This article is the first in a monthly series that will highlight members of the Ag Women’s Network. AWN is an online group dedicated to connecting and empowering women in agriculture through sharing, learning and personal development.
How one farmwoman is juggling the responsibility of caring for loved ones on the farm and off
By Courtney Denard
Deb Knapton is a dairy farmer from Eastern Ontario but like most women in agriculture she’s a lot more than that.
A loving wife and a mother of two adult children, Deb didn’t grow up on a farm but by the time she was a teenager she knew that’s exactly where she wanted to be.
Deb had always been into horses. She started riding when she was just eight years old. At 17 she made the life changing decision to stop riding competitively and take work on a neighbour’s dairy farm.
That decision would go on to change her life in ways young Deb couldn’t even imagine at the time.
“I loved working with the cows so much that it steered my decision to study agricultural business at Centralia College,” Deb says.
Deb calls her two and a half years at college “awesome.” She was involved in student council, sports, and Junior Farmers. It was the latter organization, in fact, that introduced her to her husband Merlin, a dairy farmer from St. Mary’s.
With a similar dream of becoming a farm owner, Deb and Merlin started out by renting a farm in Shakespeare and eventually bought an operation in Almonte in 1989.
“We began by milking 15 cows and shipping cream,” Deb explains. “But it wasn’t enough.”
Sadly, Deb and Merlin were left with no choice but to eventually sell the cows and quota and continue their off-farm work.
It wasn’t the happy ending they had envisioned but the couple kept the farm, a few of the livestock, and the hope that the dairy would be operational once again.
Ten years ago that hope became a reality. Thanks to a lot of hard work and determination Deb and her husband purchased new quota in 2005 and started milking 20 Holsteins.
Today, Deb divides her time between running the farm in a full partnership with Merlin, continuing to work full-time off the farm, and taking care of her family.
She is also the secretary-treasurer for the Lanark County Dairy Producers Committee and has been a dedicated volunteer with 4-H Ontario for the past 15 years.
Like so many farmwomen, a typical day for Deb is never typical.
She has no set schedule and has responsibilities coming at her from every angle. This summer when her 90-year-old father took seriously ill, her load got even bigger.
“It’s really tough,” Deb says. “Until this summer both of my parents were in good health so I had no appreciation. It takes over your whole life.”
“Not that you’re not glad to do it,” adds Deb. “It was just a real wake up call.”
Many farmwomen are facing the same struggle. As aging parents are living longer, it’s not uncommon for women to transition almost overnight from mother to parental caregiver.
Deb says seeking support from other family members and taking it one day at a time helps. Staying connected to the things she loves, like agriculture and farming, is beneficial as well.
This was one of the reasons Deb joined the online Ag Women’s Network (AWN). Coming from a family that doesn’t farm and working from home makes it challenging to reach others in the agriculture community.
“It’s nice to have people who understand where you’re coming from,” says Deb.
Joining the AWN also gave Deb the push she needed to seek a full-time position in the agriculture industry.
After working for years as an accountant and owning her own business, Deb wanted to make the move back to agriculture so when she saw a job opening with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) she went for it.
“I thought no one would hire a 49 year old woman who hadn’t been in the industry for such a long time,” Deb admits, but that wasn’t the case.
Deb has been working as an OFA member services representative since January and loves it. “It’s the best thing ever!” she says about her job and it allows her to work from home, which is a critical part of managing the juggling act she calls life.
“I don’t have all the answers but I’ve got a supportive husband and I love what I do so that’s half the battle.”