With a career in Canadian agriculture spanning 40 years, Iris Meck knows firsthand the unique challenges women face in the industry. She’s also a staunch advocate for making the abundance of opportunities for women in the industry more mainstream.

“Building my own career in agriculture taught me that you create your own opportunities,” says Meck, Founder and host of the Advancing Women Conferences in Agriculture (AWCA). “At the same time, I was also looking for a way to support other women in this field and build a positive network for an often-overlooked group in our industry.”

Conference supports diverse contribution to the industry

She first conceived the conference in 2013, when she noticed no one was offering a formal program for leadership development and mentorship for women in agriculture. Meck thought women in agriculture would embrace a chance to get together and inspire one another so one year later, in 2014, she launched the first AWCA conference. While it was a leap of faith at the time, to date, thousands of women have attended nine conferences.

To show the increasing impact women are wielding in agriculture, Meck points to the most recent Statistics Canada census that counted 271,935 Canadian farm operators in 2016, 71.3 percent of whom  were male. Female farm operators represent a growing segment as the number has risen steadily from 25.7 percent in 1991 to 28.7 percent in 2016.

“Have we made progress? Yes. Do we have further to go? Yes, we do,” notes Meck. “Women often feel their minority status, particularly at farm meetings or on Boards where they can be the only woman in the room. However, Canadian women make an enormous contribution to the Canadian agriculture industry, so I wanted to help them learn from each other and have a place to talk about challenges and opportunities specific to women.”

Growing the number of women owners in agriculture

Through the AWCA leadership program, Meck profiles great women leaders in agriculture — many of them female owners, operators and business people — and also provides ample time for delegates during the conference to exchange ideas, network and connect with young women, many of whom are students. The program is held twice each year in western and eastern Canada and draws women in agriculture from across the country and several US states.

Meck’s company also provides a strong online component for those who can’t attend, including live social media sharing from the events and videos of speakers on the Advancing Women YouTube channel. New for 2019 is a program where women can find practical tools for starting their own agribusinesses.

As the AWCA program continues to evolve, Meck’s influence touches many lives. She’s watched provincial groups of women in agriculture form to offer localized support, and she’s seen break-out groups – like widowed farm women – connect at her conference and continue their alliance afterwards.

“Agriculture can be so geographically isolating,” says Meck. “We all need support, help, advice and inspiration from time to time. The energy in the room is incredible, but the far-reaching benefits I’ve seen come out of this initiative have been so amazing. As long as there is interest, I’m happy to keep leading the charge for women in agriculture.”