Women take ownership of their role on the farm and the census shows it

Angie Koch of Fertile Ground Farm in St. Agatha, Ontario has two kohlrabi transplant rigs. This is his 15th season on the farm. (Submitted by Angie Koch)

Kathy Breen admits she had “absolutely no knowledge of farming, let alone dairy farming” when she married her husband and moved from the city to the countryside in the early 1990s.

His timing couldn’t have been worse either; the year she moved to Putnam, Ontario was abnormally wet.

“It just rained and rained,” Breen recalled. “I remember calling my mom at home, crying and saying, ‘What did I do?'”

Today, she is co-owner of Breen Acres Dairy Farm, a 400-hectare fourth-generation dairy and agricultural operation that she and her husband purchased from her parents.

Statistics Canada’s latest census on the state of agriculture in Canada revealed that the number of women operating farms increased in 2021 compared to 2016. According to census figures, in 2021 79,795 women considered themselves women farmers, an increase from 2016 when there were only 77,970.

According to Statistics Canada, this is the first increase in the number of female farm operators since 1991, when Kathy Breen began her farming career.

Breen says her husband and mother saw her as an equal on the business side of the business, and that really helped in those early years.

But it was her stepmother who really convinced Breen to officially mark her place on the farm.

Recognized for his roles

“When they were farming and bookkeeping, she did all the bookkeeping, drove tractors when she needed it and helped out in any way she could – and they would never consider her an owner or a member of the farm “Breen said.

“So 30 years ago when I came on the scene, she was the one who pushed me to be an employee or an employee owner and get the benefits of the EI statement, CPP, of all the taxes and everything. So as we retire, we take advantage of it.”

Breen is now in the process of passing the farm on to his daughter, her husband and their three children, who will be the fifth generation to run the farm.

Once a city girl, now a proud dairy farmer in Putnam, Ontario. (Submitted by Kathy Breen)

Angie Koch thinks it’s great that more women want to be outdoors like her working on a farm. She started her own business 15 years ago and has seen it grow ever since.

“We were really small. At first it was just me on two acres pretty much alone and a bunch of volunteers saving me,” Koch, owner and operator of Fertile Ground Farm in St. Agatha, told west of Waterloo.

Today, Fertile Ground Farm spans approximately four hectares, or 10 acres, with five seasonal employees.

Local, organic growth

Koch says she grows a long list of vegetables and greens and seedlings that are sold through community shared farming and some local retailers.

Koch says it’s great to see more women taking on roles in agriculture and to see that reflected in the census.

“It means there are more women in leadership positions and making decisions about their operations and that seems like a really positive change,” Koch said.

She says there has been a greater demand for local and organic products, and this could partly explain the growing number of women farmers.

“That’s where we see a lot of women farming – it’s in the local and organic sectors. So maybe that’s one of the reasons why there are more women in agriculture, because the industries we tend to work in have a higher demand for these products.”

Farmers are also aging, with the average age of farmers rising from 55 to 56 and the number of farms falling between 2016 and 2021 due to aging operators and farm consolidation, Statistics Canada said.

Kathy Breen of Putnam, Ontario is co-owner of Breen Acres Farm. She thinks the reflection of women farmers in the census is fantastic – and finally showing an accurate description of how farms are run. (Submitted by Kathy Breen)