Based on the 2016 agriculture census from Stats Canada, the proportion of female farmers is increasing even as the total number of farm operators decreases. In fact, women make up 28.7% of the 272,000 farmers in the country.
Yet while more women are working hard on the land, sometimes they also have to work equally as hard to dispel public and industry perceptions. For women like Erica Thew of Sage Farms in Hussar, Alberta, she draws on her own personal experiences, knowledge and mental toughness to help her deal with whatever challenges she might face.
Erica manages her own farming operation and, in the past few years, she’s seen the presence of women in agriculture grow as they take on more demanding and complex roles. “There is significantly less stereotyping and discrimination than there once was. The agriculture world has evolved over time, just like everything else.”
It Runs In The Family
A fourth-generation farmer of her family’s nearly 14,000 crop acres (3,900 canola, 1,500 yellow peas, 2,900 barley and 5,600 wheat) and 80 head of cattle (on another 640 acres), Erica’s toughness comes as naturally to her as does her love of the business.
As a young girl, she’d spent a lot of time with her dad on the land and quickly grasped how mentally and physically challenging the job could be. Yet she also knew farming was what she wanted to do, that it was something she’d always come back to.It just happened sooner than she expected.
After finishing her first year of university pursuing a business administration degree, Erica – who was 18 at the time – lost her father in a snowmobiling accident. She immediately took on the role of managing the farm and ten years later – while she still misses her father – she’s proven herself to be a very resourceful and experienced farmer. She also recognizes that the farming community is a tight-knit one.
“Coming into agriculture at a very young age, everyone was extremely supportive. That first season though, I’m sure there were some people that had their doubts about a young girl taking on such a huge operation. So it was a great feeling after we got that first crop off, to put those doubts to rest.”
Finding Her Way
For the first few years, to further her industry knowledge, Erica attended agricultural meetings, seminars and agronomy courses and listened to mentors like her grandfather and father-in-law.
“My grandpa said to me, ‘the farmer used to just have to grow the crop, harvest it and deliver it to the elevator. Now there’s so much more to it. You’re more than a farmer, you’re running a fulltime business.’”
Things are definitely more complex these days. Erica notes that when her grandfather was farming, he didn’t have to follow commodity pricing, learn about technology, pay as much for equipment or constantly consider new farming practices like shifting from summer fallowing to a no-till practice.
As a team, Erica and her family and a number of employees were forced to learn things fast. Based on her experience, she believes that losing a key member of a family can often bring people together to bring out the best in each family member.
“Everyone in our farming family had to figure out what role they wanted to play when my dad passed,” she adds. “I’m proud to say we’ve retained a lot of the same employees over the years. They stepped up to the plate as much as I did.”
Successes & Challenges
Heading into her 10th crop year, Erica is completely immersed in the farm. In addition to managing the entire farming operation, which includes doing the books, she (with her younger sister and an employee) also runs three 71-foot drills during spring seeding.
Erica sees successes as something for the team (her grandpa Sage, mom, sisters and employees) to share. She also sees carrying on her dad’s legacy and growing some of the farm’s largest crops as some of their greatest achievements. More importantly, she knows her dad would be proud of what the farm has become.
In farming, however, there are often challenges that go along with the successes. Erica’s operation is no different. “I’m currently struggling with timing on equipment trades with the US/CA dollar exchange being so poor. Our margins seem to keep getting tighter as the years go on.”
“I want to be certain that I’m not putting our farm at financial risk while also doing as much as I can to turn a profit every year.”
Farming will continue to change and evolve with new management tools, practices and challenges, but with the face of the industry also changing – to include women like Erica – there will always be new ideas and solutions coming from those who are driven to succeed.