Student Update: Is the farm a place for a woman in Ireland?


Emma McCormack, a final-year Agriculture student discusses life as a woman in agriculture and the transfer of family farms.

Student Update: Is the farm a place for a woman in Ireland?

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  • 2 years ago

Emma McCormack, a final-year Agriculture student discusses life as a woman in agriculture and the transfer of family farms.

Emma McCormack, a final-year Agriculture student is back with her fourth update to discuss women in agriculture.

Last week, I was talking to a man I have only known for a short time. He enquired about what career path I was contemplating and when I said that agriculture is what I’m interested in, he was a bit taken aback. “But you’re a girl?” “Wouldn’t actual farm work be too difficult for you?”

Honestly, he meant no offence, he was genuinely surprised that I actually wanted to farm, rather than working in an office or an equally clean, more physically appealing area of the agricultural sector.

By the end of the conversation, he was wishing me luck with it all but I thought to myself, is that mentality really still there, that women aren’t competent farmers? What do you think? He seemed to genuinely believe that girls can help out with some tasks on a farm, but would rarely farm independently.

Traditionally, women took care of domestic affairs including cooking for the family; caring for the children; cleaning the house and they often worked outside of the household also and sometimes looked after the paperwork involved with running the farm. They may have been content with this, but the option of actually farming wasn’t there.

Things are quickly changing. Women have earned a place on the farm. A small portion of the elderly generation find this difficult to comprehend because they’d never seen a girl bringing in the cows, or driving machinery or calving a cow - it rarely happened.

Kitchen aprons or milking aprons?

Women often still excel in the kitchen, but it shouldn’t be frowned upon for a woman to decide whether she wants to work in a kitchen apron or a milking apron or both. Equal rights are something that has come a very long way in the last decade but can be coaxed further.

I am lucky in that, my father treated us all the same, giving 5 daughters and 3 sons an equal chance to work (whether we wanted to farm, or not!). I know that in some households, this wasn’t the way as the girls stayed inside and helped their mammy while the boys assisted their father with outdoor work.

I suppose I just took it for granted that I could be a farmer if I wanted to be, and not just a farmer’s daughter. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve realised that some people are surprised to meet me in the mart with my father, or arriving at their farm to relief milk; or to hear that I am studying agriculture.

A few years ago, there’d be one or two girls in an agricultural course if even. Today, we are still outnumbered by males, but there are numerous females.

Are women able for the tough lifestyle?

With owning livestock, it’s a given that you will suffer a few deaths each year, and I know myself I am more affected by events like this; and sick animals, than a lot of men would be.

This compassion, as a lot of farmers would agree, can be a positive trait on the farm and they’ll often prefer to have a girl feeding calves or milking the cows, as we can be a little more patient and gentle than men.

Women can be a little too soft sometimes and need to build up a bit of a tough exterior to be able to farm – which is what I have had to do.

Men are strong - physically and mentally. They often don’t express their emotions – instead, they think practically and just keep going, looking after their animals and their families, not wanting to appear weak. This is commendable but sometimes they need to take the barrier down.

We are making progress there, in that some of the stigmas are being removed and it’s becoming a little easier for a man to admit that he is struggling or needs a hand.

No man should feel as though he has stepped into an alien land, when he is in the kitchen. Every able person should be able to feed and look after themselves, independently.

A farmer – not a farmer’s daughter or wife

It is great to see that the Irish farming community is a lot more acceptant of a woman in farming than in the past. Hopefully, this can continue and the small percentage of men who feel the farm is no place for a girl can get past that closed mindset.

If you’re a woman interested in farming, don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do it.

You’re well able, and you’ll do it better than a lot of guys too! Women are known for good record keeping; being organised; maintaining good hygiene standards; and putting the animal’s welfare first. It’s just a matter of accepting that gender shouldn’t determine a person’s occupation.

Over the last few years, as I’ve delved further into my interest in ag, I have had men advise me that farming wasn’t a job I should pursue – that it wasn’t for women.

Although it’s very hard sometimes, both physically and mentally, I can, of course, do it..’Luckily, the majority of farmers I know are extremely supportive – especially the team I worked with in Scotland on the Muldowney’s farm. Everyone was treated equally.

There’s room for everyone

I still have a huge amount to learn, and I have accepted that men are more skilled in some aspects of farming than I may ever be, such as operating machinery. That doesn’t mean I cannot be a great farmer though. I have a passion for animals and the farming lifestyle – tractors, not so much.

I can succeed as a farmer myself – without being labelled as a farmers wife or a farmers daughter. I appreciate the help of men on the farm, like machinery, they are a huge help and make things easier with their strengths and capabilities. Their abilities along with that of a female farmer can make for a great team.

Teamwork definitely does make the dream work. At home, daddy just delegated tasks according to our competency, but similarly, if I wanted to upskill at anything, whether it was driving tractors or using a chainsaw, the option and the help was there for me to learn and be as good as any may, as it should be.

Leaving the family farm to a daughter

If you are a woman who wants to farm just like your dad, brothers or husband are, but you don’t think you can or should, you need to go out and show them that you want to learn.

You have to be tough and determined even if you are discouraged by a man who feels threatened by your aspirations. It isn’t easy and you might feel disheartened but if farming is what you really want to do then put on your wellies and say no more. Everyone has to start somewhere.

If the family farm is being left to a child – it should simply be whoever wants it the most, not whichever son is the oldest. Your daughter might build it up to a bigger empire than you ever thought possible! Every child should have an equal chance to prove themselves to be the next generation farmer.

In researching this, one man told me that he wouldn’t leave a farm to his daughter even if she was a better farmer than him, simply because the farm would lose its family name.

Finding this totally unreasonable, I told him that a woman can decide to keep her name if she wishes, but that either way she is still the same person regardless of the words on any page. He went on to say that he thought it was wrong for a woman not to take her husband’s name.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I think some people are just trapped in a very narrow-minded space, and will disagree with any sense of change in the world.

Your daughter is always your daughter, and it’ll always be your land she is farming. What matters is how the farm is operated and how it is performing, not the surname of who is behind the business. Farms buy and sell every day and pass through the hands of many families.

If you leave the farm to a son who isn’t very interested, just for the sake of your surname, what’s to say he won’t sell the lot when you’re gone? We have all seen it happen.

I am proud of how Ireland is becoming a more equal environment for men and women and I hope it doesn’t stop here. I know plenty of women in agriculture that are kicking ass, and I know there are more that have yet to step up.

I think women are well capable of farming as well as any man.

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