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Lessons from the land

Women in agriculture share their experiences working in the industry
Farmers, agri-food producers, and sector specialists gathered in Sudbury on Feb. 12 to listen to the Women in Northern Ontario Agriculture panel discussion. Speakers included (from left) Anna Regele, co-owner at Carnor Farms; Mikala Parr, research technician at the Rural Agri-innovation Network; and Peggy Baillie, co-owner at Three Forks Farms. (Lindsay Kelly photo)

Anna Regele and her husband, Chris, were just four years into dairy farming when their Earlton operation faced a devastating setback.

On a hot summer night, fire blazed through their barn, razing the structure and leaving their cattle without shelter.

It could have been disastrous, but Regele likes a challenge.

“When the barn burnt, we didn’t even look at each other,” she recalled. “It was, ‘We’re rebuilding,’ and we jumped on the opportunity.

“We had to learn from it. We had to figure out what we wanted and work through it.”

Continuous learning was a key piece of advice contributed by Regele as a panellist during the Women in Northern Ontario Agriculture discussion held at the 2020 Northern Ontario Ag Conference in Sudbury, Feb. 12.

A two-day event, hosted by the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA), the conference brought together farmers, agri-food producers, and sector specialists to network and share best practices in what has become a renaissance industry in Northern Ontario.

The Women in Northern Ontario Agriculture discussion examined how women at all levels are contributing to the sector, the struggles they sometimes experience, and provided guidance on how to find success.

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For Peggy Baillie, finding her way as a farmer and food business consultant first meant building up her confidence in the industry.

Born on a farm in southern Ontario, her interest in agriculture was sparked at a young age, leading her to work in a variety of roles through her young adult years.

After moving to Northern Ontario, Baillie served as managing director of Eat Local Sudbury – a now-defunct grocery store specializing in locally grown food – and was the founding chair of the Greater Sudbury Market Association, which runs the Sudbury farmers market.

“It took me a long time to learn that I needed to find my voice as a woman in the industry,” she said. 

“Male voices can be more dominant, but I think it's been really important that my voice and other women's voices at the table are heard. And so in all of the work that I do, I always try to make sure that everyone at the table is being heard.”

Today she and her husband, Eric Blondin, have their own operation, Three Forks Farms, in Warren about 45 minutes east of Sudbury.

There, they cultivate five acres of organic vegetables, raise 1,400 pasture-raised chickens, and grow vegetable and flower seeds specifically for Northern Ontario gardeners.

She also works with communities and food businesses to help them fulfill their local-food goals and grow their operations.

Now established and comfortable taking on those leadership positions, Baillie has noticed more women attending meetings, sitting on committees, and serving in administrator roles in the industry.

And there seems to be encouragement and support for women to take on that work.

Yet, as novel as this may seem, women have always made important contributions to the industry, she emphasized.

“I think we have to remember that women have been the leaders in agriculture forever, and it's just a perception thing that we forget,” Baillie said.

“Women have been taking care of the books, taking care of the house, taking care of the animals, taking care of everything else; maybe they haven't been on the cover page – they've been farming.”

Juggling multiple roles at once is nothing new for Mikala Parr.

As the research technician for the Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN) in Sault Ste. Marie, she coordinates and oversees research trials that help identify Northern Ontario-friendly crop varieties for potential development in the North.

In her personal time, she’s working to resurrect her grandfather’s 200-acre beef farm on St. Joseph Island, about an hour east of the Sault. She rents another 100 acres, and uses the land to grow and sell hay.

Eventually, she hopes to raise Hereford cattle as her grandfather did.

But, she conceded, finding time to handle the workload takes a lot of commitment.

“The farm is my passion, and it always will be,” Parr said. “So it’s a lot of balance between what RAIN needs me to do and what I need to get done on the farm, especially in summer, as it’s the busy season all the time.”

Parr noted there are vast opportunities for women in Northern Ontario who want to get into agriculture.

The southern Ontario market is competitive – high land prices, companies angling to acquire property, and long-established farms with large market share make it difficult to start something new.

But in Northern Ontario, where land prices are more affordable and competition is less fierce, Parr said there are lots of options for newcomers.

“You can start your dream up here if you try,” she said. “Northern Ontario is definitely a great opportunity for everyone, especially women, if they want to start their dream.”

That’s certainly been true for Anna Regele.

Carnor Farms, the operation she shares with her husband, has recovered nicely from the barn fire so many years ago.

Since then, the couple has built a brand-new barn, installing two Lely robotic milking machines to help alleviate the physical labour associated with milking the cows.

They’ve also expanded the operation twice, bringing their current land holdings to 625 acres.

In addition to her work on the farm, Regele sits on a number of ag-related committees and has recently started up a cut-flower garden, something she calls a “passion.”

She does all this while she and her husband raise five children between the ages of four and nine.

“The joke was that I would take over the neighbourhood,” Regele chuckled. “And it might happen.”