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.

Marital transfer

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.

Heads swivelling

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.

But they also acknowledge the drawbacks. They talk of the “never off-duty” nature of the job, the endless paperwork and the stress that a bad summer brings. They worry as they watch cattle eating feed they cannot afford because rain has driven the livestock indoors in August and a long expensive winter stretches ahead.

But women are still making their mark in the rural economy. The research by Tanya Watson highlights the emergence of women as rural entrepreneurs and property owners.

Maireád Lavery, editor of Irish Country Living in the Irish Farmers Journal, notes that the majority of finalists in last year’s “Women in Agriculture” awards run by her newspaper had a science background, whether coming from food science, nursing or physics.

“So the role women are playing is that they are bringing that kind of education on to farms to enhance them. Think of the cheese-makers, the ice-cream-makers, the artisan food producers – an awful lot of that work is being driven by women . . . An awful lot of men wouldn’t be able to call themselves farmers if it was not for the money that their wives are bringing in.”

Margaret Healy thinks her farm organisation has a growing respect for the work of women.

‘A women’s thing’

She says her farm family committee might have been seen as “a women’s thing” by the IFA in the past but it is not now.

“You stand up and fight for what you think, and definitely I would get just as much support as any of the men.”

And what would happen if there were no women in farming? “Things would fall apart,” says Ms Healy. “Oh, you couldn’t even contemplate a future without women in farming. From keeping the books to feeding the calves, if you took women out of it there’d be no agriculture.”

Case studies: Three women's stories

Elizabeth Tilson

Co Cavan

Elizabeth Tilson had an early introduction to farm work. Her father died when she was just six, so her mother took over the farm and the four children helped out.

“My mother was always ahead of her time,” she says. “She had one of the first slatted sheds in the area and farmers would come to look at it.”

Elizabeth worked in a local co-op until she married farmer Mervyn Tilson nearly 30 years ago and settled down in Kilnaleck, Co Cavan.

“I’d like to think I’m a bit more than just a farmer’s wife,” she says. “There’s plenty of work to be done. It never ends, basically.”

When her only child Clifford was small, she remembers sitting him in his buggy as she milked the cows, the German Shepherd dog wagging his tail beside him.

After three decades she says she can do almost anything on the farm.

“I always say I can do all these things. I might be slow at them but I get them done.”

She feels sorry for older women who spent their lives working on the farm and rearing large families but now have no pension to fall back on.

“Their names weren’t on the cheque books or bank statements back in the 1970s so they had no proof that they were part of the farm.”

She has been involved with the IFA for years and notes how the organisation is dominated by men at the top level.

“But an awful lot of the men wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have good wives behind them. In the calving season you can’t just walk off and come back that evening and hope they’ve calved.”

Despite the ups and downs, she says she wouldn’t swap her life for anything.

“It’s a good life. I like space, I like animals. And it’s flexible. If you have to go to Dublin you can get up early, get your jobs done and go.

“You might have to work late that night, but the flexibility is there.”

Merle Tanner

Co Cork

Merle Tanner’s dairy cows are like part of the family. “I love their temperament. They all have names. I call them and they will look at me and come over.”

As a child, she spent all her time on the farm. When it was time to leave for school in the morning, she was often found in the milking parlour with the cows.

She could never imagine doing an indoor job. “I wouldn’t be in an office for any money,” she says.

She did a secretarial course “but that was only so I could leave school”. She worked alongside her father on the farm in Ballincollig, Co Cork until he died in 1994 and then she inherited the farm.

A new road meant the farm was spilt into three parts six years ago. Undaunted, she bought a 100-acre farm in Coachford and started all over again. She runs the farm with husband Tom and son Shane.

Tanner’s farming skills were recognised in last month’s NDC/National Dairy Board awards. She was the only woman to win one of the four national category awards and received the environmental award for her sensitive conversion of the farm.

When she went to collect her award, it was her first trip to Dublin and her first time on the train. She doesn’t find this remarkable.

“I never had a holiday in my life . . . I’d go mad if I had to stay out in the sun for a week.” And she would miss the 50-cow herd. As soon as returned from Dublin, she went to see the cows. “When I went in to milk them I saw all the eyes looking at me,” she says. “I said, ‘it’s all right, girls, I’m back again’.”

Carol Cahalane

A student, Co Cork

Carol Cahalane made her mark when she completed her advanced course in agriculture at Clonakilty Agricultural College last year. Her performance placed her among the top 10 finalists in Teagasc’s Student of the Year competition. She farms in Drimoleague, Co Cork, with her husband Trevor Draper and his parents. “In the back of my mind I always wanted to farm but I had no clear plan so I went working for a few years,” she says.

She worked as a shop assistant and did marketing and food hygiene courses, but then she heard about the farming course offered by Teagasc. “Doing the course full-time appealed to me,” she says. She was one of just three women out of more than 90 people doing the course. “But once we showed we could do the job, people didn’t have a problem with us. It’s the same in any job. You always have to prove yourself.”

She says it can be easy for women to be left in the background when it comes to things such as farm discussion groups where men are in the vast majority. “It’s up to you to make yourself heard.”

But she is very happy with her choice of work. “I have two little girls and I can stay at home with them and still work. It really is the best of both worlds.”

When certain tasks exclude the children, the grandparents act as babysitters. “But mostly the girls can come with us and sit in the buggy watching everything. It’s a good healthy lifestyle for them,” she says.

“I had my little girl out feeding kale to the heifers just now. She was happy out.”