Very Hard Life: Most Farm Women Work On The Farm, Off The Farm, And They Have Children Too

Elaine Kacsmar gets up on her farm every morning and drives down the road to her job as counsellor at the Esterhazy, Saskatchewan high school.

She is typical of Saskatchewan farm women who told Statistics Canada in the last census that they work off the farm more hours than on the farm these days. They are working in nursing homes, in town or municipal offices or in stores. And that doesn’t include the unpaid domestic work or community volunteer hours they put in. Women do two-thirds of all that work compared to Canadian men’s one-third share.

“You have to think of other careers,” said Kacsmar. “You need something else to fall back on because farming right now is so unreliable. You can’t base everything on the farm any more.” Kacsmar, who spends some of her precious spare time on tasks as a director of the Saskatchewan Women’s Agricultural Network, says, “women are very, very busy. Most of them are working off farm, they work on the farm and they have children.”

On the other side of the province, Nina Burnell of Unity, used to work in sales in the early days of farming and did the farm books “until the GST came in.” Now she’s tackling the question of how farm women can make money through her work as an executive member of the Saskatchewan Women’s Institutes (WI). The WI is holding four workshops in February and March in partnership with the Saskatoon Women’s Entrepreneur Centre. They are talking about what it takes to start a business. Burnell said this should encourage farm women to think of home-based businesses so they don’t have to drive to town to work. Also it will alleviate another chronic problem for farm women – child care.

Burnell said when she was farming and raising her own children she would take them out into the field with her. However that’s become a safety issue. In 1994, eight children died in farm-related accidents in Saskatchewan. The National Coalition on Rural Child Care is using safety as an issue to get the type of child care farmers need. It must be flexible to deal with seasonal needs and long hours and it must be portable-with the ideal being a caregiver coming to the farm house rather than the children going to a central place.

This January 7-13 saw the proclamation of the first Saskatchewan Farm Women’s Week, with the invisible pitchfork as the theme. Farm women feel their role is often unseen or undervalued by government. It was only in the 1991 census through some hard lobbying that Statistics Canada agreed to allow more than one name to be listed as the farm operator. That year one-quarter of all farm operators, 100,700 of them, were women. And it wasn’t just younger single women. Most were married to male farm operators and their average age was 45.

Women are also absent in farm organizations due to off-farm work and child and family needs. Saskatchewan Wheat Pool had its first female delegate elected 15 years ago but today there are only three women out of 131 delegates. Of the 4,000 spots on wheat pool local committees, women occupy 227, up from 103 in 1981.

What do farm girls think when they see their mothers running hard just to keep up?

Burnell said she can’t see her daughter returning to the farm. Her daughter and her nieces are getting an education and taking higher paying jobs in the city.

Kacsmar’s daughter also can’t imagine herself staying on the farm. And Elaine says in her three years as a counsellor she never heard any of the girls yearn to be a farm woman.

“I think they see it as a very hard life.”

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