Woodstock to talk about big-picture issues facing women in the agricultural sector.
Maternity leave issues, and their impact on a career, were the focus of this meeting. They talked about the challenge of farming with pre-school children, trying to find child care in isolated rural areas, how maternity benefits don’t extend universally and in business, how client relationships can wane when maintaining them is entrusted to a temporary employee.
They also realized they had the power – and the passion – to look for solutions.
That led them to discussing outreach efforts to other farm families for co-op or shared child care arrangements. They noted how drop-in moms-and-tots programs served farm women better than rigidly scheduled programs that might not gel with food production demands.
They talked about how agriculture could lead by example and mirror exemplary examples from progressive organizations that offer meaningful maternity benefits, such as in-office child care, top-up support, flexible hours and short weeks in the low-season.
They knew they were onto something good. They’d met casually a few times going back to 2013, and liked being together. They liked the pithy exchanges and most of all, the networking.
But there was something about this topic and this meeting that ignited them. Likely, it was the additional shot of adrenaline that accompanies any talk about family.
And that boost is when the new Ag Women’s Network really took off.
From the dozen-ish career-focused women who joined together initially, the group has blossomed. It now includes nearly 440 Facebook members across the province. They meet regularly, and span all ages and professions — from farmers, to government advisors, to agri-business professionals.
Their passion for farming, plus the fact that my daughters Alicia and Kate are active women in agriculture, made it enjoyable for me to discuss how network participants could further develop their communications skills, when I spoke to about 40 members at their September meeting in Cambridge last week.
I say “further develop” because several members of the group are graduates from the agricultural communications course I taught for more than 20 years at the University of Guelph. They’ve participated in, and won, the Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture competition. They’ve been selected to participate in national and global forums on youth development and leadership development. Many now have solid jobs as communications professionals in the agri-food sector. Their writing and speaking abilities are exemplary and they bring so much passion to the sector (read participant Kelsey Banks’ discussion about passion in communications here).
To me, here’s the so-what and who-cares of why this network’s members’ concerns need to be out there, and widely heard.
1. More than 25 per cent of Canadian farmers are women. The ag sector needs to pay attention to any group with these kinds of numbers. So do policy makers and decision makers.
2. Speaking of Labour Day, farm women who don’t self-identify as farmers participate hugely in farm matters. Besides being mothers, which is an awesome undertaking all by itself, many work on the farm as labourers. That’s a critical role, given how the agriculture sector constantly struggles to find employees.
3. Off the farm, the agri-food sector is becoming populated with more and more women professionals – in areas such as communications and education, sales and marketing, finance, animal and plant health and research, to name a few.
4. The issues they raise have been ignored for way too long. Some of them go back to the days of Adelaide Hoodless and Nellie McClung. Unbelievable.
5. This group means business. As a journalist and, like my peers, someone constantly on the look-out for passionate new sources, I’d love to know what the group thinks about hot issues of the day, such as supply management, animal welfare and GMOs.
Going forward, the new network needs to decide a few fundamental matters. How public will it be, especially when it comes to making statements about issues it holds dear? How will it interact with other women’s networks? How will it grow? How will it use its members’ passion to further its own interests, as well as to promote agriculture
Regardless of whatever profile it chooses, support and networking are worthwhile reasons in themselves to come together. Good luck, Ag Women’s Network.
And as a P.S., good luck to departing RealAgriculture.com editor Lyndsey Smith, one of my favourite women in agriculture, and my editor since my first days as a contributor here. The agricultural sector is lucky to have you as an advocate, wherever you hang your hat.