87pc of farm owners in Ireland are men — a damning statistic that reflects some antiquated attitudes towards succession
The 1984 Olympic men’s marathon is etched in my mind. The sight of John Treacy, in his first ever marathon, running into the stadium ahead of Charlie Spedding to win a silver medal is surely one of the greatest Irish sporting moments of all time.
Over the recent June bank holiday weekend, over 20,000 women took part in the Dublin women’s mini-marathon. The event was first held in 1983.
One week before Treacy’s heroics in Los Angeles, and 88 years after the first men’s marathon, women were finally allowed to compete over the same full Olympic marathon course as men.
After years of women campaigning for equality, the Men In Blazers on the Olympic committee finally conceded to gender equality for the marathon.
That was 38 years ago and gender equality has still not been achieved in many sectors of society.
It was really disappointing to read recently that only 18pc of planned farm successors will be women, and that the 2020 census showed that just 13pc of farm owners are women.
While Olympic committee recognised belatedly 40 years ago that equality was a right not a luxury, Irish farmers have been reticent to transfer control of their farms, on retirement or death, to their daughters.
In previous generations, the desire to keep the farm in the family name, or the physical nature of farming may have been used as reasons to overlook one child for another.
The reality was that wives, daughters or sisters kept many farms running when the male owner disappeared off to the mart or the creamery, returning late in the day when the work was complete.
Quite often the women had to do the majority of the farm work, while also looking after large families, with little or no control over the financial running of the farm.
Fifty years ago, women couldn’t even open their own bank accounts or take out loans, and they had to give up their jobs when they got married because of the ‘Marriage Bar’.
It’s only since 1974 that women could collect their children’s allowance; and the law was changed only in 1976 to prevent the husband disposing of the family home without the consent of his wife.
Thankfully a lot has changed since, but farm ownership is resisting gender balance.
The majority of the agricultural service sector that we farmers deal with seem to have a good gender balance — the likes of banking, accountancy, farm inputs and veterinary reflect the large number of women involved in Irish agriculture.
While women occupy many of the top jobs in the Irish agricultural sector, farm ownership at 87pc male is not indicating a balanced or fair approach to inheritance or succession planning.
There has been a significant shift in farmers’ expectations around succession. Most of my friends hopes that all their kids will go to college, and if any want to farm after they graduate, then they at least have a qualification to fall back on if times get tough.
This is a big change as previous generations may have taken the eldest boy out of school early to help on the farm. The expectation usually was that this child would take over the farm.
We all know farmers that never wanted to farm, but were pushed into it as they felt it was their duty.
Many went on to be good farmers, but their heart was never really in it, and possibly they would have excelled in a different career if they had been allowed stay on in education or had the opportunity to pursue a different path in life.
Reducing numbers of young people are interested in farming as a career choice.
So with all the advances and new technologies in modern farming, a desire to make a career in farming should be the starting point in any discussion around farm succession planning, not gender.
Angus Woods is a drystock farmer in Co Wicklow