Excerpt from: Farming women and Co-ops

Traditionally, women’s role on the farm has been as wife and mother: to manage the home, perhaps do the farm books and maintain some hens or a kitchen garden for extra spending money. While those are still important roles for many, other women have taken a more proactive and commanding role in agriculture, operating their own farms and developing new methods of making money in a field that is both highly challenging and rewarding.

In St. Peters, on Cape Breton Island, three women decided twenty-one years ago to try to earn a living doing something they truly loved: gardening. Debbie MacDonald, Connie Stewart, and Carol Dixon Nightingale formed The Greenhouse Coop Ltd., a garden centre and greenhouse operation that carries a wide selection of plants, garden supplies and décor. Stewart and Nightingale both graduated from NSAC and as Nightingale says, “Having chosen to live in a rural area, making our own jobs by joining the co-op seemed like a good idea.” As a worker co-op, they enjoy sharing knowledge, responsibility and labour, and wholeheartedly embrace the philosophy of the co-operative movement: “The feeling of community, of people working together toward a common goal, is very appealing and rewarding.

Jeanita Rand of Port Williams in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley has been involved in farming since 1980 when she married dairy producer Richard Rand. Originally, she did the books and helped with milking as well as working in the home, then in 2004 she and Richard, along with their daughter Melissa, developed a new venture, Fox Hill Cheese House. Still members of Farmers Dairy Co-operative, they use a good deal of their milk in their cheese and other value-added products, which they sell at their store as well as through their memberships in the Halifax and Wolfville farmers market co-operatives. One of the things Rand likes about the cheese operation is that it brings her in closer contact with consumers, “who want to know where and how their food is made, and want to build relationships with primary producers.”

Just down the road from the Rand farm, Patricia Bishop and her husband Josh Oulton grow vegetables and herbs on their organic operation, Taproot Farm. Bishop’s family has farmed in the Annapolis Valley for ten generations, and is well known for their farm market/agritourism operation, Noggins Corner Farm. But Bishop, who “resisted the idea of working on the farm” for years before finding herself drawn back to growing food, thought there were great opportunities for direct marketing of local produce. “We wanted a way to get good organic product out for consumers but also wanted to build community by more than just direct selling.” This past winter, she and Oulton launched Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) co-operative, which produces food for 200 shareholders/families. While they’re still learning the best way to ensure a consistent supply of product for the multiweek food basket sales, Bishop is extremely enthusiastic about this model of farming, and hopes to be able to bring other producers into the CSA in future seasons.

All of these women have faced numerous challenges in their career choices, beyond the standard producer concerns of crop diseases and pests, weather and market issues. Jeanita Rand says one of hers has to do with human resources. “Without good employees, business cannot grow properly and employers are forced to work more in the business, leaving very little time for growing their business.” Patricia Bishop is extremely active in the farming community—she’s currently president of the Kings County Federation of Agriculture, and narrowly lost election to county council last fall—but feels she has to ultra-prove herself because she’s taken a different route in agriculture from the traditional model.

Nightingale agrees that it can be challenging to be a woman working in agriculture, saying that people still come to the greenhouse co-op looking for “the man in charge. It takes some by surprise that we have grown and succeeded without a man at the helm.”