After a successful 33-year professional career in festival event management in Victoria, Ramona Froehle-Schacht decided 12 years ago it was time to pursue a different path. Now, she’s the proud owner of SOL Farm, a five-acre property in North Cowichan, B.C., where she spends her day nurturing her crops of pickling cucumbers, bouquet flowers, tomatoes and berries.
An avid gardener all her life, she considers growing food to be something “basic and magical. But to take a productive plant and harvest and sell it involves a tremendous amount of work and knowledge.”
Yet Froehle-Schacht is the norm rather than the exception on the B.C. farming scene. She’s just one of a sizeable network of female farmers changing the agricultural landscape on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.
The proportion of female farmers in B.C. is higher than any other province — 37.5 per cent versus the national average of 28.7 per cent — according to the 2016 Census of Agriculture. The Statistics Canada report also noted that B.C. had the largest proportion of small farms (gross farm receipts of less than $10,000) at 42 per cent, almost half of which sell directly to the public.
The growing presence of women in agriculture is something Froehle-Schacht has noticed since becoming a farming entrepreneur herself.
“I am seeing lots more at farmers’ markets,” she said. “Some are leasing land, others buying where they can. Some are professionals who felt they needed a break from the corporate world. Others are young women with children starting out.”
Froehle-Schacht said one common thread for many is their passion for the back-to-the-land movement.
“They want to eat well and treat the land well and be sustainable — that appeals to a lot of women,” she said.
It’s that passion and love for the land that is driving more women to dump their lucrative careers and move into the demanding world of agriculture, said Ryan Riese national director of agriculture at Royal Bank of Canada in Calgary.
Despite entry barriers such as capital costs and lack of expertise, “I believe this is a very encouraging movement,” Riese said. “More women have greater enthusiasm for agriculture than did in the past and they are doing things in new and creative ways.”
They want to eat well and treat the land well and be sustainable — that appeals to a lot of women
Ramona Froehle-Schacht, owner of SOL Farm
Tamara Knott, owner of Bright Greens Canada, is another member of the growing close-knit community of female farmers on Vancouver Island. Previously a project manager in the public sector, she left to start a small hydroponic container farm operation just outside Victoria.
“I know of so many female farmers, particularly on the berry and vegetable side, from women who have always been in agriculture to women changing their careers or raising young children,” she said.
Knott points to people such as Dana LeComte of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery, Jane Grueber at Seedling in the Wind MicroFarm and Laura Waters at Snowdon House Gourmet & Gifts Ltd.as a few of the local innovators.
“Laura does a beautiful job producing and packaging products from Douglas fir tips. She’s just firing on all cylinders,” Knott said. “For us, farming is rewarding both physically and psychologically. We feel like what we are doing benefits our family and community as well.”
Knott categorizes most of their operations as an “artisanal niche” in agriculture.
“They’re taking the farming category and framing it in a manageable size to produce something really, really high quality that you can’t get at a grocery store,” she said.
We feel like what we are doing benefits our family and community as well
Tamara Knott, owner of Bright Greens Canada
This artisanal approach is not for the faint of heart, or those bent on making a fortune. For one, land in the region is expensive and can reach $100,000 an acre or even higher, she said.
But that doesn’t stop some women from establishing smaller operations that they can manage.
“Women are taking the time to size up the situation,” Knott said. “It’s not something we have the wherewithal to get into and grow really large. Rather, we’re creating a niche for ourselves that is financially accessible and will sustain us and our families.”
Riese said a small-sized farming operation can also be a very fit business model.
“You don’t need to extend the size of your business further than you have to, and you don’t need to compete with 5,000-acre farms,” he said. “The two types of operations are very different things.”
The most-needed asset is having a passion for the work, Riese added.
“With farming, you have to be committed to what you are doing, because it’s a year-round job,” he said. “You don’t do it unless you love it.”
Froehle-Schacht agrees: “Even though you can work ridiculously long hours, for me, it’s still better than the corporate world.”