Last night I attended a meeting of the South-East Women in Farming Ireland group. It was an opportunity to gauge the sentiments behind why it has been necessary to inaugurate such a group. At the end of the evening, one of the organisers asked if I was going to write a post about the meeting [now I can take a hint]. As she is aware that I can be outspoken and reluctant to pull my punches, it is probably best that the lady remains nameless!
So why are women so poorly represented in the upper echelons of organizations that represent Irish farmers? Is there a ‘grass ceiling’ imposed within those organisations?
Now I have been quietly observing Irish farming for a while and I do find it rather good at blowing its own trumpet. So much of what is said and written seems to contain expressions like ‘World class’ and ‘punching above our weight’. I doubt if this is how the average farmer thinks of himself [I do mean himself here], but the establishment and the hierarchy seem to consider it necessary to continuously resort to aggrandisements. I am not sure why because, from my experience, most farmers [all] have a grasp of the realities of farming in Ireland.
This contrasts greatly with an impression I acquired last night. Apparently farming women folk are more likely to play down their role, to hide their light under a bushel and to be self-effacing. Is it a juxtaposition to that of their male counterparts? My apologies for the generalizations, but sometimes they cannot be avoided. Does this just reflect traditional rural Ireland?
What came across clearly was that the contribution of women to Irish farming is greatly under-valued. I would suggest that, in these troubled times of low farm incomes, the financial contribution [to support the farm] made by the womenfolk working off-farm is massive. For this reason alone, they should have equal rights in determining the destiny of the family farm.
Not so long after arriving in Ireland I came across the term ‘farming politician’. It was a first for me. I am not sure what representing farmers is to do with the Machiavellian business that is politics, but then again, Ireland likes to do things differently. Maybe the very term, ‘farming politician’ is a part of the reason women are under-represented; politics itself tends to be a male bastion. Is it also one that is better suited to the male psyche? And equality has been slow in coming to politics.
Thus, we have a farming industry represented by ‘farmer politicians’. It also exudes a degree of over-confidence. One can add in a tendency to use ‘technical’ jargon that by its nature excludes those not born and brought up with the relevant dictionary to hand. Do women [and industry newcomers] feel that it is difficult to push themselves forwards [in general and into leadership roles] because they are not sufficiently fluent in the language of farming. From listening last night, apparently so. It is a shame because simplicity is the enemy of exclusivity and the best leaders are those who can explain what may be complex to those who may not grasp the minuity. Vice versa.
Overall one is left asking a few questions. Does an intimidatory environment exist within some of the organisations that represent farmers? Do they have a culture that dislikes, resists and even fears change? And is one of those changes bringing women into the fold? Is it a culture that discourages those who express contrary views? Is it a ‘group-thinking’ culture that is inhibiting the rejuvenation of the very industry that it represents? Is it a culture that is leaving Irish farming in a status quo that is unsuited to a changing world; a world characterised by dynamic markets and fraught with Brexit-type political risks? If so, it is not a good place to be.
It did not take long last night to appreciate why many women feel that they are excluded from farming’s representative structures. And can one safely state that it is their exasperation with such that has catalysed the emergence of a new, women-in-farming group?
One heard last night that there are some dynamic young women in Macra na Feirma. One hopes that they will be free-thinkers who will see beyond just offering a feminine alternative to the current masculine leadership. Re-treads of what has gone before, be they male or female, is not what Irish farming, let alone rural Ireland, needs. It needs leaders of either gender who can, when necessary, embrace the radical. There needs to be a breaking of the mould. Ireland’s family farms need to escape the strictures imposed upon them by recent agri-food policy and they need to find a new, economically-sustainable direction to follow.
So, what about the future; after all it is what the formation of SEWFI is about. It must be for more than the empowerment of women. It needs to be as a driving force for wider change. Central to these changes must, however, be enhancing the contribution to the family farming business of all the human resources available. There is no room for discrimination.
Central to the future of the Irish family farm [if that entity is not to pass into history] must be a movement away from commodity production. Ireland’s small farms must be the foundation stones of supply-chains that create and sell high-value products. A significant proportion of that value must be returned to the farm in the form of premiumized farm-gate prices. In all likelihood, this will involve farming system changes and on-farm or local-community processing. It will also mean farmers or their immediate supply-chain partners [possibly within a reenergized co-operative framework] being more active outside the farm gate.
Such changes will inevitable mean change for the family farm. It will alter the importance of the skills required. Farming systems changes for specific products may enhance the husbandry required but there may also be less emphasis on the traditional ‘heavy-lifting’ activities. It is likely that this will bring the skill set that many farming women can offer to the fore; not least when they have been trained and/or worked outside the industry. The skill set required by an Irish family-farm will change in the future and it will be a fateful mistake not to turn to the womenfolk to provide a significant proportion of those skills.
To conclude, do/will more women actually want to enter the farming industry; not least when they read about how archaic a male bastion it is?
My personal view is that farming is only going to get more interesting in the future. There are so many issues coming to the fore; be they related to climate change, nutrition or meeting the diverse demands of the consumer [who for an Irish family farm must be willing to pay a premium]. As farms move from producing commodities to producing for products, it only gets more interesting.
One consequence of the changing nature of farms will be working environments that are less ‘traditional’ and more appealing to women. It will not just be about farming operations, it will be about adding value by processing what the farm produces. It will be about selling the products and all that it encompasses. It will, most likely, be about cooperating [again] with others. Simply, the family farm will need a new, more diversified skill set and that will change the relative ‘weighting’ of what happens on the farm. This will, inevitably in my view, bring more women to the fore of Irish farming; be they hands-on, in managerial roles, providing industry leadership or all three. It will not be before time.