As International Women’s Day celebrations take place worldwide, celebrating a more gender-balanced agriculture sector in Canada deserves centre stage
Nationally, women in farming are under-recognized for their contributions to agriculture. Women comprise a growing share of Canada’s rural management, with one-third of all farm operations being led by women. As owners and managers, women contribute to on-farm work and supporting rural communities through off-farm work and community participation.
So, it’s fitting that this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’ (#choosetochallenge) gender stereotypes, underscoring the importance of gender balance and the need to overcome barriers to equality, including work-life balance, skills training, networking and mentorship, access to information management, and financial barriers.
Federal Program Offers Support to Women Farmers
Canada needs to empower women and radically change the way agriculture is portrayed to encourage more women to view agriculture as a viable career path. Currently, more than 75,000 females operate farms in Canada – a number that continues to grow. The Women Entrepreneurship Program, a $5 billion federal investment, is expected to accelerate that growth.
“Women play a vital role in growing the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector. Over the past several decades, the proportion of female farm operators has continued to increase. While this progress is positive, women remain underrepresented in the sector and continue to face significant barriers,” said The Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau, who is Canada’s first-ever female Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
The Women Entrepreneurship Program provides women access to capital, tools, resources and mentoring to start or grow their agri-business. Women entrepreneurs who take advantage of the Women Entrepreneurship Program can also have their processing fees waived up to $1,000, so they can reinvest that money in their personal and professional development. The funds can be used for college tuition or to attend in-person or online learning events.
Farm Credit Canada also holds a series of events to inspire and complement a wide range of meaningful skills development options for women farmers.
Women in agriculture have always played a big role in Canada’s economy. Less known are the inspiring stories of women in agriculture and their contributions to Canada’s farming industry.
Farming trailblazers and sisters Debbie Conzelmann, Patti Thompson, Jackie Fisher, and Robin Kelly said the day was important because Canadians needed to encourage, inspire and recognize the role women play in agriculture every day.
The third-generation farmers combined their agriculture, breeding, business development, and communications expertise to turn the 70-year-old family farm into one of Canada’s most successful farm-to-fork successes: King Cole Ducks.
Nurturing a Family Farm Business
Growing up on the farm gave each sister the confidence to develop their own strengths and perspective. They always knew that they would step into the family farm, but it was only a matter of waiting for the right time.
“We were lucky to have parents who didn’t give us pink or blue jobs; we just did what needed to be done,” said Debbie, who is in charge of developing the business and managing finances. Although it wasn’t planned, the sisterhood happened naturally, and they knew they could count on one another and use each other’s strengths to prepare the farm for its growth.
So, when they took over from their parents, they already had the credibility and support of the local farming community.
Being a female-driven farm has been pivotal to their business’ success. The sisters had to define their roles and respect each other’s domains for their business and farm to run productively and efficiently. At the end of the day, everyone works long days, and often nights too.
In charge of the hatchery, Robin can provide traceability back to when the egg was laid, what flock it came from and its path through the operation until it reaches its retail destination.
Jackie’s goal is to breed healthy birds – from implementing responsible water recycling to feather processing; King Cole is committed to zero product waste and recycling and is hailed as a farming leader in Canada.
“We’re very proud of the product we produce”, said Patti, who leads sales and marketing, supplying duck to markets all over the world.
King Cole Ducks is unique. It is a fully vertically integrated operation – not just a food company but a family-owned operation, with a hardworking, resilient, and respectful team that feels like a family. It is a farm-to-fork process that runs its genetic research, breeding, hatching, growing, processing, product development, and cooking, consolidating over 16 farms throughout York, Durham, and King regions in Ontario.
Challenging Year with New Opportunities
Patti confirms that farming is typically a man’s world, and 90% of the people they deal with are great, but gender bias does occur. Even though the sisters run one of the most successful vertically integrated farms, some male farmers don’t want to talk to them. They want to speak to a man. Patti explained, “being a woman, you have to go above and beyond to prove yourself.”
As was the case when they went to a poultry show and wanted to buy some equipment. No one gave them any time until Patti said, “We want to spend a quarter of a million dollars – can anyone help us?”
This resilience and fortitude not only helped the sisters expand their farm business but allowed them to think quickly when the pandemic first struck in 2020.
“It was super challenging to adapt and evolve, but we had good safety practices in place. At times, the biggest toll on everyone was our management’s anxiety in making sure the team was safe at all times,” said Patti.
“Live production didn’t stop for us,” said Debbie.
“Every day, we’re consciously grateful for the work, home and purpose that we have.” Adding proudly: “We’re lucky to have such an innovative and respectful team that has not had any cases of COVID-19.”
Looking after mental health during these times is especially important, the sisters say. Doubling down on safety precautions, checking in and spending time outside with family have all been important aspects of self-care that they implemented.
The past year hasn’t been easy, but together the sisters have been able to weather the pandemic by diversifying into new markets, widening their reach on the Internet with cooking classes, and expanding their retail operation in Stouffville, Ontario.
Debbi, Patti, Jackie and Robin make a conscious effort to hire people of all backgrounds because they believe it will benefit their business to include a wide range of people.
“In my experience, we recognize the strength that women bring to the industry as we have a nurturing touch that works so well in farming,” said Jackie.
Being open to opportunities and asking for help when needed has allowed King Cole Ducks to stay at the forefront of innovative farming practices.
Debbie reflects: “I’d say to the young women who are interested in a career in this industry that it’s a challenge; it’s capital intensive, labour intensive, and there are many barriers to entry, but it’s a challenge worth taking because it’s a good quality of life.”
The sisters firmly agree farming is a lifestyle that they love, feel connected to and are passionate about. They believe in what they do and enjoy their work.
“Women are natural nurturers,” adds Robin and encourages young women in agriculture to network and not be afraid to ask questions! Farming opportunities are there if you look.
The Perfect Duck Steak!
Duck breast with crispy golden skin and a vibrant and rosy interior can be better than a steak. An overlooked alternative, but it has the ease of chicken breast and the decadence of steak.
You need a pan and a few prep tricks to make a duck steak at home. Duck is an excellent alternative for people who don’t eat red meat. It’s lighter than steak but just as delicious. Follow these simple steps for duck steak at home!
Featuring fresh or thawed boneless duck breast from King Cole
- take the raw breast, pat it dry, place on cutting board skin side up
- cross-hatch the skin carefully to avoid cutting into the breast meat
- season with salt & pepper to taste
- bring a cold frying pan up to med/hi heat and place breast skin side down
- cook, rendering the fat out of the breast for approx. 10 minutes to crisp the skin and render fat
- (while the breast is in the pan, turn on the oven to 350)
- once breast is ready, place skin-side down in oven-proof pan and place in the oven for 8-10 minutes
- turn breast over in the oven pan and place back in the oven for another 5-10 minutes
- remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing and plating
The perfect breast features crisp skin, and the centre showing pink or your preference of doneness. (Note stove and oven temps. vary)
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to ‘Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support forCanada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.