Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence

  An Exploration of Health-Related Impacts of the Erosion of Agriculturally Focussed Support Programs for Farm Women in Saskatchewan


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The research and publication of this study were funded by the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE). The PWHCE is financially supported by the Centre of Excellence for Women's Health Program, Bureau of Women's Health and Gender Analysis, Health Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the PWHCE or the official policy of Health Canada.

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N. Gerrard & G. Russell

Executive Summary


Federal and provincial farm women's support has been eroding in recent years. Until this research, there had been no systematic examination of this support and its erosion. In this Participatory Action Research (PAR), initiated by the Saskatchewan Women's Agricultural Network (SWAN), the researchers explored five major components related to the erosion of farm women's support programs in Saskatchewan:

  • an inventory of federal and provincial support programs from 1970 to the present,
  • documentation of the erosion of these programs,
  • documentation of the political context since 1970,
  • an exploration of the self-reported impacts of these programs (both positive and negative), and, where appropriate, the programs' erosion on women's health, and
  • actions to address the need for farm women's support programs related to their health and social well-being, the inclusion of women in the development of agricultural policy, and the erosion of their social support.


This Participatory Action Research was initiated by the Saskatchewan Women's Agricultural Network and funded by the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence. A SWAN representative contacted the Principal Investigator of this research and together they proposed a study exploring the effects of the erosion of farm support programs on farm women. Throughout the research, consultation with SWAN has been ongoing.

Inventory of support programs
An agriculturally focussed support program was defined as an initiative which exists to assist farm women in their rural environment and situation (specifically in areas such as leadership, safety, child care, education, financial and legal security, etc.), which is ongoing (in contrast to a project which usually consists of a one time event) and has a plan or procedure for moving towards a specific goal. A program delivers something, is active and is funded by an agency, organization, or government. The erosion of a support program referred to a major reduction or total elimination of that program.

Information was gathered which included the name of the program, when the program started, its purpose or mandate, who was involved, the political context where applicable and if the program is not running at the present time, why not. Women's agricultural organizations in Saskatchewan (NFU, SWAN and SWI), federal and provincial agricultural departments, women's directories, Saskatchewan Health Districts,Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food library (Women in Agriculture section), Saskatchewan Safety Council, Centre for Agricultural Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, and media archives were all contacted for information.

Health-related impacts of these programs
Utilizing qualitative research methods (see, e.g., Taylor and Bogdan, 1984; Lincoln and Guba, 1985) our goal was to have an in-depth view of the health-related impacts of these programs (both positive and negative), and, where appropriate, their erosion, as experienced by the women we interviewed. Eleven women, between the ages of 40 and 74, from a variety of locations around Saskatchewan were interviewed.



There have been very few programs (at the federal level; none at the provincial level), as we defined program for this research. Most of the funding has been for projects for farm women. Projects are one time events which are not intended to be sustained over a period of time. Both the federal and provincial governments' policy of funding-by-project has meant that criteria for funding is in a constant state of flux. What qualified for funding last year may not qualify this year. Funding criteria today is focussed on the ability of the project to advance policy change. This is an example of what one woman said, "Meets the needs of the government, but not the needs of the organization."

The following federal programs which the inventory revealed include:

Farm Women's Bureau (FWB) Established 1981; funding seriously cut back 1995. A unit of Status of Women Canada, the FWB was formed in order "to implement Ottawa's Status of Women policies as they apply to agriculture." (Carbert, 1996) It was severely cut back in 1995. The Farm Women's Bureau does not appear to have any written mandate, is on the verge of being cut out of the agriculture budget completely and has no future budget for projects to advance the legal, economic and social issues of farm business women.

Farm Women's Information Initiative (FWII)--Established 1985; questionable whether it ever functioned.
In 1985 The Farm Women's Bureau in Ottawa introduced the Farm Women's Information Initiative to provide information to farm women on agricultural policies, programs and legislation as well as projects, speeches, events and reports. It is not clear whether this program ever really got off the ground. A mailing list was compiled in 1991 by the Communications Branch which included a maximum of 100 leaders of farm women's groups and occasionally there were direct mail-outs on specific issues such as family violence. A toll-free phone line was set up and is still in place.

Canadian Farm Women's Education Council (CFWEC)--Established 1987; ended 1994.
This council was founded at the 3rd Farm Women's National Conference in 1987. The objectives were to increase access to training, increase awareness of the status and impact of policy on training, promote professionalism and leadership for farm women, and lower barriers to participation. Provincial farm women's organizations sent representatives to CFWEC which met regularly to plan action for change. Projects completed by CFWEC:

Farm Women's Advancement Program (FWAP)--Established 1988; ended 1996.
This program was introduced through the Farm Women's Bureau in the fall of 1988 and began in 1989. Its purpose was to provide up to $150,000 per year in grants to financially assist farm women's organizations to aid in the achievement of legal and economic equality for farm women, promote participation of farm women in policy making and management of the agricultural sector; and encourage recognition of the contributions of farm women.
National Coalition for Rural Child Care--Established 1995; ended 1998.
This program was first proposed in 1995 as part of the federal government's Child Care Initiatives but did not actually begin until 1996. It built on project work that had been done previously by a number of organizations (e.g., SWI) and individuals. The purpose of the program was to set up child care centres in rural Canada. The Federal government wanted a specific program with a national scope but would not fund administration or needs assessments. In addition, each of the provinces had different regulations governing child care and situations in rural communities were different in each region so the concept of one rural child care model for the whole country just did not make sense.

The following table includes the dates of federal elections since 1968 (the one that determined the party in power in 1970), the party which won the election and a chronicle of programs discussed above.

Date of election Party which won Farm women's support programs
1968 Liberal  
1972 Liberal  
1974 Liberal  
1979 Liberal  
1979 Conservative  
1980 Liberal - 1981 Farm Women's Bureau begins
1984 Conservative - 1985 Farm Women's Information Initiative begins but is questionably functional
- 1987 Canadian Farm Women's Education Council begins
1988 Conservative - 1988 Farm Women's Advancement Program begins
1993 Liberal - 1994 Canadian Farm Women's Education Council ends
- 1995 Farm Women's Bureau is severely cut back
- 1995 National Coalition for Rural Childcare begins
- 1996 Farm Women's Advancement Program ends
1997 Liberal - 1998 National Coalition for Rural Childcare ends


Self-reported effects of participation in support programs
At the time of the interviews, the distinction between programs and projects had not been as clear as it later became, so the following results reflect what the women described as the effects of participation in what they and the interviewer believed to be programs but was really a combination of programs and projects.

Participation was varied and included lobbying, publishing newsletters or books, research, conducting workshops, education, policy formation, and international development.

The benefits included building awareness, increase in support and decrease in isolation, education, increased self-esteem, increased role in decision-making, and a sense of stronger communities. For instance, in terms of added awareness, one woman said, "[Participation] got you aware of so many wrongs that were happening." The importance of breaking down the isolation was emphasized by this woman: "It's just priceless. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I hadn't had...meetings with the women and talking with them...[It] was wonderful." The benefits of education, one woman thought, were connected to an enhanced personal power: "To be able to give them that power...That's why whether it's a one-day seminar type thing, or with educating women in different things...I think those [education activities ] are really important." Education allowed this women to see how their farm fit into a larger picture of agriculture: "You know how it is on the farm. You work hard and long hours day after day but you are not sure how you fit into the bigger picture. All of a sudden [due to my involvement] I started getting more and more into really looking at the economy, how it affected me and our farm...."

Although all of these benefits are related to health indirectly, some women related the benefits of involvement to their health, directly. Generally, as one said, involvement was "Very good for your mental health, and your physical health." Clearly, mental health was seen to have improved the most, as evidenced by the following statements from two women: "I'd have to say the benefits to my health is feeling strong, feeling confident about myself and my position as a farm woman."

And the other said:

My involvement has been one of the best antidotes to depression....If there's something you can do about a situation, it's the best way to get undepressed, because instead of being focused on how grim things are, you focus on how you can impact the situation. Taking action and feeling more in control is the best antidote for depression.

The following quote reflects the role involvement in programs plays in decision making:

To be involved at a national level and get the group perspective of things--I also felt I was having some impact on policy formation for federal programs in addition to assisting in developing some programs that could be used throughout the country...That's where there was the ability to impact, and to get to speak to policy makers in Ottawa.

Effects of the erosion of funding for support programs
The benefits just outlined disappear when funding is no longer available for programs and projects. The women highlighted these and a number of other ways in which the erosion of this funding had affected them. They include: lack of support, a return to isolation and poor communication, invisibility, and anger.

Without the opportunities to get together, learn, get involved in activities and share experiences, the women interviewed talked about how they felt a lack of support in their lives. In one case, work on rural child care came to an end because of this lack of support: "The Rural Childcare Coalition was a really good example of what happened...the thing that really caused that coalition to fall apart was removal of federal funds, just when a plan was coming together."

Not surprisingly, the erosion of these programs increased the women's isolation and decreased their ability to communicate with each other. Even computers don't solve this problem, partly because many of the women don't have them, but also because, as this woman said, computer communication is lacking something: "The computer, the radio and the television are artificial. They can't take the place of interacting with a real person."

One of the greatest effects of the erosion of funding for programs and projects is not being able to participate in the roles of decision-making and policy formation. This was illustrated by a woman who stated:

I don't have the input on policy in the same way because the funding is not there and the opportunity is not available....You have to find other ways to make an impact. You can't travel because you don't have the money to travel, or even to do conference calls for that matter. How do you stay in touch across a country on a national type of thing?

Another talked about how this "invisibilizing" affected her health and well being:

I miss the collective power and support of working with other women in a specific program or project because that tends to boost your confidence and self-esteem. It also gives you a sense of accomplishing something and making a significant contribution.

Another added, "If we're not involved, and we remain peripheral and voiceless, it's very detrimental to our psychological health, to our physical health."

Anger was expressed at the loss of one program: "I did feel.. anger when they wouldn't fund the education council...We lobbied very hard, we put a lot of time and effort into that program. It was very disheartening and discouraging when they wouldn't fund it anymore."

Positive effects of the erosion of programs and projects were also expressed. Some women stated that their participation had been a lot of work and since the erosion of these programs and projects they were less tired, had a lot less work to do, weren't away from their families as much and didn't have to deal with some of the sexism she faced in the course of her activities.



As one woman said, "The agricultural sector walks like a man, talks like a man and is a man in every way. There's got to be a change of attitude. Women need to be recognized for their contribution and skill." Specifically, the women interviewed believe that they need to have increased input, education, support and funding.

In terms of input, this woman summed up the problem:

Often you hear people say that they want the voice of women but there's more to it than that. It's being respected, being taken into account as full-fledged partners in the social domain. It's...having established yourself as serious, full-time, legitimate participants in the public discussion.

Because there is so much diversity among farm women as to their views on agriculture, a participant felt that some women get excluded:

They quite carefully overlook the farm women who, by their organization or their voice, have already challenged the notion that we're a homogenous group of nice girls. They quite carefully avoid appointing people like that. It's astonishing that somebody...who's been 15 years quite publicly, quite openly, and very effectively involved in organizing, finds herself never on any government boards. She clearly has the talent and the education but she's quite clearly distinguished herself as someone who might challenge the notion that we're a homogenous group....

Education needs to be improved in the areas of opportunities, access and scheduling. Women want to have opportunities to learn about the larger, more complicated farm operations. As more volunteers are required to serve on more and more boards, women want leadership skills training."Programs [need to] be in the smaller communities...once a month...It has to be accessible...It has to be within 15 to 20 miles of me...." People who plan educational training must be sensitive to the fact that rural people are not available between seeding and harvest.

Most of the women interviewed for this research were of the age to be in what is called the "sandwich generation," meaning that they have responsibilities to care for both their parents and their children. They want support for these enormous care-giving loads, as this woman indicated:

There is very little support in terms of managing off-farm jobs, on-farm jobs and family. [It's] the triple role that women play, the care giver role that they also play for their family, but also their parents, and the whole home care issue where farm women may have to be the ones who are supposed to provide care to others that are very near and dear to them. There's also the issue of respite care. If somebody is coming home early from the hospital, how do you take time off from work to be there? [Another problem is] a lot of kids are left home alone while women are out in the field and they're too young. This issue of rural child care just won't go away.

Funding is the fuel that's needed to make the engine go. If farm women are to be active and visible players in the whole agricultural sector, they need funding to make it happen. Core funding for farm women's organizations is essential. Educational events need funding. And in order to participate in discussions about agriculture, these women need to be at the table. But, as this woman pointed out, that has not happened as the result of funding cuts: "[Two farm women's organizations] have been invited to conferences where they should have been there, but there was no way they could go because there wasn't the money for travel or accommodation."

Funders need to be more aware of the realities of farm women's lives in Saskatchewan. As one woman said, "Come out and meet the women that need and use these programs."

She went on to say:

If you're getting money from the federal government, what do they know about living here? What do most of them even know about living on a farm, far less living in Saskatchewan? They really don't know anything about it, and I guess the terrible thing is, most of them don't even try to find out. That's the sad thing.

Other needs include the necessity of challenging some of the prevailing dominant thoughts about the future of agriculture. The threat to the family farm is constant. This woman commented:

I think it's completely false and really damaging to hear that these family farms are somehow standing in the way of progress of the real business of agriculture. I think that's completely debilitating for people once they feel like not only is their work not remunerated properly, but it's actually a negative in the industry growth. That's wrongheaded, very wrongheaded.

There also needs to be an enhanced identity for farm women, one which takes into the account their role in the economy. This was pointed out by a research participant who said, "It's important that women identify themselves with the farm family as woman of the farm family--woman farmer--and the farmer part of that is important. They need to see the value of their contribution in economic terms." Part of this has to do with the increasing awareness of the unpaid work that women do. This is further illustrated by the comments that this woman made, which also speak to the need for increased awareness about farm women's work and its role in the scheme of things:

When I go into town and I write a cheque and they ask me if I work and I say, "You're damn right I do." Then they ask if I get paid for it and I say, "No." I feel like I want to hit them. That's the mentality out there--unless you are being paid, you don't work. Society needs to be educated about the realities on the farms that produce the food they eat.

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