Anyone who thought the primary role of farm women was to clean the house, feed the family and hired help and put up the produce was dead wrong. Farm women did all of that – plus everything else required to keep the farm running, from paperwork to heavy chores.
“Women have often been the unsung heroes in farming,” says Jessica Klein, who with husband Joe, owns Peachland’s Homestead Organic Farm. For 27 years, the couple have operated Homestead, which specializes in organic fruits and vegetables and hay.
“Women are sometimes the silent partners, but we’re right there doing just as much as the men,” she says. “For example, I handled all the marketing and bureaucracy. And these days, there are women who doing it entirely on their own—they can do it all.”
Naomi Fournier, 25, started Enderby’s Birdsong Farm on her family’s land when she was 18. Specializing in Jersey cows and Nubian goats, she’s not making money yet, but has great future plans—she wants to market the animals to dairy farms and make artisan cheese from their milk for sale. “Women farmers are on the rise!” says Naomi. Many first generation farmers now are young women who were raised in the city.
Meanwhile, at Arion Therapeutic Farm in Kelowna, Shawna Forrest and Michelle Warren perform a large portion of the farm chores, which includes looking after 20 horses and numerous other animals. They’re also among several therapeutic riding instructors who teach dozens of people with special needs to ride the horses. “Women always have and always will play an important role in farming as well as all other sectors of society,” says Shawna.
Three productive decades of produce
“Besides hay, we grow fruits, nuts, berries, root crops, salad mix, everything that can be grown,” says Jessica Klein of 25-acre Homestead Organic Farm. Horse-owning locals buy the hay; the produce, mostly berries, is sold at the farm, mostly by word of mouth.
Homestead Farm, one of three Peachland homesteads built in the 1890s, produced apples and hay before Jessica and Joe turned it into a certified organic fruit and vegetables farm almost three decades ago.
Jessica was fully engaged in Homestead from the start, as well as eight previous years on another farm they owned. These days she’s stepped back a bit and spends time on her painting, while Joe carries on in a larger role.
Seasonal farm help comes from apprentices who are training in organic farming, placed by World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). In return for their volunteer help, “wwoofers” receive food and lodging.
Jordan and Vanessa, the two live-in farm managers, have also taken over much of what Jessica and Joe used to do.
“At this point, I’m like a mother,” says Jessica. “Joe and I have our own area with our own food, herbs and berries. I feed the ‘wwoofers’, and the whole farm once a week.”
Jessica and Joe were two of the founders of the extremely successful Penticton Farmer’s Market. “About 20 years ago, a group of us farmers would go down to the park and stand around hoping customers would come. We’d end up going home with each others’ products!”
Jessica was a director on the market’s board when Homestead sold there. She also spent many years as a director on the boards of two certified organic groups.
Jessica is the first to admit that farming has its challenges and is hard work. “At its peak, we would work sixty hours a week. But it’s extremely rewarding. It’s important to Joe and me philosophically to grow good food...what we grow tastes better than any food I’ve ever had. It’s all been worth it, the people we’ve met over the years, especially the young ones.”
Her new farm is a family affair
“My parents and I are first generation farmers,” says Naomi Fournier. In 2002, her family purchased the 18-acre Enderby property which is home to her Birdsong Farm. As well as raising her registered Jersey cows and Nubian goats, Naomi makes cheese for her family and teaches cheese making classes.
She received her first milk cow from her parents, a nine-month-old Jersey cross named Blossom, in 2003 when she was 14. Naomi fell in love with Jerseys, and started Birdsong Farm four years later. Since then she’s sold three milk cows to families.
Naomi is the oldest of nine children—nine to 23—who all live at home with her parents, John and Heather. “Mum and Dad don’t charge rent; we invest in the farm instead. In 2013 my brother Peter, my sister Anna and I purchased a brand new Kubota tractor. It’s win-win for the whole family—and farm!”
Naomi, her parents, and five of her siblings all have jobs off the property, too. They aren’t making a full time living on the family farm...at least not yet.
Naomi has worked six hours a day, four days a week, as the curator of the Enderby & District Museum & Archives since July, 2012. “Working off the farm makes it a lot harder to get farm work done, and I’m often tired after spending a day at the museum,” she says. “I feed, water and milk twice a day; and trim goat hooves, clean pens, or make butter and cheese on my days off.” Milking is her favourite chore.
Naomi’s siblings help her on the farm with tasks from feeding animals to jobs she’s “too short to do” (She’s 5’ 5”).
As if she weren’t busy enough, the young farm owner shows her Jerseys at the Armstrong Interior Provincial Exhibition (IPE), and is actively involved in community groups and sports.
Naomi believes new skills are required for today’s farmers—especially women. “I’ve learned a lot from my mentors, and wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
Special farm for special needs
“Therapeutic riding, also known as adaptive horse back riding, offers benefits to children and adults with varying special needs,” says Michelle Warren of Arion Therapeutic Farm in South East Kelowna. “These include learning to ride, developing core strength and balance, and social activity.”
Founded in 2009 by Heather Henderson, Arion Therapeutic Farm was a small therapeutic riding pilot project, advertised through the Kelowna recreation guide, taking place on rented property with a couple of donated horses.
The next year, the newly-formed non-profit society had its own South East Kelowna farm on Saucier Road with a lease-to-own agreement. Twenty-four employees work at the 12.5 acre Arion Therapeutic Farm, assisted by more than 140 volunteers. Arion is able to host 13 different programs for those with disabilities and those who simply want to learn about and enjoy farm life. In addition, the farm is home to six people, some of whom are supported by Community Living BC.
In December, 2013, Arion completed construction on its $150,000 year round indoor riding arena thanks to donations from volunteers, businesses and sponsors.
As Arion’s senior therapeutic riding instructor, Michelle Warren, an LPN and certified instructor, has worked at Arion for five years. “My two children are young teenagers who both have autism, impacted by anxiety and mental illness.” Their special needs are what first brought Michelle to Arion as a volunteer; they both still attend programming and therapeutic riding at the farm.
She works 25-30 hours a week, including with executive director Dustin Drader, and riding program director Shawna Forrest on day-to-day therapeutic lessons and farm duties as she directs—everything from assessing animals to administering their medication.
Shawna, formerly an addictions treatment centre social worker, is responsible for scheduling riding lessons and teaches 15 hours a week. She’s also the one who oversees care of Arion’s animals. Besides 20 horses, there are also two sheep, six goats, two llamas, two alpacas, five pigs, and one donkey. “It’s a big job making sure everybody is happy and healthy,” says Shawna who has been at Arion (full time and then some) for two and a half years. It’s up to her to make sure there’s a good quality hay source and that the animals are getting the appropriate amount.
The horses require their feet to be cared for so Shawna is in constant communication with the farrier, making sure the animals are ready when he arrives, usually twice a week or more.
She’s also responsible for identifying animal health issues and treating them... especially the horses, of course. “Some of the horses need grain and supplements on a daily basis due to arthritis, old injuries or age. People who are ‘horsey’ know how much work equines require – a lot!”
“Arion is a special place—not only for its clients with special needs, but also for all the staff and volunteers. This is its own little community where everyone takes part in all aspects of the farm,” says Shawna.
INaomi Fournier with her Jersey calf, Buttercup. Naomi raises Jersey cows and Nubian goats at Birdsong Farm in Enderby. Photo: Meriam Fournier.
Shawna Forrest and Michelle Warren of Arion Therapeutic Farm in Kelowna. Photo: Wendy McAlpine