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“Invisible” women who farm struggling with identity

In this edition of his Urban Cowboy column, Owen Roberts explains how research is attempting to fill the knowledge gap about women farmers

Despite making gains elsewhere in society, women who farm struggle mightily with farming’s very essentials, access to land and credit. Their vital contributions to food production are poorly documented and misunderstood.

Those are overarching findings by University of Guelph professor Sharada Srinivasan and her international research team, who’ve interviewed 400 young farmers in four countries (Canada, China, India and Indonesia) to understand pathways to farming – that is, how they get into it, and how they are able to stick with it.

About one-quarter of the farmers they interviewed are women.

Srinivasan and four of her team members will be presenting some of their research findings related to gender equity, at a panel discussion at the first Arrell Food Summit, which starts next week at the University of Guelph.

Ontario farmers Brianne Beasley and Rebecca Ivanoff will join them to talk about their experiences.

Srinivasan, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development at Guelph, is completing fieldwork for this four-year research project, which is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The project is designed to understand and reduce impediments for the next generation of farmers, which includes many women farmers.

In the field, the research team made some significant observations.

First, they found in Canada and India, even though women farmers have legal rights, they still encounter societal barriers. “Gender issues come into play,” says Srinivasan. “When people think of young farmers, they think of young men, not young women.”

In their research, Srinivasan and her team found huge knowledge gaps related to young women in farming. Little research exists showing the contribution women make, especially young women. That either signals a new movement is afoot involving young women farmers and research just hasn’t caught up, or it means women’s contributions are what she calls “invisible.”

Says Srinivasan: “You’re disadvantaged twice, because you’re a women and because you’re young.”

Across the four countries, women told the researchers they weren’t taken seriously as farmers. This manifested itself in different ways. For example, some aspects of modern farming, such as increased technology and mechanization, means there are fewer manual labour jobs on farms. But in some countries, women are discouraged from operating machinery. In those cases, modern farming reduces their chances for jobs.

This problem is further exacerbated by the rural exodus of job seekers headed for cities – they’re mostly men. That leaves women behind to farm in an unwelcoming environment.

Holding a land title is another problem. In some countries, only men can be landowners. That leaves women without equity and facing an impossible situation if they need to apply for credit, a normal part of doing business.

So it’s no wonder that women in some countries who farm may choose not refer to themselves as farmers -- even though that’s what they are – because they’re not recognized in the same way as men.

“Canada is way ahead in self-identity,” says Srinivasan. “That’s not so in other countries. Women who farm don’t call themselves farmers.”

The discussion, “Young and female: international perspectives on farming,” will be take place at 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22. For more information visit the food summit website.