Saanich South MLA Lana Popham has been around local food for a long time. She grew up on a hobby farm on Quadra Island where people grew their own vegetables and she helped raise rabbits for food.
After graduating from UBC, she became a vintner and joined a group of women farmers on Vancouver Island who taught her the ins and outs of growing organic food. The fledgling farmer didn’t have any formal training in business, but she just “dove into the deep end and figured it out”.
“Running a viticulture crew, a farming crew, you have to meet payroll, you have to manage a schedule, so it’s the basics of business, I’m very keen on that,” said Popham. “I was self-taught, but not without a lot of questions to friends of mine who were already in business.”
She quickly learned about how regulations on meat and land access affected farmers in B.C. and that eventually prompted the lifelong activist to run for office.
“I thought, ‘You know what, I think I gotta go in and try and fix things on the inside instead of always being an activist on the outside,’” she said.
She decided to run for Saanich council in 2005, which was a “coming out party” for getting her name out as a politician, though it was ultimately unsuccessful. That led to an invitation to run for the New Democrats in the 2009 provincial election. She has since served as the MLA for Saanich South.
For Popham, the transition to politics was rough.
“The farming community is very supportive and you have this safety network around you and so if you need help you can turn to another farmer,” she said.
“In politics it’s quite a lot of different. It’s a fight every day, but the one thing they have in common is that in farming you have to be extremely resilient due to conditions that face you.” She said that farming helped her develop a thick skin, which she relies on as a politician.
Though she says she was courted by the BC Liberals, she felt that the NDP were a better fit for her values, including their support for a national childcare program, which she says would help more women remain in the workplace.
As for herself, Popham doesn’t feel that her gender has affected her work as a farmer or a politician.
“People ask me a lot, you know, what’s the difference between being a woman in politics and being a man in politics? As a basic question. For me, the main difference is that I get asked that question,” she said.
“Other than that, I’ve never regarded myself as having a disadvantage because of my gender or felt that I was different because of my gender, and that’s been in all aspects of my life, whether that was when I ran my small business, when I ran my farm, when I went into politics. I’m very grateful that there have been women who worked very hard in the political sphere to create opportunities for women in politics and I’m fortunately able to reap the rewards of all their hard work but it’s never been a barrier for me.”
Given her background in agriculture, it’s no surprise that Popham would like to be minister of agriculture someday. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do it, but in the meantime the work that I’m doing in opposition is not wasted because I’m shaping the dialogue.”