Urban female farmers reclaiming how food is grown
November 18, 2015
by Trina Moyles
“No daughter of mine will ever farm.”
Mary Beckie remembers the sting of her father’s words. It was 1975 and it felt to the fifteen-year-old girl—who often escaped the tedium of domestic work for the love of labouring on the farm with her five older brothers—like a “slap across the face.”
“I did everything [on the farm],” Beckie said. “I worked with my father, day by day. I was good at what I did and he acknowledged that, but I knew I wasn’t going to get any land.”
Beckie didn’t become a farmer, nor did she marry a farmer, but her initial love for food and agriculture never faded. Today she works as an associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension, specializing in the study of food systems.
On the subject of gender and agriculture, Beckie has plenty to say. Growing up on her family’s grain farm in Kenaston, Saskatchewan, Beckie recalled the sharp division of labour between men and women on the farm. While her father managed the technical aspects of farming, her mother’s responsibilities dwelled in the domestic sphere: cooking, cleaning, raising children, and gardening.
“Typically, farm women weren’t educated. My dad went and did workshops on agricultural engineering. My mom never did any of that. Women definitely did not have a very well acknowledged role on the farm, though, of course, they were indispensable.”
Beckie says her father always treated her mother with the respect of an equal and often acknowledged her efforts on the farm. But when Beckie told her father that she wanted to be a farmer, he responded firmly, “If you want to farm, marry a farmer.”
Looking back, Beckie speculates that the women living on the neighbouring farm may have influenced his conservative reaction. They were sisters who never married. They stayed on the farm and worked alongside their brothers, driving the tractor, harvesting and hauling grain.
“They dressed like men, they wore overalls and they did everything. Everybody called them ‘the brothers.’ We never referred to them as sisters, or the women,” Beckie said. “My father was really aghast at those women.”
In the late 1800s, European farmers—including Beckie’s grandparents, who were originally from Croatia—were attracted by the Canadian government’s promise of “free land” on the Prairies. In 1870, Canada purchased Western Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company and forced Indigenous groups into land cessation. Under the Dominion Lands Policy, 160 acres of farmland cost only $10, provided that settlers build homes and start growing food within three years. Between 1901 and 1931, the amount of land under cultivation jumped from 1.5 to 16.4 million hectares. In the praries, Nehiyaw (Cree), Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), OyaÞe (Assiniboine), Tsuu T’ina, and many other Indigenous peoples, were forcibly displaced from their traditional hunting grounds and pushed onto reserves.
Over a century of patriarchal settler colonialism has resulted in the farming gender gap we see in Canada today. Patriarchy reinforced the passing of land and farming knowledge from fathers to sons. While married settler women could legally purchase and own land under the Married Woman’s Property Act (passed in Manitoba in 1900, Saskatchewan in 1907, and Alberta in 1922), Canadian farm women didn’t have guaranteed equal rights to their husband’s property if they divorced until the late 1970s.
Gender roles and perceptions have persisted over the years: boys became farmers and girls became “farmers’ wives.” Women toiled tirelessly on the farms and were often responsible for the majority of unpaid farm work, including caring for elders and children, housework, cooking, spinning yarn, sewing clothes, bookkeeping, gardening, and food preservation. Despite their enormous contributions to farm management and development, women weren’t always perceived as “farmers.”
The past has certainly influenced who drives the tractor in Canada today. According to the most recent agricultural census, the majority of rural farmers in Canada are middle-aged to aging men. Only 27 percent of farm operators are women.
But with women outnumbering men in the faculties of agriculture, natural sciences, and conservation at many post-secondary institutions across Canada, it isn’t access to education that’s holding women back from becoming farmers.
It’s the same issue Beckie faced as a fifteen-year-old girl: access to land.
“What’s the average size of a farm today? 10,000 acres? It’s a huge investment to get into farming in Canada today,” says Beckie. “The cost of land has gone sky-high. Some people are lucky in that they get land and equipment passed onto them, but [for women] that isn’t the norm.”
Farm Credit Canada estimates the value of land increased by 113 percent from 2000 to 2012. It could cost an emerging farmer between $500,000 to $1.5 million to start a commercial operation on the Prairies.
Despite the challenges stacked against them, women across the country are developing innovative, more economically viable approaches to farming and feeding communities. In cities, urban farmers are working to challenge where food is grown and how food is grown. They’re actively confronting gender norms, embracing economic risk, and striving to address issues of food insecurity for marginalized populations.
In the waning days of autumn in Edmonton, Cathryn Sprague, gets on her bicycle and rides, weaving in and around the city’s residential neighbourhoods, searching for what most other passersby wouldn’t give a second glance: empty spaces.
She’s looking for idle lots, for gaps in between people’s houses that appear suddenly like missing teeth—the homely, bare spaces that only weeds love. These scraps of land are everywhere, scattered through the city’s neighbourhoods. For the majority, they’re an eyesore, or the opposite of that, they’re invisible.
For Sprague, a twenty-six-year-old emerging urban farmer in Edmonton, they’re everything: potential land for repurposing into urban farms and for feeding neighbourhoods.
She’s the co-creator and owner of Reclaim Urban Farm, one of the pioneer urban agriculture operations in Edmonton. In 2013, Sprague was a Master’s student at the University of Alberta, wrapping up her research thesis on alternative food systems. During her studies, she met Ryan Mason and together they set out to experiment in urban food production.
“Our name “Reclaim” has a lot of different meanings,” explains Sprague.
“Instead of looking at our city as a series of private properties, we look at vacant spaces as opportunities, places where we can grow food for the people that live nearby. But it’s also important for us to explicitly recognize the historical context in which we’re growing food,” she adds. “We’re farming on Treaty 6 land.”
Sprague is hopeful that Reclaim can spark a deeper conversation and analysis on food security in Edmonton, one goes beyond celebrating only the “positives of local food”—fresh, good for business, good for environment, and so on—to addresses the structural and historical influences that determine access to local, organic, and sustainable food.
“We believe that everyone has the right to healthy air, water, land, and food,” says Sprague.
One of the first urban plots that Sprague started farming was a large empty lot near the University of Alberta campus. The land belongs to the Papaschase Cree but in 1888, the Canadian government illegally claimed their ancestral lands, spanning 130 square-kilometers south of Edmonton. In 2008, the Papaschase lost their bid to claim $2.5 billion in land compensation, with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that too much time had passed to recognize the land claim.
“Loss of traditional lands and the residential school system have contributed to present day food insecurity in Canada, yet we do not often discuss these topics in public,” says Sprague. “For example, approximately 13 percent of Canadian households experience food insecurity, yet this number is six to fifteen times higher amongst First Nations Canadians.”
Today the land is owned by the St. John’s Institute, a low-income housing organization in Edmonton. When Sprague approached St. John’s, organizers agreed to let Reclaim use the space to grow food—provided that kids from their summer camps could participate on the farm, and a portion of the produce would be donated to low-income housing residents.
She grows a variety of greens and garden vegetables, including baby lettuce, arugula, spinach, kale, tomatoes, beans, and squash, and sells at the weekly Saturday farmer’s market in downtown Edmonton. Her “farm” is scattered on twelve plots throughout the city on a variety of backyards, front yards, and empty lots where she plants with permission from current landowners, who receive boxes of produce on a weekly basis in return for sharing the land.
“Every plot is unique,” she says, shaking her head with a knowing smile.
It’s both a blessing and a burden that with small plots here and there, nothing can be standardized for urban farmers. There’s no formula for planting, irrigating, and troubleshooting when working on unique sites with diverse soil and weather conditions, differing resources, and social dynamics with neighbours. When it comes to growing in the city, urban farmers have to toss the conventional agriculture rulebook out the window.
But Sprague seems to love that part of the job—the uncertainty and excitement that comes with practicing a new kind of agriculture in Edmonton, one that demands farmers to be flexible, creative with limited resources and willing to take economic risks.
As one of the few women to start a commercial urban agriculture operation in Edmonton, she’s also challenging the conventions on how food is grown and who can call themselves a farmer in Canada. Sprague admits that her ability is often overlooked because of her gender.
“You would not believe how many people have either assumed my business partner is my boss, or that I’m his wife,” admits Sprague. “Many people have said things to me, like ‘When is your boss back?’ or ‘Where’s the boss man?’”
Despite the challenges, there are a growing number of women trading in their nine-to-five desk jobs for what Sprague jokes is actually the “six-to-six job” of urban farming. It begs the question: Does the Canadian urban setting represent a fertile landscape, a new potential for increased female participation in farming? If so, why are women willing to work more labour intensive and economically risky jobs?
“Women have always gardened, as have men. But [historically], women haven’t been as involved in commercial production [as men],” says Beckie.
Beckie believes that alternative agriculture, including urban agriculture, is a “leap forward” for women who want to farm. In a country where the image of “Farmer Joe” has long dominated the popular imagination of “who can farm” and “who feeds the population”—it’s a radical trend, indeed.
Nine years ago, Angela Moran picked up her hometown roots in Ontario and moved across the country with the dream to start urban farming on Vancouver Island.
“I came to agriculture from a very academic stance. In university, I was learning about small-scale agriculture and farmer’s struggles to compete on global markets and turn profits.
I knew with the land prices going up, it would be hard to start a farm rurally. I decided to farm in the city,” Moran says.
She spent several years traveling through the US and Central America, working on organic farms, and gaining hard farming skills. Moran also spent a year on Cortez Island, learning about organic agriculture, hands-on, at the Linnea Farm School.
“During my travels, I met a woman in Costa Rica who said, ‘Go to Fernwood in Victoria,’ that’s the place to urban farm in Canada. So I moved here and started doing it,” says Moran.
In 2006, Moran took over the lease of Mason Street Farm, a quarter-acre property located in the heart of Victoria, in unceded Coast Salish and Straits Salish Territories. As a single woman in her mid-twenties, Moran set out with a dual-focused vision in mind. She wanted to grow food commercially in Victoria, while striving towards a broader goal of developing her farm into an integrated farm school.
After a few years of farming at Mason Street, Moran gave birth to her daughter and continued working full-time on the farm, tying her daughter on her back, and carrying on with planting, weeding, and harvesting. As an urban farmer earning a marginal income, Moran had limited access to childcare. “It was really challenging,” Moran recalls.
She had to seek additional off-farm work as a server to help make ends meet, a growing reality that’s faced by urban and rural female farmers, alike.
Despite these economic challenges, Moran continues to give passionately to her community. Not only did she help kick start the larger urban agriculture movement in Victoria, but by 2013, she also achieved her dream of opening a farm school.
The Urban Farm Certificate Program offers aspiring farmers with the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of urban agriculture. Students are integrated into all aspects of farm management, working in vegetable production, soil building, aquaponics, poultry, and even the business side of it: bookkeeping and product marketing.
“The guiding principle of the farm school is to address food access,” says Moran. “I’ve always been a food justice advocate, trying to see how we can rearrange our society so that everybody has a seat at the table. Local, organic food is not yet accessible to everyone.”
Moran recognizes that Victoria is one of the most expensive places to live in Canada, and that many residents can’t afford to buy organic produce at farmer’s markets, or organic grocery stories. The aim of Mason Street Farm is to provide training to low-income and marginalized populations to learn how to grow their own food.
Moran is also trying to build opportunities for university students who have the desire to get into farming, but are burdened by the debt of student loans and lines of credit. Moran says the growing costs of post-secondary education are creating an educated “underclass” that presents a new barrier to farming.
“Fifteen years ago, I graduated university with $5,000 debt, but today it’s anywhere between $30,000 to $90,000. To start an urban farming operation, to really get started, you have to invest like ten to forty grand in capital,” stresses Moran. “Farmers need access to capital.”
Moran is shifting her farming efforts towards advocacy work for urban and rural agriculture in British Columbia. In Victoria, she’s lobbying for the city to provide access to the city’s organic waste materials, including leaves for composting and mulching.
“I’ve got all the hard skills now. I can see what the city needs in order to really pump out food, and I know what growers need from the city,” says Moran confidently.
Today, hundreds of students, researchers, and policy makers flock to Moran’s urban utopia to learn from the model she’s worked to cultivate. Her efforts as an urban farmer are inspiring a growing movement of young women farmers in the city.
In Edmonton, Sprague is just getting started.
Over two years, she’s made huge strides to push Reclaim Urban Farm to a higher level, doubling production and profits into her second year. Recently, Sprague started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where members pay farmers for weekly produce before the growing season. The CSA start-up allowed her to invest in a walk-in cooler and new irrigation technology, essential for keeping pace with increased production.
Not only is Sprague expanding her own urban farming model, she’s also helping to make it easier for future urban farmers in Edmonton by advocating for policy change.
In 2013, the City of Edmonton initially shut down one of Reclaim’s urban sites, on the premise that no zoning bylaw existed to allow for the activity of urban agriculture.
“The city came back a few days later and gave us approval to continue farming on the plot. They even made us a ‘pilot project,’” says Sprague.
Only a year later, city planners proposed changes to the bylaw to recognize “urban agriculture” as a specific land-use and streamline the application process for obtaining permits to grow food for commercial sale in Edmonton.
On October 19, 2015, Edmonton’s city council voted in favour of approving the new bylaw. Sprague was elated with the outcome. She believes the new policy is a step in the right direction for enabling a vibrant and inclusive urban agriculture community in Edmonton. She and her business partner, Mason, plan to grow their business model in the coming years, increasing the number of plots they farm in the city and creating jobs for young people interested in urban farming.
But as Sprague looks ahead to her exciting future, she’s quick to acknowledge the women gardeners who came before. She credits the work of her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and aunts, all who gardened avidly, with love and passion.
“[Growing food] must be in my blood,” Sprague says with a laugh.
“When I started [Reclaim], I was surprised by how much I actually knew from spending time in the garden when I was a little girl. Hanging around, stealing peas, I somehow gained some of the skills my mother had, without even realizing I was learning.”
Sprague honours the work of the women in her family. She’s inherited tomato seeds from her grandmother, a tear-shaped variety that she hasn’t yet seen anywhere else. She continues to ride her bike through Edmonton’s city streets, re-imagining possibilities for a more socially just, equitable food system.
Trina Moyles is a Canadian writer and freelance journalist. Her writing focuses on social and environmental issues in rural communities in East Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Over the past three years she’s been working on a book called Women Who Dig, about the lives of women farmers from eight countries in the Americas, East Africa, and Asia. Visit www.trinamoyles.com to read more of her writing.
Image by: Jonathan Dyck
“Women Farming in the City” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015)