Women in farming in 2017: A portrait for Quebec

Women have always had a strong relationship with "Mother Earth" and their role is expanding.

Étienne Gosselin | Agronomist | Journalist

In celebration of International Women's Day, Co-opMe will be focusing on the role of women in farming. We spoke with Pierre-Yvon Bégin, a reporter at La Terre de chez nous and winner of the 2016 Rosaline-Ledoux prize granted by the Fédération des agricultrices du Québec, which is awarded each year to honour exceptional reporting on women in agriculture. Bégin has been covering agricultural news since October 2000 and contributes opinion pieces to La Tribune. He had a few enlightening facts and thoughts to share with us.

Q. Would you say that women have "taken their place" in farming?
A. Women have always played a pivotal role, both when we were still a farming society and later, when men left the fields to earn a better living elsewhere. Don't forget that behind Alphonse Desjardins, there was his wife Dorimène! Women have always had a strong relationship with "Mother Earth" and their role is expanding. Though men were traditionally heads of the family, the model is changing bit by bit with every generation. Women farmers are another step in the feminist movement.

Q. How are women farmers different from men?
A. On average, they have more education. They're generally creative and open to trying new products. Women also tend to keep men grounded, since they're still largely in charge of handling the financial aspects of farming households, which makes them more prudent. It's also worth pointing out that today's farms rely on a lot of technology. Manual strength no longer dictates how profitable a farm will be--these days, it's knowledge, attention to detail and dexterity that matter most. 

Q. In terms of gender equality, is there still work to be done?
A. Yes. Much of the work farm women do is invisible--it's estimated that in Quebec, women farmers do $155 million in unpaid work each year! Only one quarter of these women are owners or shareholders. The work they do is generally done in the background, though that trend is changing. Women are no longer as willing to work for nothing--for example, in the past women used to go unpaid so that they could claim as many family benefits as possible.

Q. Would you say that women are underrepresented on boards of directors and in democratic bodies?
A. It's true that a lot of boards are still "boy's clubs". We're trying to fight against an entire culture here! Less than a century ago, women couldn't even sign cheques, so women don't always get their fair share yet. Does that mean we should save them a seat at the table? I'm of the opinion that we need the best candidate for the role, regardless of their sex. At the same time, though, we need to encourage women to step up. Of course, men also need to take their place ... in the home! When women are included in a board of directors, they often come up with interesting ideas and more equitable decisions.

Q. Could you share an anecdote with us?
A. To start, I'm always impressed by the dynamic--the fun--that can be had with the Fédération de la relève agricole du Québec, the organization for young farmers aged 16 to 39. But for a specific anecdote, I'd like to tell you about an amazing meeting I had when I was reporting on Serge Riendeau, the departing president of Agropur. I was visiting his home, and his granddaughter, who was maybe 13 or 14 years old, showed up with a friend of hers to do the milking. There, right in front of me, was the future--and it was female! It made my day.

Women in farming...
  • Are more likely than men to have a postsecondary diploma (88% vs. 75%) or a university degree (25% vs. 8%).
  • Are more likely to start a new business (45% vs. 30%). 
  • Have 2.9 children on average, compared to 1.7 for all Quebec households.
  • Remain primarily responsible for housework (64% vs. 27% for men) and childcare (64% vs. 30% for men).
  • Are more likely to be affected by psychological distress than men (49.5%). The average in Quebec is 20.1%. Main risk factors: isolation, workloads and financial strain.
  • Make up 14% of the elected officials on the UPA (2014-2015), Quebec's professional farmer's union, even though 27% of the businesses are owned by women. They make up 13% of the boards of directors for agricultural cooperatives, 25% of the boards for dairy breed associations, and 37% of the boards of the Réseau Agriconseils advisory organizations for farmers in Quebec. 
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Source: Report by the Fédération des agricultrices du Québec, January 2016

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