Supporting country women

NOTE: THIS IS AN ARTICLE I WROTE FOR A JOURNALISM SCHOOL PROJECT. WE TRAVELLED TO THE COMMUNITY OF STRASBOURG, SASK., TO FIND STORIES. WE CREATED A NEWSLETTER AND BLOG: “THE 220.”

By Lauren Golosky

When Rita Kerr walked into the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool’s pancake breakfast with a girlfriend, she noted they were the only women there. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary – they always seemed to be the few token women at agricultural-related events in the area.

The absence of women – who make up about 20 per cent of all farmers in Saskatchewan – bothered Kerr and motivated her to create the Country Women’s Network under the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

“All the women that work on the farm and stuff, we need to do something for them so that they feel like there’s something that they can claim ownership to and they feel like they are welcome to come to,” explained Kerr.

Since CWN was formed in 1997, it has evolved. The group no longer focuses solely on agriculture, instead extending the focus to the interests of all women in the community. They have also severed their ties with the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, now called Viterra.

CWN has become popular among the older women in Strasbourg, who make up a significant majority in the community. On coffee row, some women chatter about it excitedly.

“That is what we are trying to do – pamper women.”

– Rita Kerr

One woman, Gwen Yung, regards CWN as an “awesome group.” She enjoys the organization’s annual activities: the Ladies’ Day in April and the bus trip in June. The two events strive to meet the group’s goal: to encourage, educate, and empower women.

And the goal seems to be accomplished. The Ladies’ Day provides the women with guest speakers with a variety of subjects, from the entertaining to the informative. The women are then served a catered supper.

“That is what we are trying to do –  pamper women,” said Kerr. “The whole purpose of that, too, is to make sure we serve them supper, otherwise they have gone and had a really relaxing, wonderful afternoon and then they have to rush home and make supper. We wanted to make sure we included supper in the day so it was still part of their relaxation.”

“This group is to get the women away from the farm for a day to be pampered,” said another member, Verlyn Cameron.

The success and popularity of the group is confirmation to Kerr that CWN is needed and appreciated.

“Country Women’s Network is so successful because it addresses women and we have a lot of them in Strasbourg,” she said.

Kerr explained that her two daughters often question her involvement, wondering why she is passionate about the organization.

“It serves such a need in our area,” she said. “We have no problem selling our tickets to either of our events. It’s easy to sell them because people want to do stuff to be pampered or get educated.”

While Kerr sees CWN filling a void in the Strasbourg agrea, Amber Fletcher says rural women across the province need a sense of belonging in the industry of agriculture. Fletcher is a doctoral candidate at the University of Regina and her research focuses on agricultural policy and the future of rural women in Saskatchewan. Fletcher’s research has found that farm women have a wide scope of responsibilities, from work on and off the farm to childcare and volunteer work. She explained that this excessive workload has dire repercussions.

“The things that I found to be most pertinent and most salient, in my discussions with farm women, is workload going back to all those different areas and the extension of their work,” said Fletcher.

Despite increased stress and potential health repercussions, there are few resources and outlets for women in rural areas.

“If you’re going through something and you don’t have anyone that you can talk to about it, whether it be formal structure such as mental health services or informal structure like neighbours you can talk to, it has health consequences,” said Fletcher.

While CWN has allowed rural women to be a part of something, Fletcher wonders if more should be done within agricultural organizations, such as Viterra, to improve the rate of women participating at their events. Fletcher grew up on a farm and recalls agricultural surveyors calling and exclusively asking to speak with her father, even though her mother was a farmer, too. This fails to foster a feeling of importance and inclusion among farm women.

“There’s this stereotype that farming is a masculine profession, therefore women don’t feel welcome in those spaces,” she said. “Due to this intangible stereotype, there is a concrete lack of inclusion.”

Farm women are also undervalued and underrepresented, claims Fletcher. While their work, on and off the farm, is necessary for the farm to function, farm women rarely get the proper recognition they deserve, as much of their work appears to be more domestic in nature, such as feeding workers or washing laundry.

“All work that women do is seen as not central, but peripheral work,” she explained. “It’s not seen as crucial to farm operation, but it is. You can’t have seven or eight workers without food.”

“There’s this stereotype that farming is a masculine profession.”

– Amber Fletcher

Fletcher wonders if more effort could be made to make women feel more welcome in the agriculture industry.

“For example, are meetings held at times that work for women, especially those working off the farm or commuting?” Fletcher said. “Is childcare available at meetings? This is important since women, particularly farm women, still tend to do an overwhelming amount of childcare.”

The overwhelming majority of CWN’s members are senior women, much like the makeup of the town of Strasbourg, who are 56 years old or older. Kerr, one of CWN’s youngest members, has acknowledged the lack of younger women within the group.

“We just don’t get younger women involved,” she said. “We have more younger women moving back now, so maybe it’ll get easier.”

Kerr is still adamant that the group serves an important function for the older demographic. She believes the group will continue to be a success as it serves a vital need in the community.

“It will change as the needs of women in the area change,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever have trouble getting membership.”

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