WINCHESTER – Being a voice for change is a difficult role to take on.
Being a woman, and working a farm with her husband makes that role even harder, especially when the changes being made are all about agriculture.
Dianne Harkin became that voice and with the support and help of many other women across Canada she was able to effect change in the agricultural culture and industry, which had been a long time coming.
She has captured the decades long battle in her book, They Said We Couldn’t Do It – The story of a Quiet Revolution.
As founder and chairperson of Women for the Survival of Agriculture (WSA) Winchester, Harkin paved the way for farmers, men and women, to have long overdue recognition for what they do and what the agricultural industry does for the rest of society.
Dianne Harkin grew up in a small rural village. She admits that the last thing in the world she would ever want to do is marry a farmer and end up running the farm in the middle of nowhere.
Her grandmother had some advice for her as she was growing up: “Whatever you do in the future, Dianne,” she said, “never marry a farmer. Because if you do you will work like a slave, you will be old before your time, you will live in poverty, and you will be treated as a third class citizen.”
The warning was a bleak and disturbing glimpse of what living and working a farm could be like.
Harkin followed the advice and married Dan Harkin, a young man who was raised not far from Dianne in fact they had known each other from childhood. Dan was not a farmer and worked as a consultant for Douglas Aircraft in Toronto. Secretly, he wanted to chuck everything and become a farmer running his own operation.
The couple lived in Toronto, raised their family of two children, a boy and a girl, Laurie and John. Operating a farm was not in any of their plans.
Then Dan was transferred to Ottawa in the early 1970s, and his idea of changing career paths became a real opportunity. After a great deal of angst, Dianne decided to go along with idea and the family found a farm near Winchester that was up for sale.
The Harkins took up beef farming, but knew little about their chosen occupation. They decided to learn as much as they could.
Along the way Dianne found out to her dismay that the farm wife’s role was not what she imagined it to be. At meetings about farming she attended with her husband she would be the only female there.
She did not like the way she was referred to as Mrs. Dan Harkin. She wanted and expected people to see her as an individual and partner to her husband running their farm. Women were often in those days not seen as a significant contributor to a farm operation, despite the fact that they did more than their share of the work, looked after their children, made the food and made sure the farm financials made sense.
When Dianne tried to engage other women about rural politics she would be told, “But I am just a farm wife.”
Dianne responded, “No one is just a farm wife.”
Thus began her determination to change the way people viewed rural farm women and the farming industry in general.
She was inspired by an American woman speaker who spoke at an Ontario Federation of Agriculture convention in Toronto in 1974. She had gone to the meeting with her husband who was a delegate. The speaker, Laura Heuser was a spokesperson for a group called the Women for the Survival of Agriculture in Michigan, (WSAM).
Heuser’s presentation inspired Dianne and as is often said, the rest is history.
Her first decision, when she got back to Winchester, was to create her own group. The Women for the Survival of Agriculture, (WSA) Winchester chapter was born.
Dianne would serve as the chairperson of the group from 1975 to 1984.
“The Winchester Press was always very supportive,” she recalled.
Eventually the movement to change the way farm women were looked at and how agriculture in general was perceived would spread right across Canada.
Dianne and her friend, Ghislaine Brassard, were the only two members of the group when they went off to Kemptville College to see about arranging classes on doing income tax. They expected 15 farm women to attend, but there were 100 women who asked for the classes.
The group grew stronger and more relevant. During the next 10 years, they managed to have the federal income tax laws changed to reflect the work women did within their families. Women were able to claim the title of “business partner” instead of “farm wife.”
“Banks and lending institutions reluctantly bowed to our exposure of their discriminatory practices and polices.”
Because of the WSA newsletters and educational programs, women learned how to negotiate and deal with bankers to protect themselves. The group’s efforts attracted the attention of the national media which helped them spread their message. Traditional farm organizations did not often deal with social issues. Once the “new” breed of farm women became involved in their organizations, this changed.
A Canadian Educational Council was established.
The WSA was responsible for a T.R. Leger Alternative School in Winchester.
Farm women were instrumental in halting the use of the hormone BST in dairy cattle.
The list of changes brought about by the WSA in how agriculture is viewed and the role of women in agriculture is long and impressive.
Dianne’s work brought her to the attention of then Ontario premier David Peterson.
“He sat right in my living room to ask me if I was interested in going into politics,” she remembered.
Laurie Harkin-Chiasson, Dianne’s daughter, has much the same attitude as her mother. Both children were taught to stand up for themselves and never allow themselves to be bullied.
Chiasson is with a group fighting against a wind turbine farm coming to North Stormont. She has the distinction of being the first female tester for brucellosis in Canada. One of her first jobs after college was taking samples from every cow in the former Kitley Township looking for the disease.
Dianne wanted to write a history of the WSA and the efforts of so many farm women over the years.
Dianne is proud of her accomplishment with the book and with the years of fighting for women’s equality in rural Canada.
She recalled being told that she would not be able to do this.
“All of the things we set out to do we did,” said Dianne.
She has collected many awards for her work in agriculture over the years. She was the recipient of the very first Order of Ontario.
The book is in six local libraries and will be available for purchase at Winchester Print, the law offices of Cass, Grenkie and Remillard (Chesterville), and Gorrell, Grenkie and Remillard (Morrisburg) or can be ordered via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost is $25.