A Crossroads in Agri-Culture
Curated by Barry Marshall
Storyteller: Alexa Avelar
December 6, 2021
When you read the word ‘farmer,’ what comes to mind? It probably isn’t an independent young woman trying to get a foot in the door of a traditionally male industry, yet this is the exact demographic that Alexa Avelar is seeing rising in rural Ontario. Alexa is a 27-year-old farmer who lives on a hobby farm with her grandparents. She also holds an MA in Sociology from the University of Guelph and studies women’s involvement in agriculture. She prefers to work with her small herd of cattle but can take care of any other duties whenever her grandfather cannot. Alexa loves farming and is set to inherit the farm, but for several reasons, she isn’t sure if it’s the right decision.
Alexa has the mind of a sociologist. In her graduate degree, Alexa’s attention turned to studying demographics. “Originally I had just wanted to study young people in agriculture and then I met Dr. Srinivasan (also a steering committee member for PARO) and she had an SSHRC grant available about young women pursuing farming. I changed my statement of intent and the direction I wanted to head with it. It was like focusing on researching people like me.” As part of her graduate research, Alexa studied the economy, technology, and agricultural sectors from the 1980s to the early 2000s and found that while these aspects of society have changed quite a bit, the issues regarding gender and sexuality have not changed much at all. “The context may have changed but the issues are still consistent. And so, it really pushed me to look into what other issues women like me were going through and to publicize that."
The demographics of agriculture in rural Ontario reveals an underrepresentation of young people in women in farming, but this may be changing. In Canada in 2011, most farm operators (48.2%) were over the age of 55, with the age group of 35 to 54 years following close behind (43.5%), and young people under 35 representing only 8.2%. By 2016 the percentage of farm operators under 35 had risen to 9.1%. Those young operators represented only 39% of all young farm people, who were more likely to be farm labourers than operators. Alexa wanted to know why. Even if you are a white male, “farming is hard to get into unless you have a lot of start-up capital.” This is especially true for young women even though the numbers of single-operator women in agriculture are increasing. From to the 2011 to the 2016 census, the representation of female farmers in Canada rose from 27.4% to 28.7%. The total number of operators on farms in Canada for both sexes have decreased and the number of male operators (both as lone operators and as a group) have decreased as well, but the number of single-operator women has increased by 22%. Alexa feels that “there is more opportunity for women and girls… who are being taught they can do whatever they want. I think there's an ongoing cultural shift in helping women get into agriculture, believing in women to grow up this way and to do these jobs. There's the Ag Women’s Network, there's lots of little things here and there that encourage women to farm.” One of Alexa’s graduate study participants was part of a farming family where her father and his brother had seven daughters between them and no sons. The fact that the fathers chose to pass the mantle to their daughters influenced Alexa’s thoughts. It is great that farming demographics are diversifying, but there are still challenges that the younger generation face.
Returning to the popular mental image of a farmer, visibility is an ongoing challenge for individuals and groups of people who are marginalized by popular rural imaginaries, politics, and structures (e.g., those with BIPOC identities and/or from LGBTQ communities). The LGBTQ community is present in farming in rural Ontario, and despite this, rural communities are not exactly welcoming. Alexa is a part of the LGBTQ community and feels strongly that LGBTQ visibility and safety need to be discussed in the context of farming and agriculture. “I know we're here, there's definitely lots of us out here, I think, especially in traditional forms of agriculture like community farming, which I think appeals to a lot of the queer community. But in terms of family farming, you just don't hear about LGBTQ people because of all of the still-conservative beliefs that go together with the rural farming majority demographics.”
The same culture that eschews the LGBTQ community in rural Ontario is and will be a challenge for young women and other marginalized groups trying to carve out their place in the industry. “It’s rare to see someone immigrate from somewhere with capital and interest in farming or see a marginalized person or person of colour from the city say, ‘yeah, I want to farm,’ you just don’t see it.” Alexa sees economic trends being a major player in making farming even less accessible in the future. “I think the way the economy is going, as the cost of inputs rise and the profits cover less and less of expenses, people are more often getting stuck in impossible financial situations.” Most women Alexa interviewed had no idea that government policies were in place to help them financially, which Alexa attributes to a lack of advertising. The current economic state of agriculture in Canada is a barrier to diversification and a deterrent to interested youths who weren’t born into farming.
Another challenge for young women in farming is that they face a different work schedule, and this is partly due to gender roles. The labour division varies from person to person, but in general women have to contend with a “three-part work day, so there's the farm chores, the off-farm labour, and then any domestic labour or childcare labour. I think a lot of women experience a triple work day.” The triple work day complicates work-life balance for many rural women, which Alexa feels “is especially important because, unfortunately, farming is not very productive. You're not making $1,000,000 from inputting $100,000; you're maybe inputting $100,000 and making $110,000. It all scales up. A lot of farm families need off-farm jobs to make ends meet.” Work-life balance and economic barriers for women in agriculture go together. “It’s really important to look at that economic disparity because that’s the reality of farming in Ontario and everywhere in Canada. You cannot just farm unless you ‘go big or go home’ to compete with the corporate farms.”
Because of the current climate in agriculture, Alexa is facing some difficult decisions in the years ahead, just as many other young women her age likely are. “These uncertain times are going to lead to a lot of changes. Whether they’re good changes or bad changes, I don't know. Depending on what state agriculture is in and what state I’m in, I’m not fully convinced that I want to farm for the rest of my life, as much as I love it, because I’m not sure I can rely on it as a profitable and safe career. I'm at a crossroads in my life where I want to do a PhD, but the farming option is always there.” Despite this, Alexa remains hopeful and optimistic that marginalized groups will become more visible and empowered to farm in the coming years. Agriculture could ultimately end up becoming more inclusive and accessible, or conservative traditions and corporate hegemony may maintain the status quo; only time will tell, but Alexa hopes to positively influence the rural Ontario she knows and loves.