Hired as the first female farm manager at AAFC’s Benton Ridge potato breeding substation last year, Rachelle Smith is helping break new ground for women in Canadian agriculture.
When Rachelle Smith was growing up in Oak Mountain, a small community 12 kilometres south of Woodstock, N.B., she had no idea one day she’d be running a potato research farm for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).
Smith, who’s the first female farm manager at AAFC’s Benton Ridge potato breeding substation of the Fredericton Research and Development Centre, and at 24, is also the youngest, was studying biology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. when an opportunity to work on the research farm as a summer student arose in 2017.
“I knew I wanted to stay in New Brunswick near my family and it was really close to home, so I thought I would try it out for a few years. It ended up being a really great fit,” says Smith, who spent two summers helping tend the fields at the Benton Ridge farm. After graduating from university, she began working there full-time as a general crew member before transitioning into a job as a potato breeding technician
Not long after that, the opportunity to apply for the position as farm operations supervisor came up. Smith thought she’d give it a shot, and in July 2019, she successfully landed the job.
“I like everything about the job,” says Smith. “I really enjoy the work that I do.”
She says the combined agriculture knowledge and experience of the team backing her at the research farm has helped her adjust to the new position.
“I bring a lot of different strengths to the table, like management and organization and communication skills. We all work really well together as a team unit to get the job done, and I really respect that,” Smith explains.
Josée Owen, the associate director of the Fredericton research centre, says while Smith lacked the extensive farming experience of some who applied for the farm manager job, she had lots of other things going for her which helped her not only secure the position but flourish in the role — including a science background, leadership abilities, and an open, inquisitive mind.
“A lot of aspects of farming are about the experience and the number of seasons you’ve seen, and the diversity of those seasons and how you’ve coped with the challenges that different seasons bring. So, she has a lot to learn there,” Owen says, adding Smith wasn’t daunted by the challenge.
When first hired, Owen was impressed when Smith made the point that “the leader depends on the expertise and the skills of all of the different sums of the team.” So, despite Smith not having experience with all of the positions she oversees, she’s realized how important it is to recognize her team members for the strengths they have and make sure they’re using them.
Owen says another thing which enabled Smith to excel in her leadership role at Benton Ridge is that she’s keen to try out new approaches to potato breeding instigated by AAFC’s potato breeder, David De Koeyer, and its potato biologist, Erica Fava. AAFC’s potato breeding program has been undergoing a modernization for the last two years under De Koeyer and Fava’s leadership.
“Rachelle has the confidence to be able to engage in that back and forth, where we depend on our farm manager to let the scientists know what’s going to be feasible and what can truly be implemented, but still be open minded enough to give it a really good try,” Owen explains.
As well as acting as the conduit between Benton Ridge and potato breeding scientists and technicians in Fredericton, Smith supervises staff and oversees the daily operations at the 400-acre research farm, where each year about 40 acres or so are planted with potatoes and other rotation crops, such as mustard and oats under seeded with timothy.
“This year, we tried some new things like tillage radish and some multi-species blends,” says Smith, whose role also includes deciding how the scientific experiments are staged on the farm and which practices to follow for best managing the crops.
Owen notes the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of complexity to the farm manager job, but she says Smith has done an admirable job coping with it.
Breaking Down Barriers
As a female in a field long dominated by men, Smith says she’s the only woman in many of the rooms she walks into during the course of her work — adding another responsibility to her job.
“At the conventions and different events that I go to, people often don’t expect a young female to be an operations supervisor, to be in leadership in a farming situation. They usually expect you to be in a lower role. So that’s a little bit of a challenge that I’m looking at,” she explains.
Smith sees it as opportunity though to encourage other women and girls to consider jobs like hers. “Women are obviously just as capable as men in every role, and I think it’s great for women to break down some of those gender norms and the gender roles,” she adds.
Owen sees Smith as role model as opportunities increase for women in agriculture. While Smith may have grown up in a farming community, she didn’t live on a family farm or have the opportunity to farm herself, and wasn’t necessarily considering a career in agriculture.
For Owen, when she worked as an agrologist in western Quebec in the late 1990s, she would often see women working key agriculture jobs, but it was usually in more of a support role.
“The women would work as a nurse or some other job in the community to help generate the cash flow that enabled the farm to thrive, and would do a host of other roles around the farm as well, but she wasn’t necessarily considered a farmer,” she adds. “I think we’re seeing some of those stereotypes change where women are now being considered farmers in their own right.”
Owen says it’s a trend that’s being mirrored within AAFC as well, with more and more women like Smith assuming key science positions within the department.
“Many of the support roles have been held by men, like farm manager or livestock herd manager,” she says. “But just as more and more of Canada’s farmers are women, we’re also seeing women take on these science support roles, too. It’s a tremendously exciting time.”