'I was worried farmers wouldn't pick me because I'm a woman' - 24-year-old on starting her own dairy unit

Ireland may lag behind the EU average of females in farming, but our reporter reveals that trend is about to change

Maighread Barron wanted to be her own boss
Maighread Barron wanted to be her own boss
Maighread at work on her 100ac leased farm
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

A recent Labour Force Survey shows that Ireland lags far behind the EU average when it comes to the percentage of females working in agriculture. While the EU average is 35pc, the current Irish figure stands at just 11.6pc.

Some of Ireland's brightest female farmers feel it's time we called a halt to the traditional structure of handing down the farm to the eldest son and that women with an interest in agriculture should look toward a farm structure that works for their lifestyle.

While Maighread Barron's father was happy for his daughter to enter a four-way farm partnership with himself, his wife Catherine and son John on the family dairy farm in Ballinamult, Co Waterford, following a stint of working on farms locally, the Dairy Business graduate was keen to be her own boss.

"I think we all would've gone a bit mad working together because there would've been so many different opinions in the mix. I wanted somewhere where everything would be down to me and I'd have my own authority," says the 24-year-old.

With the aim of being her own boss in mind, Maighread has started a 15-year lease on a 100ac dairy farm in Clonea, Co Waterford, where she plans to milk a 106-strong herd consisting of British Holstein Friesians and dairy cross-breds.

While Maighread is currently preparing for her first round of calving on the farm, she admits she was worried when pitching to farmers that they wouldn't want to lease to a female farmer.

Maighread at work on her 100ac leased farm
Maighread at work on her 100ac leased farm

"I was worried farmers wouldn't pick me because I'm a woman and you have to build up a reputation when leasing, but this farmer liked my ideas and knew I wouldn't steam roll him out," she explains.

She adds that she has struggled with the stigma that exists around women in farming, especially when she was working on farms, but hasn't let it hold her back.

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"When working on farms in the past, I only ever came across one female labourer. I was well able to calve cows by myself, but I sometimes got stick that I wasn't able," she says.

"Farming is physically and mentally demanding and I do worry what if something happens down here at two o'clock in the morning and I won't be strong enough, but you can't think like that."

Maighread Barron
Maighread Barron

Farm Relief Services Advisor Hannah McNelis (24) says that while she feels men do appreciate women's contribution on farms, the inheritance structure is hindering women from getting fully involved in farming.

"As a woman I never felt like I was treated differently, but I do feel it would be better in some cases to give a farm to a woman who is interested rather than a man who isn't," says the Animal Science graduate.

Hailing from a family of part-time sheep farmers in the rural Gaeltacht of Glencolmcille, Co Donegal, Hannah was one of the founding members of North West Women in Farming which was set up in 2017.


Maighread Barron
Maighread Barron

Despite the figures, Hannah thinks there are more women involved in farming than the survey indicates and women just need the confidence to call themselves farmers.

"That survey doesn't represent what's on the ground. It doesn't matter whose name is on the paperwork. I don't think it's only 11pc. There's so many women involved in agriculture and some may just not have the confidence to call themselves farmers," she says.

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness thinks as family-farm sizes decrease, there will be an increase in the number of female farmers taking ownership of farms.

"The extent of ownership and control of farms by women is low, but this is likely to change in the future," she says. "As family size falls, it is expected that more women will inherit land and have the option of farming."

Cork dairy farmer Paula Hynes feels 2017 has been a year where women's voices have "stood up and been counted".

This is perhaps reflected in the IFA recently electing three women as county chairs to the National Council. Anne Baker of North Cork Central, Erica O'Keeffe of Tipperary South and Imelda Walsh of Tipperary North, join current family farm chair Caroline Farrell to bring the number of women on the council to four.

While this figure is small, Imelda Walsh feels it's a significant turning point within the IFA and hopes to build on this number.

"Things are changing and although it's only a small number of us, it's a start. We've never been treated differently as women within the IFA and look forward to dealing with issues that affect both male and female farmers."

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