Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Friday 28 July 2017

Women's role in farming is still greatly under-valued

And in many cases it is women's off-farm incomes that are keeping family farms alive

Mary Fitzgerald
Mary Fitzgerald
Paula Pender
Kate Irwin

Sally Shortall

The figures presented on women in agriculture in Ireland, are interesting, but not surprising. Only 13pc of women are farmers, with these women being older than their male counterparts, according to the figures from the Agriculture Department Annual Review 2014/2015.

As much research and the recent National Rural Network Report illustrates, this reflects the fact that women rarely inherit land in order to become the active farmer.

Most of the 13pc of women who are farmers have inherited the farm from a deceased spouse and will pass it on to their son.

One woman I interviewed in 1987 told me her teenage son would inherit the farm, but she hoped her daughter would 'marry land' because she loved farming. A young woman in her late teens that I interviewed in 2012, 25 years later, also told me she loved farming but her brothers would inherit. She too said she hoped to 'marry land'. Women's routes into agriculture continues to be through marriage.

It would be interesting to see the figures for the number of farms that are jointly owned by a husband and wife, and those where spouses form a farm partnership. Have trends changed in this type of land-holding arrangement?

It is interesting too to note the differences across Europe regarding the proportion of female farm holders. I did a report for the European Parliament on the position of women in agriculture across the EU in 2010.

What really struck me then was that the proportion of women land owners increases as the size of the holding decreases. In other words, women tend to be the holders of less viable farms, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, these holdings are often an important source of food for farm families.

The DAFM's report uses CSO data to show that the number of women employed in agriculture is low, and has been low for some time. A lot of research has focused on the inability of quantitative surveys to capture the full extent of women's agricultural labour.


Often women provide full-day cover of all farm tasks if their husband has to go to the mart. Sometimes they run errands, feed labourers, do the accounts, feed new calves and a myriad other tasks, seasonal and occasional, that it is difficult to capture through surveys.

It is likely then that women's agricultural labour contribution is under-reported. Also significant, is that it can be sought at very little notice, and it is provided free of charge.

However, focusing on women's farm labour might mean we are missing the really important question. In many cases, it is women's off-farm labour and income that is crucial to the survival of the family farm. Many farms now have at least one spouse working off the farm. Many of the men I interviewed in a study in Northern Ireland in 2012 said that they thought farming was a lonelier occupation now than when their fathers farmed, but it was necessary for women to work 'out'.

Women remain committed to the family farm. They consider it a good way of life, and they believe it offers them a higher quality of life.

Their identity with the farm remains strong, even when they work full-time off the farm. The model of farming in Europe is that of the family farm, and this also remains true in Ireland.

Sally Shortall is a professor of sociology at Queens University, Belfast

 'I still see myself as a farmer at heart'

Mary and her late husband Dick began their rural tourism business in 1977 with farmhouse holidays. From such humble beginnings, the Woodlands House Hotel developed.

This year Mary, with the help of her son-in-law Myles, converted the family farm to organic production.

"Farming is in our blood, through all the developments over the years we never forgot our farming roots, and I still see myself as a farmer at heart," said Mary.

"In later years Dick got great satisfaction from the farm, he really enjoyed being back on the land. It is an important part of our family and with that in mind I want to teach our grandchildren where real food comes from.

"It is vital that our generation teaches children the values of natural food," she continued.

The farm has sheep and a suckler herd, mainly Angus and Herefords. Myles farms the land part-time, and plans to develop it slowly, reinvesting money that comes from the farm, thereby allowing it to expand sustainably.

The hotel has two restaurants and currently spends more than €2.5m each year with local suppliers. Produce from the farm will be served at the hotel.

"We are very excited about this idea. As a tourism product food can be mighty if done properly. We are delighted to have converted the farm to organic production as it suits the land and our plans for the hotel in the future," said Mary.

Mary Fitzgerald, Woodlands House Hotel

'Being on my own, i limit to seasonal production'

Paula Pender's farm is in the picturesque area of Duckett's Grove in Co Carlow. Before her return to Ireland in 2007, Paula spent six years in Portland, Oregon in the USA running her own organic flower, fruit and vegetable business. "It was a great experience as I really learned my trade there, I specialised in cut flower production and sold everything I grew at the busy city farmers markets.

"When I moved back to Ireland I set about re-creating that business here. I certified my land with IOFGA in 2007 and since then I have been growing flowers for weddings, events and a local market stall.

"I also grow fruit and vegetables for a seasonal box scheme, as I operate the business on my own it makes sense for me to limit it to seasonal production" said Paula.

In order to supplement revenue, Paula is a course coordinator and tutor on the distance learning horticulture course at the Organic College in Dromcollogher, Limerick. She is completing an MSc in Organic Horticulture at UCC.

"I am just finishing my thesis on the potential role of living mulches for protected crops such as tomatoes and peppers. I would love to use my land as a small-scale organic demonstration enterprise, but for now I am keen to get back out growing more organic food".

Paula Pender, Sonas Organic Garden

'The first few years we made mistakes, but we've got the hang of it now'

Kate and her husband John both come from farming backgrounds. Growing up in Vicarstown, Co Laois, Kate's home farm once grew flax and had a mill, so stories about flax were an integral part of her childhood. Kate initially studied business and marketing.

"Out of personal interest I studied nutrition and came across the humble flax seed once again. I suppose it interested me due to my family history but once I learned more I became intrigued with the huge potential of the crop. Essentially it inspired the business now known as Adora Flax Oil," said Kate.

"We converted the farm to organic production in 2010 with IOFGA, having the idea of selling a cold pressed oil and flax seed. We used the two-year conversion period to do trials and research about flax.

"It is particularly challenging to grow organically as it is a slim elegant plant which does not compete well with weeds. Now we intercrop it with a shorter growing crop such as clover, which keeps the weeds down but also fixes nitrogen in the soil.

"The first few years involved a lot of mistakes but we have gotten the hang of it now, we have modified machinery for things like hoeing and are improving each year we grow," she said.

Like any farm business, capital investment in the early years was high. The flax needs to be harvested, cleaned, dried, stored and pressed, to maintain the quality of the end product - flax oil or milled seed. Adora Flax is sold in most health food shops and specialist supermarkets.

"There is a lot of interest from supermarkets to go nationwide with the product. Ideally we would love to have more farmers growing for us. This is a unique product, as we are the only Irish organic flax oil company.

"For me personally, I get great satisfaction from the feedback we get from people who feel that Adora Flax oil has helped with their health conditions. We started this business with a long-term goal of producing a healthy product with care and precision, and we are slowly getting there," said Kate.

Kate Irwin, Adora Flax Oil

No longer just  ‘farmers wives’

By Grace Maher

It is impossible to calculate exactly just how much of the world’s food is produced by women, with a lack of figures on the issue, particularly in the developing world.

Gender inequality is rife in agriculture due to lack of access to land and inputs, cultural norms, and financial resources. Despite this, women are largely responsible for safeguarding indigenous knowledge and farming methodsmany of which play an important role in sustainable agriculture.

Here at home women are the unsung heroes in farming. Having being defined for generations as “farmers’ wives”, now more women are coming out of the shadows to describe themselves as “farmers”.

What’s in a name you might say, but in this case that simple descriptive change says a lot, women are now coming to the fore and taking a more active role in every aspect of farming.

Changing the face of agriculture

Across the EU the profile of organic farming differs to conventional farming. Farmers are younger, many sell direct to the consumer and more women are involved along the supply chain. Studies show that women are more likely to be interested in producing for local markets, running small farms and working with family labour. In this way an economic value can be placed on the work that women do on the farm.

Grace Maher is development officer with the IOFGA, iofga.org

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