Kathy Breen admits she had “absolutely zero knowledge of farming, let alone dairy farming” when she married her husband and moved from the city to the country in the early 1990s.
Her timing couldn’t have been worse either; the year she moved to Putnam, Ont., was abnormally wet.
“It just rained and rained,” recalls Breen. “I remember calling home to my mother, bawling my eyes out and saying ‘What have I done?'”
Now, she’s the co-owner of Breen Acres Dairy Farm, a fourth-generation, 400-hectare dairy and crop operation that she and her husband purchased from his parents.
Statistics Canada’s latest census release on the state of agriculture in Canada found the number of women operating farms increased in 2021 compared to 2016. According to the census figures, in 2021 79,795 women counted themselves as female farm operators, an increase from 2016 when there were only 77,970.
According to Statistics Canada, that is the first increase in the number of female agriculture operators since 1991, when Kathy Breen started her farming career.
Breen says her husband and his mother saw her as an equal in the business side of the operation, and that really helped in those early years.
But it was her mother-in-law who really convinced Breen to stake out her place, officially, on the farm.
Recognized for roles
“When they used to do farming and bookkeeping, she did all the bookkeeping, rode tractors when she needed to and helped out in any way she could — and they never would consider her an owner or a farm member,” said Breen.
“So 30 years ago, when I came into the picture, it was her that pushed for me to be an employee or owner employee and get the benefits of filing EI, CPP, all the taxes and everything. So then as we retire, we get the benefits of that.”
Breen is now in the process of passing on the farm to her daughter, her husband and their three children, who will be the fifth generation to run the farm.
Angie Koch thinks it’s great that more women want to be outside like her working on a farm. She started her own operation 15 years ago and has watched it grow ever since.
“We were really small. At first it was just me on two acres pretty much alone and a heap of volunteers who saved me,” said Koch, who is the owner and operator of Fertile Ground Farm in St. Agatha, west of Waterloo.
Now Fertile Ground Farm is up to about four hectares, or 10 acres, with five seasonal staff.
Growth in local, organic
Koch says she grows a long list of vegetables and greens and seedlings which are sold through community shared agriculture and some local retailers.
Koch says it’s great to see more women taking on roles in agriculture and that it’s being reflected in the census.
“This means there’s more women who are in leadership roles and who are making decisions about their operations and that seems like a really positive shift,” said Koch.
She says there’s been greater demand for local and organic products, and that could partially explain the growing number of female farmers.
“That is the place that we see a lot of women farming — is in the local and organic sectors. So maybe that is one of the reasons that there are more women in agriculture, because the sectors that we tend to work in have higher demand for those products.”
Farmers are also getting older, with the average age of farmers going from 55 to 56 and the number of farms dropped between 2016 and 2021 as a result of both aging operators and farm consolidation, said Statistics Canada.