Working in a Male Dominated Field and the Because I am a Girl Project

I have been wanting to write a piece along these lines for a while now, and have also held off, felt nervous about doing so, have not been quite sure what I was going to say. In short, however, I have been wanting to write about farming as a woman, working in a field that is still predominantly male dominated.

Well, kind of. Male dominated, that is. At least, the perception is still very much that it is male dominated. Even though it depends on what type of farming you are talking about, and what role on the farm you are speaking of. Because, to be honest, in the world of sustainable farming in North America at least, in recent years there has been an explosion of small farms owned and operated by women. Meaning they are woman-run, with women farmers making the decisions, and operating the tractors, and working in the field alongside their (oftentimes women) staff. And on farms that are run by men/women couples, many of the women are taking a much more active role in the day to day field management of the farm. They are less often filling only an administrative or domestic role on the farm – not that there is anything wrong with filling those important roles, should that be someone’s choice.

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The 2015, all woman, Rootdown Farm crew, happy if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear.

Because that is the thing – women around the world, have historically and continue to this day, to be major food producers. Agriculture is powered in a big way by women. And in saying this, I in no way mean or intend to downplay the work men have always done and continue to do in farming. I know and recognise that men are a huge part of agriculture, and many of them are excellent, thoughtful farmers who love what they do. I only want to challenge the stereotype of the tall, male farmer in overalls and a plaid shirt as being the only type of farmer out there, and I also want to bring attention to the work done on so many farms, regardless of the gender of the head farmer, that is done by women.

This work includes the field work – the tractor work, the weeding, the planting and harvesting – that is done by countless women field hands, managers, and farm workers from Canada through the United States and Mexico as well as in overseas countries such as India, Thailand, or Nepal. I know this is true, because I have experienced it first hand – on farms from Thailand, to Ontario to British Columbia, I have worked alongside many strong women who often outnumber the men on these farms.

This also includes the behind the scenes office, marketing, and communications work that on many farms today, is done by women; as well as the work of maintaining the large household vegetable garden and all the cooking and preserving of that bounty that was traditionally done by women on small mixed family farms across North America.

Now let me try to explain why I have wanted or felt the need to write about this topic at all. In part it is because of all the times when I am selling my food at market and get comments along the lines of, “Oh, look at your hands,” in response to my dirt stained fingers, “it looks like you help in the garden too!” Why yes, I do. And in fact make the decisions on what gets planted, and when and where, and order the seed for it, and make sure it is properly irrigated and fertilised and weeded. And then I harvest it and bring it to market to sell it. And I am only one of many female farmers I know who are in that position today.

But I also want to write about this because, regardless of the gender of the head farmer, the hard manual labour that takes place in the fields of small to medium scale farms and is done in large part by women (and is often underpaid/low waged) needs to be recognised as extremely important to our agricultural systems across the globe.  It needs to be recognised as the valuable work that it is, and the women/men/trans/non-binary folks that do it need to be recognised as the valuable contributors to our food systems that they are.

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Two of my favourite women farmers both beginning and established – Naomi Martz of the horse-powered Four Beat Farm (top), and Robin Tunnicliffe of Sea Bluff Farm (bottom).

Which brings me to my recent decision for Sweet Acres Farm to become a monthly donor to the Because I am a Girl project run by Plan International. In short, this project focuses on ending gender inequality in 15 countries across the world – countries in which girls and woman still face incredible challenges and threats to their health and safety on a daily basis, many not even being granted a birth certificate at birth, therefore having no legal rights. It focuses, amongst other things, on giving girls and boys equal access to education, ending child marriage, and protecting the most vulnerable girls from abuse or exploitation.

I have decided to support this project because I am a woman working in a field where women are not expected to be found, or if they are, they aren’t expected to be found in a position of leadership. And I have been able to fulfil this dream, my dream, of running my own farm because I am incredibly lucky. To have been raised in the supportive family I was raised in, with many strong female role models showing me what was possible. Because I was born and raised in a progressive country and a progressive time. Not that there isn’t still much inequality and a very long way to go in Canada. There definitely is. But I recognise and am endlessly grateful for the rights and safety I do have, especially when compared with so many women in many other parts of the world. And so this is a very small way for me and my farm to give back, and to hopefully allow more girls to become women who can fulfil dreams of their own one day.

So here’s to everyone everywhere who is working to promote equal rights for all, helping everyone, regardless of their birth or chosen gender to fulfil their potential and to thrive. This woman farmer, who will soon be happily working in her (chosen) fields for another season, thanks you.



Putting a Farm to Sleep a.k.a. Season’s End

Next year's garlic in the ground and tucked in for winter.
Next year’s garlic in the ground and tucked in for winter.

This is the time of year when a farm gets put to bed. The last of many crops get harvested, while some carry forward, weather permitting, a little longer into the winter. When a crop has been harvested what remains gets mowed down and/or tilled into the soil. Cover crops get spread over bare soil and around remaining crop residues to protect the soil from erosion, suppress weeds, and build organic matter. Irrigation and plant row covers get pulled from the fields and stowed away. Garlic is planted so it can go through the cold temperatures of winter that unlock the magic inside each clove. All in all, things get cleaned up, stashed away, and organised for the harsh weather of winter, and the year to come, and it is a good, satisfying way to end a season.

The north field in a cover crop of winter rye.
The north field in a cover crop of winter rye.
Rootdown's oldest kale bed, planted in April and still producing like a champ in late October!
Rootdown’s oldest kale bed, planted in April and still producing like a champ in late October!

Last Tuesday was also Aurélie and I’s last day of work at Rootdown for the season of 2015. It was a little bit shy of our original planned end date, but these things are hard to predict for a farm and for farmers. What can seem like a huge and endless to do list can actually be made up of small jobs that don’t take as long as you think they will to accomplish. Such was the case for Rootdown this year. Once the CSA wrapped up in the first week of October and harvesting dropped down to a minimum the list of farm tasks remaining was completed rather quickly.

And while, on some level I am sad, because I love my job and the work of farming, on another level I am very okay with it, and maybe even glad. That is because a large part of what I love about farming is the seasonal and cyclical nature of it. Seeds sprout and grow, are harvested, and die. Animals grow, and animals die. The seasons change, and as they change, the work, and my desire to do it, changes too.

It is not that I want to stop farming when winter draws near, but there is something about working with plants and doing work of a seasonal nature that has put me more in touch with what my body wants to do at different times of year, on more of an instinctual, animalistic level. As daylight hours decrease, it is harder to get up when it is still pitch black out, and less work feels more tiring. The cold and damp weather can also take it’s toll, as can the heavy rain gear that must usually be worn (although don’t get me wrong – I love my industrial Helly Hansen rain gear!). My body wants to sleep more and go into a hibernation of sorts. Emotions seem to run high at this time of year too, and getting teary-eyed for little reason in the middle of the fall field is not as uncommon as you might think. That probably has do with everyone being more tired than they may even realise; or maybe it is just because fall and winter are the seasons of moving inward into the deeper, more emotional parts of ourselves.

Whatever the reason, the end of the season seemed to come at just the right time this year. While I felt I could have kept going, I wasn’t raring to go, and am appreciating being able to sleep in a bit longer in the mornings, and shift gears a bit. Any farmers reading this probably know what I mean.

As for my next move, I was offered a job at Rootdown next year, and have accepted it gratefully and with excitement. As well as simply getting another chance to work with and learn from the lovely Rootdown ladies (minus Aurélie, sadly, as she is going back to Québec to be closer to friends and family there), I will also be growing a few medicinal herbs for the Whistler-based Namasthé Tea Company using Rootdown land but my own time and muscle power. While there are a lot of details still be to be worked out on how exactly that will play out, I am excited to be in the planning stages of this mini herb farming adventure.

I will say once again how extremely grateful I am for my season at Rootdown. It has taught me so much about farming, communication, and myself. It has taught me a lot about what I want, has helped me to clarify my vision surrounding farming, has shown me that a work/life balance is possible for farmers, and has shown me how much fun it can be to work with an awesome, small crew of positive farm women! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The 2015 Rootdown Farm crew, happy if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear.
The 2015 Rootdown Farm crew, happy, if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear. From left: Aurélie, Simone, Sarah, Marisol (Simone’s daughter), and myself.

Death – and Life – on the Farm

So the week before last we lost two of the six baby turkeys. When Aurélie  and I first agreed to take on the raising of turkeys for the farm, the idea was to raise one for each of us – so four turkeys total. But because, upon doing some research, it seemed as though turkey poults are extremely easy to accidentally kill (for example if the temperature is too hot or too cold, if they catch a disease called blackhead that chickens carry but do not get sick from, or if they simply fail to find the food and water you have given them), we decided to get two “insurance turkeys.” That way if we lost a couple we would still each have a turkey. And a good thing too, for two weeks ago  coccidiosis struck our happy, healthy little flock.

Coccidiosis is a disease that is spread by protozoan parasites of the genus Eimeria that all poultry are susceptible to, although it seems (as usual) that turkeys are more likely to get it than other types of poultry. They are also more likely to get it when they are younger and their immune systems are not strong enough to fight it off. Because it seems a little bit like the common cold or the flu in humans – birds will almost definitely be exposed to it and come in contact with it, it is whether or not they are strong enough to fend it off that determines if they will get sick from it. And while young birds can be given medicated feed to begin with or antibiotics if they become ill, that did not seem to be the route we wanted to go. It also all happened very fast – a matter of days – and we didn’t really get the chance even if we had wanted to.

Not that we knew any of that when our first poult got sick. But sick she definitely was – she was huddled up in the brooder, with her head drawn back into her shoulders. She wasn’t moving much, and she wasn’t eating or drinking much either. Without knowing what was wrong with her, we put her into a little incubator brooder, with food and water and a heat lamp, and hoped for the best. She was dead by morning.

At that point I had done some research and was pretty sure it was coccidiosis, but by the end of the day, another poult was showing similar signs. So into the incubator he went, and two days later he was dead too. The other four poults seemed to be healthy and strong, but we gave their brooder area a thorough clean, nonetheless, and began putting apple cider vinegar into their water as a preventative immune booster. And maybe we were just lucky, but the remaining poults seemingly had strong enough immune systems to fight the parasites off.

On a happier note, the lucky (or strong) survivors got moved from their brooder to their new range last week. We decided that at six weeks old they were big and feathered out enough to survive the still somewhat chilly night time temperatures. Which is a good thing, as they were fast outgrowing their brooder, and kept on trying to fly the coop – literally. Not to mention that while we had to keep them in an insulated brooder to keep them warm enough at first, animals with access to fresh air and pasture always seem so much healthier and happier than their cooped up counterparts.

It has been a fun week watching they poults explore their new home. At first they were very perturbed, and simply sat inside the new brooder, refusing to go outside. But then they realised there was grass, and shade and probably bugs too, and now they are all over it. In a few weeks we will expand their run more, giving them access to more space and grass, as well as some trees for their roosting pleasure.

And so while there was death on the farm, there were also turkeys that survived to see the great wide world outside of the brooder. Now they will get to enjoy the fresh air and the grass – at least until Thanksgiving.

The young turkeys cautiously exploring their new home.
The young turkeys cautiously exploring their new home.
Getting a little braver now…

Things Are Heating Up

It has gotten HOT recently in Pemberton. The last several days have gotten up to the high twenties according to the trusty Weather Network, but according to Simone, the farm usually gets higher highs and lower lows than predicted for the town of Pemberton. Not to mention that the thermometer that is in the shade on my back deck in town read 31 degrees yesterday at 5:00 pm, which is when things have already started to cool down. Needless to say, it’s been pretty extreme temperatures compared to what I am used to, especially in May.

Farming often necessitates working in extreme weather conditions, be they hot, sunny days, below freezing temperatures, wind storms, rain, mud, etc. And that is because the work generally needs to be done regardless of the weather. If animals are involved, then animal chores need to be done; and if vegetables are involved then things must still be harvested, weeded, and planted regardless of weather.

The heat has always been more challenging for me than the cold, and when things begin to heat up, especially when it happens suddenly, I find myself struggling to adjust. My brain gets addled, I might get a sunburn or two, and I am completely wiped by the end of the day.

However, after a few days, things start to change, and on a physiological level my body seems to adjust and I begin to function better again. I also get smarter. My sun hat becomes a near permanent fixture on my head, I wear lots of sunscreen, drink litres of water, and this year I’ve even started wearing a long sleeved collared work shirt during the hottest part of the day.

And something starts to happen on a pyschological level as well. I become accustomed to the heat, and find myself expecting it rather than being broadsided by it. That moment happened for me earlier this week when I found myself volunteering to stand on a ladder in the greenhouse in the afternoon, to hang tomato trellising strings. It was somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees in the greenhouse. And yet I felt okay with it. I was hot and sweaty, sure, but I was functioning and felt pretty good. Sometimes that kind of extreme heat becomes cathartic in a way, and a greenhouse can bear a remarkable similarity to a sauna….

Things have been heating up in other ways around the farm as well. Today we had our first official harvest – salad mix and kale – which went to a high end restaurant and a grocery store in Whistler. It was a small harvest, but the produce was beautiful, and it is a sign of things to come. From here on out we will likely be adding new things to the harvest list every week.

And while it is still not the flat-out busy time of year, the overall pace is picking up. The heat and the lengthening days means everything – including the weeds – is growing like crazy, and all the crops need to be on a regular irrigation schedule to keep them growing well in this heat. The piglets will be arriving on May 30th, and so among other projects that means we are working on the new pig shelter and pen and running water and electrical (for the fencing) out that way. The mixed flock of baby laying hens are growing fast, and six baby turkeys are slated to come mid-June.

And so with the increased doses of sunlight, things at Rootdown are heating up. It is, like all farms, a truly solar powered kind of place.

Planting Greenhouses, Fun With Fire, and a Bee Swarm

Transplanting the eggplant and basil into their summer home.
Transplanting the eggplant and basil into their summer home.

So last week was another fun one full of hard work and playing in the dirt. We were blessed with some mercifully cooler temperatures in the mornings, a little bit of rain in the evenings, as well as some blazing hot Pemberton sun in the afternoons.

Aurélie and I were given the tasks of planting the greenhouses with their summer crops last week. The larger of the two greenhouses got planted with tomatoes in four beds out of five. The fifth bed will be have cucumbers in it once the spring salad mix is gone. It was exciting to plant the several different varieties of tomatoes and dream of the delights to come.


The smaller hoop house got planted in basil and eggplant. I always love working with basil, as it is one of my favourite smells in the vegetable/herb world and makes me think of summer.


I also got to use the Red Dragon Flame Weeder from Johnny’s Seeds last week. It is a new tool at Rootdown this year, and while I am familiar with flame weeders, I have not used one myself before last week. While they come in many different makes and models (and some farmers design and build their own), the basic idea is that there is a backpack designed to hold a small propane tank, which is connected to a long handled high BTU torch. You then use this torch to blast small weeds just after they have germinated, with just a quick shot of fire being enough to burst their cell walls and kill them. Often times people will sow seeds into the soil, and then a day or two before the desired crop germinates, go over and kill the faster germinating weed seeds with the flame weeder. Another option (which is what I did the other day) is to blast a bed just before transplanting into it. I have to admit, once I got used to the idea of having a propane tank strapped to my back and wielding a flaming torch in front of me, it was quite fun and satisfying to do. And hopefully it saves us a good chunk of weeding in that bed in the future.

Other excitement on the farm last week involved the resident bees swarming – twice! Apparently the hives were thriving and healthy, as bees tend to swarm when the hive is full and they have or are in the process of producing a new queen. The old queen and up to 60 per cent of the bees in the hive will leave for a new home during a swarm.

The first swarm took off to what they deemed a more suitable home somewhere across the road almost as soon as they were noticed. The second, however, a couple of days later, coalesced onto a branch near the hive, forming what is called a “beard” around the queen to protect her, while scout bees go looking for some new digs. They do this because the queen is a very poor flyer, and cannot fly long distances to and fro in search of a new home.

The triangle in the top centre of this photo is the "beard" of bees.
The triangle in the top centre of this photo is the “beard” of bees.

And while I believe there are different techniques for capturing a swarm, one is to put an empty hive box, called a super, on a white sheet underneath where the bees are swarming. The branch can then be cut, and carefully placed on the white sheet in front of the box, and the bees will march into their new home. And while I’m not sure I would be up for this task, apparently the bees are quite docile when they are swarming. In the picture below you can see Simone’s husband, TJ, who is the keeper of the bees around Rootdown, handling things very well, while the rest of us watch with amiration.


The photos don’t do the event justice, however, as the noise was truly something else. The humming, buzzing air almost seemed to tangibly vibrate, and was enough to make the whole farm take pause and watch what was taking place. It was a very cool, awe inspiring moment, and I feel privileged to have witnessed my first bee swarm.

Introducing Pemberton and Rootdown Farm

For the 2015 season, I will be farming in the beautiful and fertile Pemberton Valley in BC. I am working at Rootdown Organic Farm for the two amazing and inspiring women owners and farmers, Sarah and Simone. I will also be working alongside the other employee for the season,  Aurélie, another young woman farmer who hails from Québec.

And so it will be an all woman farm crew, on a new farm, in a new climate, in a new part of BC – a whole slew of firsts for me! 

Rootdown is also different than the other farms I have worked on previously in another couple of ways. For one, it is smaller, with about two acres of mixed veggies in production each year – all of the farms I have previously put in full seasons with have had a minimum of eight acres under cultivation, and as much as twenty. Another is that they raise a small number of pastured pigs every year. I have had very little experience with livestock, and zero experience with pigs. And thirdly, they are certified organic, which will, surprisingly, also be a first for me.

And so I am very excited to learn more about a smaller scale, certified organic, mixed veggie production, with the added element of pigs! Should be a good year.