Female Farmers in Grimsby: Past and Present

If you’ve had the chance to do some weekend drives through Niagara lately, you’ve probably been dazzled at least once by the incredible sight of thousands of blooms that have burst into clouds of white or pink flowers, like a painting. It doesn’t matter how many times I see them, I always feel like Anne of Green Gables seeing Avonlea for the first time. The orchard trees are shaking off this long winter and waking up for the start of a new season, one that will yield delicious treasures like cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, pears and one of my new favourites, heirloom tomatoes (plus SO many more.)

Over the past year, I have had had the privilege of meeting several women who are making their mark in Canada’s agriculture industry. Hearing about their work and their perspectives has made more aware of the role that women play in Niagara’s agriculture industry, and some, right here in Grimsby. While sources say that the number of female farmers in Canada is rising (see links below), there is still a lot of work to be done to overcome stereotypes like “the farmer’s wife”, which still create barriers and a sense of invisibility for women in the farming industry. Here are a few articles I have read over the past month that have been following this trend and shown that women have valuable experience and insight into the farming industry:

  1. Women in Canada are choosing farming careers but barriers persist. CBC News. Tony Seskus. May 1, 2018. 
  2. Number of female farmers has risen in Canada since 2011. The Western Producer. Nikki Wiart. Jan. 18, 2018. 
  3. The future of farming is female. The Globe and Mail. Trina Moyles. March 8, 2018.  
  4. More People, Less Food? ontheedgeofeverything: Discussion Without Limits. Lauren Arva. May 8, 2018. 

Women accounted for 28.7 per cent of all farm operators in 2016 — nearly 78,000 of nearly 272,000 farmers in total.

Through a few visits to the Grimsby Archives this year, I have also discovered the important work of women in the history of Niagara’s agriculture. During World War One when men were serving in the military, thousands of women were recruited to help pick fruit and tend to other farm jobs through the Ontario Farm Service Force, more commonly known as the Farmerettes. Their hard work during these difficult times fed soldiers and saved the crops at many farms, some right here in Grimsby. Thanks to the staff at The Grimsby Historical Society Archives and the Grimsby Library for pointing me to these great points of research: Gleanings from Grimsby by Dorothy Turcotte and Once Upon a Little Town, compiled by Ada Bromley and Jean Powell.

 

Although we no longer need to add “ettes” to female farmers who have built, or dream of building successful careers in the agriculture industry, I always think of the kind of passions and expertise that may have been nurtured in these young women a century ago, during those rigorous summer days on the farm. It makes me wonder whether any of those experiences sprouted into shared stories, careers or legacies that might be influencing the rise of women in agriculture today. The more I see women finding their place and space in the world, the more I find myself going back into history books to see the ways it’s been happening as a process. It takes a lot of courage to be different, and these women inspire me.

Women like Marianna from Forty Mile Creek Farms in Grimsby. I had the pleasure of speaking to her over the phone one day early this spring after that final winter blast had passed. It was a busy day for her outside in the field but I was lucky enough to catch her for a few minutes over a break.  I had tasted some of her incredible produce before at last year’s Grimsby Farmer’s Market and I knew I wanted her perspective on farming for this blog post.

Marianna moved here to Grimsby with her husband five years ago looking for a quiet rural setting to start a new season of her life. She describes her life now as “a completely new adventure” after leaving Oakville where she and her husband had happily raised their children. Indeed, from the moment she laid eyes on the house she now lives in, she knew Grimsby would be home, and there was no turning back.

Farming was entirely new to her when she moved here to Grimsby. It all started when she decided to begin growing vegetables on her country property so she and her family could enjoy fresh, healthy food. As her produce started gaining a good reputation, she took on a new challenge – the Grimsby Farmer’s Market. She says the first time she went to the market as a vendor she didn’t know what to expect so she brought ten heads of lettuce. When she saw how quickly they sold out, she realized she had an opportunity on her hands.

That opportunity has turned into a flourishing farm and business. She spent several years serving customers fresh produce regularly through a Community Supported Agriculture program (or CSA), although she’s taking a break from that this 2018 season to focus on the Grimsby Farmer’s Market. One of my personal favourites at her stand is the ice pops – possibly one of the most wonderful snacks on a summer’s day you can possibly imagine, because it qualifies as both delicious and nutritious. I run over there right away on Thursdays to make sure I can get my hands on the Strawberry Basil flavour before it ran out!

One of her latest challenges has been growing a variety of heirloom vegetables which are the perfect addition to a veggie tray or a salad and also happen to look GORGEOUS on your plate or counter as they wait to be enjoyed. Her hard work and dedication to the task of growing old-time varieties of vegetables is a testament to the unique farm she has established, growing mostly vegetables and some berries, without using chemicals. She says after much research, much experimenting and learning from mistakes, she now considers herself a farmer. (I loved her courage in saying this. Isn’t that the way with any master of their craft?Farmer Marianna. “It’s a passion for me,” she said. “It’s very hard work, a really hard job, but when you keep going, you love it.”

During our phone call, she was eager to share her advice for other girls and women who are interested in farming and agriculture: “Never give up. Follow your dream. This is my life now and I love it. Be happy and don’t give up on that.”

She is excited to see everyone filling Main Street every Thursday for the Farmer’s Market. She cares so much about her customers and the products they are getting, and I am excited to see another woman who is making women less invisible in Canada’s agriculture industry, by bravely sharing her story. Let’s keep sharing our stories!

Come and try some of her amazing produce and ice pops along with many other incredible vendors at the Farmer’s Market this summer.

 

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