It’s not just in offices where more and more women are breaking through the metaphorical glass ceiling – it’s happening in agriculture, too.
Take Kim McQuhae, Linda Grimo and Rose Bartel, for example.
They are three Niagara-on-the-Lake women – along with others such as Maureen MacSween (MacSween Farms) and Emma Thwaites (Thwaites Farms) – who have taken charge of their own path in the agriculture industry.
McQuhae has her fingers in many pies, including cattle farming and an award-winning jam business. Grimo runs a successful nut farm (Grimo Nut Nursery) started by her father, Ernie.
Bartel, meanwhile, leads Bartel Organics with the help of her husband, Ken, and has been diligently working three acres of land to grow organic fruits and vegetables as well as flowers.
“In my case, I just love animals,” McQuhae said. “I bought my first two cows in 1996 before I had a farm.”
She now owns the 10-acre farm, Gryphon Ridge Highlands, where she maintains a small herd of 10 Highland cattle. She spends her days tending to the herd and making jams, jellies and preserves.
Data from the 2021 Census of Agriculture showed that female farm operator numbers increased for the first time since 1991, when the Census of Agriculture started collecting data.
In 2021, there were 79,795 female farm operators in Canada out of a total of 262,455 farms, up from 77,970 in 2016, an increase of 1,825 or 2.3 per cent.
By comparison, male farm operator numbers dropped by 5.8 per cent over the same period.
Grimo, meanwhile, thinks the fact more women are taking charge in farming shows how society has changed when it comes to accepting women in leadership roles.
“The old view was that women were taking care of the kids and the home front to support their husbands,” she said.
“The new view is that we are equal partners in the farm operation, or running them on our own, with our partners, if any, supporting us.”
Women are thriving in this environment, she said, and enjoying their work and agricultural leadership roles, both on and off the farm.
Bartel, meanwhile, said Bartel Organics is a small player in the agriculture business, with most of its products being sold directly from the farm, or at the NOTL Farmers’ Market on Saturdays at Garrison Village.
She and Ben have been fixtures there for 17 years.
“The first time we went, we made $50,” she said, adding that with the farm now more established, it’s more common for her and Ken to come away from the market day with 10 times that amount – $500 – in their pocket.
In a news release, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture said that despite the increasing numbers, women still face several barriers in the industry.
“We often still have to fight to have agricultural service providers, from animal nutritionists and agricultural lenders to farm equipment service managers and agronomists, view us as equal farm partners and informed decision-makers,” Sara Wood, a director with the federation, said in an online statement.
“It can also be intimidating to step forward to take on a leadership position, particularly in organizations where women haven’t previously played very visible roles,” she wrote.
Additionally, she said the women in agriculture, just like women in other sectors of the workforce, face challenges like child care.
All three women said they have been fortunate to have not experienced some of the issues described by Wood.
“I have a really strong personality,” McQuhae said. “I exude a lot of confidence, so people don’t boss me around.”
Bartel agreed and said her dealings with seed suppliers – Stoke’s Seeds in St. Catharines, William Dam Seeds in Dundas and American company Johnny’s Selected Seeds – have all been positive.
“We haven’t really had much that was negative,” she said, adding that being a small operator helps.
Grimo, meanwhile, said she hasn’t noticed much bias in her sector, as many nut farms are led by women.
“When I am working with suppliers I personally don’t find barriers, but maybe Niagara suppliers are ‘with the times’ more than perhaps other locations in Ontario,” she said.
There have been occasions, however, where she feels she may have been treated differently if she were male.
“But honestly, this is rare for me,” she said. “I had an old farmer once tell me, ‘Listen sweetheart blah, blah, blah.’ He lost me at ‘listen, sweetheart,’ and I was angry. I knew far more about the industry than he did, but he was ignorant and misogynistic.”
She chose not to stew over it.
“I took it for what it was: an old man who couldn’t see a woman running a farm,” she said. “Fortunately, I didn’t have to work anywhere near him and eliminated contact with him.”
Wood said there is a new federal government initiative for female farmers called the Agri-Mentor program that offers six months of individual coaching for women in the agri-food sector, matching mentees and mentors.
She encouraged women in agriculture to take advantage of resources and to take more chances in their line of work in order to prosper.
“It won’t always be easy, but when it comes to farming, I believe we can do everything a man does – we just may do it a bit differently,” she wrote.