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Celebrating Canadian Farm Women
As a provincial government worker in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Billi J. Miller was a self-proclaimed “city girl.” Her life took a U-turn in 2009 when she met her now husband, Dean, a fourth-generation cattle and grain producer on a century-old farm. Within 18 months, they were married, and she left city life for the prairies of east-central Alberta.
“I was instantly immersed in my husband’s family and the surrounding farm community,” Miller says. “It was interesting to see how many traditional ‘farm wives’ wear that title proudly, while some of the next generation are questioning those roles. I became enamored with all of these women and admired the way they were holding their families up.”
While Miller had originally continued working for the government from a nearby town, once she and Dean had their first daughter (today, the couple has two daughters, ages 4 and 6), she decided to stay home and begin a photography business.
“My niche was farm families. I’d follow them during harvest or other busy times and take day-in-the-life action shots, then provide the families with photo books and photography capturing their farms’ legacy,” she says. “I fell in love with capturing these families and their pride, specifically the women. It was wonderful to document the remarkable contributions they were making to their families and the community.”
Becoming an Author
As Miller’s farm photography business grew and she got to know more people in her community, she decided to write a book that would showcase the often overlooked role of the traditional farm wife. “I wanted the book to serve as an intimate and culinary portrayal of this area and the amazing women in it,” she says.
The book, Farmwives in Profile: 17 Women, 17 Questions About Their Lives, features Miller’s neighbors, ranging in age from 55 to 90. It includes profiles of the women, tributes from their families, beautiful photographs, answers to 17 questions, and their favorite recipes.
“I intended this to be a celebration of our community and thought it might be nothing more than a keepsake for these women and their families,” Miller says. Within a week of publication, however, Canadian media outlets got wind of it, and word spread quickly online.
“At first, the women I featured didn’t understand why I wanted to tell their stories. They’d say, ‘I haven’t done anything. I’m just a farm wife. Why do you want me in this book?’” Miller says. “The buzz around the book showed that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear these women’s stories.”
The book led to speaking engagements for Miller at women’s conferences and other events. “It was a wonderful experience being able to talk about these women I have grown to love and share their stories,” she says. “I’ve been explaining how these women aren’t ‘just farm wives.' They are nurturing kids, families, and entire communities,” she says. “It’s important to me to be able to communicate that these women are accomplishing a lot, and that their roles are incredibly meaningful.”
Naturally, Miller began thinking about a follow-up to her first book. Farmwives 2: An Inspiring Look at the Lives of the New Canadian Farmwives was released in March and features 24 women from all across Canada, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s.
“I thought this would be a good continuation of the first book,” Miller says. “It features women from all different kinds of farms and reflects their varying views on the role of the farm wife. It’s a beautiful representation of how women are doing a lot of different things on farms today.”
Thanks to the success of her first book, Miller found it easier to get women to open up to her this time around. “With the first book, I was begging the women to be open and honest with me,” she says. “With the second book, I had so much interest that I couldn’t interview everyone who wanted to be a part of it.”
Miller says the books have created a sisterhood between the women featured in them. “I see their social media posts pop up, and they’re so proud to be in the book,” she says. “They’re enjoying learning about each other and sharing this experience.”
Addressing the Big Issues
While Miller’s books feature fun stories and favorite recipes, she also gets into some of the more serious issues surrounding farm life, especially in the second book. “In the first book, the women would answer the hard questions, but some would say, ‘Don’t put this in the book!’ For the second one, I asked harder questions, and they were honest. We talked about succession planning, home and land ownership issues, legal issues that concern them, and financial security for the women and their children. I was so proud of them for their willingness to be open about these issues because it helps other families to see how they’ve navigated them.”
Mental health issues were also discussed with the women. “I asked how they handle self-care, and how they keep their marriages strong,” she says. “That’s important because sometimes the stresses of farm life can be a lot to handle in a healthy way.”
Miller says that she was surprised at how writing about these women benefited her own mental health. “It served as a healing project for me, and that’s something I didn’t expect,” she says. “My family life growing up was incredibly difficult. The stability I found when I moved here and became surrounded by these women touched my heart in such a big way. That explains why I think these women deserve to be held up and recognized for everything they’ve done.”
Since publication of the second book, Miller is booking speaking engagements with a variety of audiences across the country. Her ultimate goal now is to show that there is more than one way to be a farm wife. Miller says, “Our farms here are so varied and beautiful, and so are they.”
Interacting with women from all walks of farm life at conferences has been inspiring. “It’s powerful, and there’s a lot of camaraderie in gathering like that.”
Miller has also developed an online project, The Women Among Us, to serve as a continuation of the dialogue she started with her books. “I share conversations with women from all walks of life, including nonfarmers,” she says. “I ask them all nine questions, and they answer with incredible honesty. It’s amazing to see how these women have been through a variety of different things in their lives, and how they persevered.”
The Women Among Us could potentially lead to a third book, but Miller has no firm plans in place for that yet. “For now, the project is an online space meant to uplift and inspire,” she says. “It’s a place that promotes connection, and we all need that.”
Visit Miller’s website, billijmillerphotography.com, to learn more about her, link to “The Women Among Us,” and buy signed copies of her books. They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through other booksellers.