Sisters are doing it for themselves as more women join the latest crop of Irish farmers
One in eight family farms is now owned by a woman and they consitute a quarter of workers in the agricultural sector
“Is the boss at home?” That was the politically incorrect question often asked of women in the past when a salesman arrived into the farm yard.
But if asked that question now a growing number of women can reply “yes, you’re talking to her”.
The latest survey on farm labour by the Central Statistics Office found an increase of almost 15 per cent in the number of family farms owned by women between 2000 and 2010.
They are still in the minority, but women own 12.4 per cent of family farms, according to the survey. They also make up more than one-quarter of the agricultural labour force, with more than 74,000 women now working in agriculture.
Women have accounted for 38 per cent of students doing agricultural science at UCD for the past two years – a 4 per cent increase on 2010 figures.
Overall, women account for 44 per cent of students entering UCD’s agriculture and food science programmes.
And while the numbers are small, a growing number of women are doing farm courses offered by Teagasc, the training and advisory body.
Women still have a long way to go. PhD student Tanya Watson is involved in Teagasc-funded research on farm women and has found that most women acquire farms by marital transfer or inheritance. Just 10 per cent get land by buying it.
While the vast majority of people agree that farms should be jointly owned, she has found that fewer than one in five are owned by both spouses.
But the stereotypical image of the farmer is changing, according to Margaret Healy, IFA farm family and social affairs committee chairwoman.
“The man in the boots and the peaked cap is disappearing. You have more women farming in their own right now. Over time women have asserted themselves more, and have proved that they are capable of running a farm.”
She recalls how a woman’s parents would pass the family farm to their son-in-law rather than to their daughter in the past. And no one would think this was surprising.
“It’s much more acceptable for a place to be left to the woman now,” Ms Healy says.
Thirty years ago a woman would only become a farmer if the job had been foisted on her. Perhaps her husband had a long-term illness or had died before a son was old enough to take over. A woman choosing to be a farmer would have been seen as eccentric, at best. There was a genuine belief that women were not capable of running a farm.
Ms Healy says if a woman appeared at a mart or a farmers’ meeting 30 years ago it would have sent heads swivelling. Now it’s not even remarked upon.
And it’s not as if the women had no involvement on the farm. In between rearing their often large families, they were milking cows, feeding calves, herding cattle and tending to sheep.
In fact, many women were doing everything but the heaviest manual work, and then coming in to get the dinner ready and help with the homework. When the children were in bed, they sat down to do the farm’s paperwork. But, if asked what they did, they still would not have called themselves farmers. They were “just” farmers’ wives.
Research by Dr Terry Cunningham, formerly of Teagasc,suggests our smaller family size means more farms will be inherited by women. And increased mechanisation means that machinery can do the heavy lifting.
Women who farm highlight the joy of living outdoors instead of looking out the office window at it. They also speak about the family-friendly nature of the job. They can be at home with their children while also having their day job.