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Dirty hands and the love of the land

// Trina Moyles
// Trina Moyles

A decade ago, Heidi Ellis never would have dreamed of becoming a farmer. She grew up in the city of Strathmore, ON, only an hour’s drive from Toronto.

“Farming is the last thing I thought I’d ever do,” Ellis says with a laugh. “Growing up, I remember picking peas from my mom’s garden, but I was never interested in growing food and definitely not for a living. And now I have seeds all over my house!”

Today Ellis, 30, has been managing the vegetable and greenhouse production for two years at Greens, Eggs and Ham Farm, a seven-acre mixed farm in Leduc.

Ellis’ journey to the farm didn’t follow a straight line; rather, a web of experiences that varied from volunteering on a farm in India to learning about permaculture on the Canadian prairies to taking coursework in urban agriculture to working with farmers in Cuba.

Her decision to become a farmer was both practical—wanting to get her hands dirty and see tangible results—and ideological—wanting to contribute to local and regional food security.

Today Ellis is a part of an emerging trend of young women living in Alberta who are trading in office and urban-based careers to don gloves, yield broad forks, drive tractors, grow food and raise livestock. And they’re doing it with the odds stacked against them.

In 2001, Canada’s Census of Agriculture warned, “The younger generation of farm women is vanishing—as it is for all farm operators.” Ten years later, the 2011 census reported that 29 percent of Alberta’s farmers were women—a slight hike from 2001’s 26 percent.

Young women farmers face multiple barriers and challenges in Alberta. One of the most daunting challenges for a young, single, aspiring farmer is the huge cost of land and capital.

According to Statistics Canada, the average price per acre of farmland in Alberta increased from $844 to $1798 (113 percent) between 2002 and 2012. Alberta’s oil sector has helped fuel the steep increase in farm prices across the province.

“Oil companies buy the land from the farmer for a hefty price,” says Jessica Walty, a 30-year-old heritage cattle farmer in the Peace Country of Northern Alberta. “We’re talking half a million, maybe more. It’s driving up the price of land because we’re so close to the oil field … and it’s not farmers buying to farm; it’s companies buying to build camps for the workers.”

Walty and her partner were able to negotiate the high cost of land in the Peace Country by accessing a Young Farmer’s Loan from Farm Credit Canada. The loan enabled them to purchase a quarter section of land and a tractor with baling equipment.

The pair are planning to raise Scottish heritage cows using a sustainable pasture rotation system and sell the offspring to their local community for meat. They chose to raise the shaggy Highland breed instead of the generic Angus breeds for food-security reasons.

“A lot of the heritage breeds are now rare and some are even close to extinction,” Walty says. “It’s great to support these breeds and be a voice to the public about why they’re important. For example, they’re much hardier throughout a cold winter [versus the generic brand].”

But thinking long term, Walty can’t help but worry about the expansion of the oilfield operations in the Peace Country and how that will affect the cost and quality of land surrounding their quarter-section plot.

“[The industry] is taking good farmland away from being used to service the oilfield. So we worry a little bit. What if ground water is contaminated? If we have cows and we’re selling them for beef, what if people don’t want to buy them because we’re so close to the oilfield? We hope it won’t happen, but it’s always in the back of our minds.”

The greatest challenge for Sarah Weigum, a 28-year-old seed farmer from Three Hills, isn’t about access to land; rather, it’s about the difficulty to relate to other farmers in the industry.

“I would say that my main challenge is a psychological one,” Weigum says. “There are many women actively involved in different aspects of the industry, but there are few young, single women, like me, that are actively farming, either with their parents or on their own.”

Two years ago, she gave up a communications job in BC to move back to central Alberta and take up the reins of responsibility on her family’s grain-seed farm.

Weigum grows nine varieties of barley, wheat, pea and flax seeds to sell to other farmers.

She’s involved in all aspects of the farm, including seed management, administration and marketing of her products, and equipment operation.

She is using trial and error—with a little help from social media—to prove wrong the industry’s stereotype that often asserts women can’t operate heavy-duty farm equipment.

“Honestly, Twitter is amazing!” she laughs. “During the harvest, I’ll be out on the combine and if I have trouble getting the combine settings right, I’ll just post on Twitter, and within minutes I have dozens of suggestions.”

Weigum is emotionally connected to her family’s farm in Three Hills and plans to continue working the land and broadening her knowledge as a farmer. In the future, she hopes to raise her own family on the same land where she was born and raised.

“Farming is demanding work, but it allows your family and your work life to be more complimentary,” Weigum says.

Another challenge for women interested in getting their hands dirty is that nearly 50 percent of women farmers in Alberta have to seek off-farm employment to make ends meet.

“There are a lot of people who come out here and think they want to start a farm,” Ellis says, shaking her head and smiling, “And then they realize, it’s not easy. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. It’s hard work and you don’t make a lot of money.”

At Greens, Eggs and Ham Farm, Ellis makes a monthly salary and takes home fresh produce and eggs; however, she has to work a second job to cover her monthly expenses. During the day she’s a farmer and by night she’s serving tables and collecting tips at an Indian restaurant in Edmonton.

Rural-based farms require huge capital investments for land, buildings, machinery and labour costs. In light of today’s fluctuating global-market trends, accruing substantial debt is a risky business and can result in low returns for owners and workers.

Some aspiring farmers are reexamining their own backyards and local resources for solutions, including Vanessa Hanel, a 28-year-old woman from Calgary who is venturing into her first season with urban farm Seed Plus Soil.

“We had very few capital start-up costs,” Hanel explains. “Just seeds, seedling trays and a rototiller. We’re not putting ourselves into debt and waiting to earn it back.”

Seed Plus Soil is an urban-based SPIN (small plot intensive) farm that maximizes the space in urban backyards to grow micro salad greens and niche vegetables. They also recently “borrowed” a quarter acre of land from an older couple on the outskirts of Calgary, who were more than happy to support Hanel and her two colleagues, Mike Soucy and Monique Switzer.

They are planning to grow a diverse range of Asian greens with “wacky names” and baby vegetables, including different shapes and colours of carrots, radishes, squash, broccoli and complex endives which they’ll market to chefs and restaurants in Calgary.

“We’re not expecting to make a ton of money,” Hanel says. “But we hope that with the responsibility shared between three people, it will give us the lifestyle we want.”

For Dawn Boileau, who operates Sunrise Gardens, a two-acre vegetable and microgreens farm near Onoway, the key to achieving a more balanced lifestyle has been, simply, scaling back.

In 2008, her farm expanded rapidly from one acre to seven acres, and she found herself completely exhausted with the workload—so much, in fact, that she left the farm for six months.

“I came back and asked myself, ‘Did I really want to be a farmer?'” Boileau explains. “The answer was yes, but to do it my way, on my terms and not using other farmers to aspire to. I feel more fulfilled gardening when it’s on my own terms.”

In 2009, Boileau scaled her farm back to one acre and began experimenting with growing wheatgrass and sprouts indoors throughout the winter.

Her decision to downsize and innovate has paid off. Today, Boileau’s wheatgrass and sprouts regularly sell out every Saturday at the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market and in five different organic food stores throughout Edmonton.

“I’ve been growing slowly—which is better for us,” she says. “What I learned, even if someone tells you that you can’t grow something, just try it anyway, follow your own design for your farming.”

Boileau encourages women and men to grow their own food, even if it’s just a kitchen windowsill lined with herbs and sprouts. “Grow whatever [you] can at home to have some connection to what you eat.” V

Trina Moyles is a writer from Peace River, Alberta. Today she lives in Uganda and is writing a book about the lives of women farmers around the world.

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