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Saturday 20 January 2018

Opinion: 'Women are perfectly capable of running a dairy farm'

Karen Elliffe from Westmeath was crowned the W.R. Shaw Queen of the Land for 2016. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Karen Elliffe from Westmeath was crowned the W.R. Shaw Queen of the Land for 2016. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

When you meet a young person of your acquaintance for the first time in ages, chances are you'll say something like "How you've grown!" or some other phrase observing a significant physical change.

You'll have changed in the interim, too, just maybe not as visibly.

All life is always changing. And it seems to me we are starting to see real change in the attitude towards farming women.

Could it be that men are copping on that women are up to the job? Or is it down to societal changes?

Families are smaller and there are more job opportunities, for both men and women.

Our shifting attitude towards organised religion may also be relevant. People are increasingly more interested in personal fulfilment in the present rather than doing what might be expected of them and deferring reward until the afterlife.

The result is that those who are going into farming are more likely to be doing it because they want to.

A few weeks back, there was an item about female farmers on The Late Late Show. As it's a night-time entertainment show, I feared it would be frivolous. It wasn't. I later heard on the grapevine that one member of the panel would only go on with other "real" (not hobby) farmers.

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Karen Elliffe (Westmeath), Ashleigh Fennell (Carlow) and Danielle Stewart (Donegal) were excellent: knowledgeable, articulate and ambitious. They were a healthy mix of seriousness and fun - ie, real farmers.

The old chestnut about women not being as strong as men made the obligatory appearance, but it was quickly swept aside. There are now many ways around any physical task.

The key issue of a daughter inheriting followed, and I have never heard it put as well by someone directly concerned as it was by Ashleigh, who took over the family farm after the untimely death of her father, having been encouraged all the way by her "progressive" mother.

"How can a parent look at their kids and say, 'We'll give it to Johnny instead of Mary,' and think there will be no consequences down the line?" she said.

"That kids won't fall out with each other, that there won't be resentment towards the parents and that the farm might fail?

"I can't see how that can be more important than keeping the farm in the family name."

Individual men (and women!) may struggle to change their attitude toward women farmers, but businesses have no such problem, and female workers are already becoming more obvious in the dairy sector, which is being increasingly operated on a commercial basis.

Women are perfectly capable of running a dairy farm. They are every bit as good as men at milking cows and, being disciplined and thorough, are often better at looking after calves.

Farm women's changing attitude towards themselves and their work is reflected in the emergence of four new groups across the country.

South East Women in Farming Ireland has been rapidly followed in Munster by Meitheal na mBan, which held its first meeting last week; West Women in Farming, which holds its first meeting on Saturday; and the newly formed North West Women in Farming.

Women in farming are finding their voice.

The Munster group's underlying thinking is well represented by the ancient concept of 'meitheal' - people working together and for each other to ensure that all succeed in achieving their goal: in this case, personal empowerment.

There is still a way to go to break the 'grass ceiling'. But maybe we are turning the corner.


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