UNSUNG HERO: Farmwife and mom
Women didn’t just show up recently to farm – they’ve been here all along
If you glance at advertising in any farm publication these days, one might conclude that the primary market for tractors, seed, and chemicals were women. Obviously, this is not the case, but more and more it’s become clear to me that the purpose of marketing and media is to convince us that we have lying eyes: that reality is actually the opposite of what we observe and experience.
Matters of gender are a touchy subject and a great deal of ink has been spilled attempting to whip up a girl power phenomena of ‘Women in Agriculture.’ The reality, of course, is that they have been present all along, nor has their role ever been insignificant. On the contrary, pressing work does not discriminate, and in the fields and barns, women have been there for 10,000 years, side by side with their husbands and brothers.
And so, rather than getting excited that “Wow, a woman is operating a combine!” or “Wow, this John Deere hat now comes in PINK!”, to my mind, the most remarkable contributions made by women are not when they fill traditional male roles or consume products, but rather the uniquely feminine strengths that they pour into their families, farms and communities. It’s a role that’s actually hard to overstate, because although farmers are quick to point out that culture flows from agriculture, and to it we owe social order, medicine, technological expertise and material comfort, the foundations of civilization lay even deeper than that. Because when you hold the onion of agriculture in your hand, and begin to peel back the layers, you find something at the core that is more profound than equipment, selective breeding, financial acumen or good management. At the heart of it all is the unsung hero: the matriarch, the farmwife, Mom.
I chat with Tessa who chooses to do the evening chores alone: milking 96 cows in the Dwyers’ tie-stall barn in Elgin. Husband Mike is off with their daughters delivering a heifer’s first calf and their youngest boy is whizzing around the feed aisles with his cousin on scooters. “One thing about raising kids like this is that they’re guaranteed to be healthy… and your cows are pretty much bombproof,” Tessa laughs. When the children were smaller, they’d pin sleigh bells to them to keep track of their location in the barn. Tessa flows through the task with an athletic grace; having grown up on a dairy farm the chore is as natural as breathing: she does this nearly every night before making supper. I ask her what she thinks about the current hype around women in agriculture. She rolls her eyes: “You’d think we’d just shown up or something!”
Claire Smith has just gotten home from Kingston Farmer’s Market where she was selling the cheese her husband Nigel makes at their dairy farm on the other side of Elgin. She’s made some time to talk about her role as a woman in farming. “You sure you want to touch this one, Charles?” she teases. For Claire, raising a family and farming in the community she grew up in is a very deliberate act. Bright and well read, she’d been off to university, under big city lights, but her passion for agriculture and the existential emptiness of urban life pulled her back to the land. Nigel shares a similar arc, and it’s a joy to watch such well-matched people grow their family and farm. If you ask Claire what she does for a living, she’ll slyly and serenely tell you that she “lives the dream.”
Karen Davis walked away from a career with John Deere corporate to roll the dice in order to raise a family, and start farming with her husband Brad. Growing up milking cows, she’d resolved as a teen to never become a farmer, but it didn’t take long out there in the big bad world to demonstrate that everything we need is already at home: 400 acres and 1,000 ewes on the Lansdowne Plain. Karen doesn’t mince words when I ask what she enjoys most about life on the farm: “The best part of my life? It’s my life: that I get to do this every day. I’m exactly where I should be. It’s my vocation to be a mother, to be a wife, to farm with my family. It’s what God’s called me to do.”
At one point in recent history, being a farmwife was considered a fate worse than death. Cyrus Townsend Brady, in his 1900 book Recollections of a Missionary in the Great West documents their plight:
“The life of the frontier farmer’s wife is about the hardest which can fall to the lot of a woman. She has duties which her more favoured sisters know nothing. All the cares of a large and ever-increasing family, with several hired hands to cook and wash for, usually a calf or two to raise up by hand, a brood of motherless chicks needing attention, a kitchen-garden, cows to milk, and heaven knows what else! She has no society and no amusements, very infrequent church services with no time to read and no place to go. She evens finds no interest in the changing fashions, for the fashion in her narrow world never changes. Her life is a tragedy – the saddest of all – of the commonplace.”
Life has gotten a lot easier since those times, and the contemporary farmwife has gone from being a commonplace way of life, to a bit of a unicorn. As such, these late, rare specimens stand out in their neighbourhoods, where their energy and integrity lead them into all manner of public service. Despite being left with what looks like no time to spare between the farm and children, these indefatigable women nonetheless commit countless hours freely for the good of their community. Whether serving on fair boards, event committees, 4-H, local government, industry associations or parent councils, all three of these women punch far above their weight when it comes to influence and charity. And woe unto you, school principal, if one of these women should darken your door!
This element of leadership extends to the most important crop on the farm: the kids; where these families provide the most enriched environments for children to be raised in Canada. Whether on the athletic field, in the classroom, work environment or the show ring, their offspring reflect the selfless dedication and practical skills demonstrated by both of their parents.
Now, all of these gals can farm. They can milk, hay, you name it, but they’re in touch with their feminine side enough to know what they can get away with. “Yeah, I mean I can do this or that, but if something heavy needs to get picked up, I’m getting Brad,” Karen tells me point blank. There’s a time for tractor work, Tessa explains with a grin: “It’s a great excuse to relax and get away from the kids. But do I want to get treated like a man? Of course not! Why would I, when I can bat my eyelashes and get a favour done for me? I haven’t checked my car’s oil once in my entire life!” These women have chosen to complement, rather than compete with the man in their life, and they reap rewards on all fronts – not that it’s easy. Where does this power come from? Endurance, commitment; organizing funerals, feeding newborns. The repeated exercise of wrestling against countless odds. As Cyrus writes in the same recollection I quoted earlier:
“When by chance she does survive all of the troubles and labours of youth and middle life, she becomes one of the finest, sturdiest, strongest, most independent and self-respecting of women. She has suffered, struggled and not been broken!”
Claire articulates observing her future mother-in-law, Darlene Smith, and her seemingly superhuman strength growing up. “You work, and you sacrifice and you never stop, and you never expect anything for it.” This is the price of fierce independence and high standards; as well as the hidden, noble truth of ‘Women in Agriculture.’
“I’m not doing this to get rich,” Karen soberly explains, “I’m doing this because it’s enriching – for me, personally, spiritually – and for every life in my family.” The humble yoke of the farmwife echoes across generations.