Dr. Amber Fletcher has heard it straight from the farmer’s mouth: The frustrating economics of growing commodities in a global market. The ever-increasing challenges of extreme weather that leaves fields parched in drought or submerged by flood. The seemingly minor trials of balancing a farm budget while somehow understanding the complex policies governing agriculture that emerge from governments at local, provincial, national and international levels.
What she has heard most frequently is that, when it comes to policies that influence the lives of everyone who lives on the farm, gender matters.
Dr. Fletcher grew up on her family’s farm near Kelvington. She studied at both the U of R and at York University in Toronto. She is now teaching at the U of R in Regina.
In this conversation, she reflects on her conversations with farm women as they describe the roles they play on the family farm.
LH: What had people written in the past about the role of farm women that made you want to research the subject?
There were interesting books written in the mid-1900s that mostly discussed the kind of work farm women did and how they did it. A major theme in this was that the work that farm women do has been far less valued and seen as far less central to the functioning of a farm and its survival, when in reality it is so important.
LH: What things have changed since the post-war era?
These days we see a lot of focus on policy and economics. Certainly the farm women I talked to could speak about these things. They know about policy, they know about farm economics. Several of the women I interviewed really emphasized that they are partners in their family farm. But the farm roles are still quite gender differentiated. There are certain things that are disproportionately done by farm women and then things done by farm men. By not talking to women about their experiences, we’re missing this whole side of farming that is central to the industry.
LH: How do women’s roles on the farm affect their perceptions of things like economics or even the environment?
A significant number of women felt that women are more attentive to environmental concerns, more environmentally aware than men. But at the same time they expressed that awareness comes down to the individual, not to gender. I think that’s explained by the different roles men and women play on the farm.
Women continue to do much more child care than men. So the children go off to school and learn about recycling or the environment and those messages come home—it’s the mothers the kids talk to.
Men are more vulnerable in their roles to weather extremes and other environmental factors affecting livestock and crops.
A lot of women told me that they have the ability to step back from the immediate financial control. It affords them a more critical lens than men would have. They said that men get caught up in the economics, the profit aspects of production. For women, because they have so many roles, and work off-farm often, they can ask what other implications the farm has for things like the environment.
Farm women saw themselves as supporters of others, especially their own families. Supporters, nurturers, councilors; they used all these words repeatedly. But who supports you as the supporter? For many it is the external community, other women. But that community is being eroded as farms grow larger and rural populations decrease.
Farm women also talk about themselves becoming the “hired man” on the family farm. So there is pressure there. A lot of farm women are in the sandwich generation taking care of both their parents and their children. At the same time we’ve lost the support of a lot of long term care facilities.
LH: Is this a new phenomena? Was it different for previous generations?
There was something in terms of social cohesion during the settlement era. People came together and pushed for collective infrastructure like the grain pools. So, I suppose that was an apex for social cohesion among farmers but I couldn’t honestly say how involved most women were in those days. There were key women involved in influencing policy. But most women were out pulling stumps with the men in the field, or raising children, or cooking on very rudimentary stoves—oh, the burn injuries they experienced.
Farms are becoming more and more isolated the bigger they get. Social norms are changing—the women I interviewed said that people don’t stop in for coffee any more. You have to call ahead and make an appointment. Part of that is that your neighbour is ten kilometres away instead of two.
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