Focus on Female Farmers (Co. Donegal, Ireland)
Women Farmers in Ireland
“New figures show Ireland has by far the least female farmers in Europe” was a headline in January 2018 in the Independent’s farming section. In the European Union women account for 35.1% of the agricultural workforce, however in Ireland the figure was just 11.6%.
An RTE article I saw earlier this year asked “Why are just 12% of Irish farmers women?” One of the main reasons is the ‘deeply embedded’ tradition of fathers passing the land to their sons. The tradition has existed for a long time but is now starting to be questioned in a very different era of gender equality.
The RTE interview with Prof Sally Shortall (Professor of Rural Economy at the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University) reports “I interviewed one woman who was the eldest of four daughters. She was 14, fully expecting to take on the farm. She told me that then her brother was born and she knew she would not inherit her parents’ farm. It’s that deeply embedded even in the minds of teenagers.
She went into agriculture, she did an agricultural science degree, went into agriculture related employment. We saw this was a general pattern. Then when she married, she and her husband went into farming through renting land.”
Prof Shortall feels farming is missing women’s dynamism as a result. “The women we interviewed, were by far and away the most dynamic. Women tended to be very well-informed about agri-environmental schemes and so on because they were working in the area of agriculture, and were able to bring all of that knowledge back to the farm. But in general, these women are not considered as heirs”.
What drew me to this topic?
I was starting to see more and more young women interested and involved in farming around me. Was this a new phenomenon, or had there always been women farmers, I just hadn’t seen them. I was aware of a handful of women farmers, operating as the main person on their farms, though I knew that in many farm families there were a multitude of woman carrying out largely unrecognised support roles.
I was curious to investigate a little further. It took quite a bit of effort first of all to find women farmers, and secondly to have them agree to be interviewed. I didn’t manage to include any women in their 50s or older, as they were more reserved, yet the young farmers were happy to be seen doing what they love.
Gillian: A woman passionate about Dairy Farming
Arriving at Ballybogan Farm at 7.30am on a Saturday morning in May, I was met by Gillian (44). Gillian and her husband Robert farm 550 acres just outside of Lifford, Co Donegal and milk a herd of 280 Friesian cows. The morning’s milking session was almost over, and we popped into the dairy parlour to watch as Robert was finishing off, radio playing in the background.
Gillian’s a woman with dairying in her DNA, as she was raised on a dairy farm with two brothers, both of whom run their own dairy farms nearby in Castlefinn. The Porter family ran Millburn Dairies, a large milk-production and distribution operation for 30 years, before eventually deciding to sell to Donegal Creameries in 2005. Being part of that business Gillian has put her hand to a multitude of tasks, even jumping in a milk tanker to collect milk if a driver was out sick.
She attended agricultural college in both Tipperary and Antrim “if my brothers went, I was going too” and did a follow up course in Food Production. When Millburn Diaries became part of Donegal Creameries, Gillian went with it for a period of 5 years, to the office headquarters to help with its amalgamation as she knew the business inside out. However the itch to get back to cattle, drew her back to the farm. She and her husband have a symbiotic farming relationship, Robert looking after the cows and the milking, with Gillian rearing the calves and bringing them on, while also managing the farm’s paperwork and quality standards – this aspect she does, not only for their farm, but also for her two brothers’ businesses as well.
I jested that I guessed she couldn’t be following too many Netflix series then, and she admitted no. However, she does enjoy running, having taken it up in 2015 when the kids’ school started a Couch to 5K. She took to running like the proverbial duck to water, and went on to complete the Dublin Marathon the following year. She’s a fair number of such races under her belt to-date, and had run a half-marathon just the week previous. Heading off two evenings a week to meet up with a group of other women, completely clears her head from work and she enjoys the social aspect of being among women working in other sectors.
Another area of interest for her is wood carving – something that started at secondary school where she created a beautiful carved rocking horse from tulip wood for a project. She’s had a few commissions to make more since then, and it’s something she’d like to find time for again, now the family is older.
The couple have help on the farm through the week, but at the weekends they manage themselves with the help of their two teenage children, both of whom enjoy being involved also.
Ballybogan had 250 cows calf in the period August to May. Gillian’s routine is to feed the calves twice a day. Although largely automated, there’s still a lot of checking and refilling to do, and handfeeding of newborns (with their mothers’ milk) for the first couple of days. I notice heat lamps in one of the pens, and one or two calves with coats on. Gillian explained that if a calf was poorly, they would’ve used heat lamps, but find now placing a jacket on a chilled animal helps enormously and reduces the need for any medication. At around two years 60 or so young females are ready to join the milking herd, with the male stock being reared on for beef production.
We touched on the subject of Brexit, particularly as Ballybogan Farm looks across the River Finn to Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland. I asked Gillian did she think Brexit would have a big impact on her counterparts in the North. She imagined so, as EU grant aid is an integral part to this sector and helps them to improve the quality of the farm overall, and adapt and implement new technologies. As she puts it “we’re simply custodians of the land here – in time it will pass on someone else – we work it and look after it for now”.
I asked Gillian about how she felt she was viewed by others, as woman in farming, and she felt comfortable with it, as she felt she’d proved her capabilities years ago. I wondered about networks for women involved in farming, but there didn’t seem to be anything active of that sort at present. That said however, Gillian finds she already has her farm network from within her own family circle with her brother and uncles – they’d talk and seek each other’s advice on issues they might encounter and see what’s worked for each other.
This is a strong, intelligent woman with a passion for dairying. “It’s what I’ve always known, it’s part of me. I love being out on the farm.”
Louise: A change of direction led her into a farm business
Ballyholey Farm Shop was my next port of call, and as it happened I arrived here on a Monday, the first day of the new Farm Shop. The Graham’s had spent that weekend relocating from the original unit on the farm to a newly constructed wooden chalet type building, which had been beautifully shelved by local craftsman Jonathan Gillen. The shop is packed with all kinds of veg, baked goods, artisan products of all descriptions – the most of which is produced within Co Donegal itself.
I was met by Louise (42) who, in a spells between customers, gave me a short tour. It’s her brother John’s business and he’d taken over the farm from their dad around 20 years ago, and placed the emphasis on the production of vegetables. The first farm shop opened in 2014, with by then all different types of vegetables being produced. John then set up a Farmers Market in Letterkenny in 2015, bringing in a butcher, baker and fish monger, and they also offer pre-prepared meals.
The shop here at Ballyholey is located just off the N14, the national primary road from Lifford to Letterkenny road, and it was obvious from the number of customers dropping in in the duration of my time there, that the level of interest in buying direct from the farm is very good. Behind the shop, lie large polytunnels with young plants, herbs and salad vegetables, and the farm has its own flock of hens producing free range eggs for sale in the shop. At the end of July there’s also the novelty for customers to get their wellies on and come and “dig your dinner”! The family farm 125 acres and employ 3 full-time staff and a also a few part-time.
On chatting with Louise, I’m surprised to hear that she’s a relatively new addition to the family business. Previously a financial advisor for 14 years, when Covid hit early last year, she was left without work. Unable to be idle, she began helping John on the farm. He was experiencing his own problems at the time, as the shop was shut and he needed to get an outlet for his produce. Although there was a webpage for the shop before, it wasn’t great, and between them they built a new website and added a shopping facility to it, all within a 2-day period. “Needs must” as they say! This meant their regular customers could continue to order for produce, which was boxed up and ready for their collection. At the same time, they were doing a similar service for the Farmer’s Market and these boxes included the fresh meats and artisan-baked breads of the other producers.
Louise began to see an emerging role for herself within the business, as a support that John could rely on, someone to run the shop for him and oversee this end of the business. With her input, the decision was made to construct a larger shop on the premises, and she was able to offer tasteful suggestions about its finished look. Having had a break from the financial world, Louise decided not to return when that sector reopened. “The challenge in the past year has definitely been the mental health aspect of being left out of work due to this pandemic, and trying to remain focused and positive though it all. But thankfully I’ve found something that fits with everything I enjoy. I love being out in the open air more, rather than being couped up at a desk or on the road travelling between clients – I much prefer what I’m doing here now”. She adds “And I’m really proud of how my entire family adapt to every challenge that’s been thrown at them. It’s great seeing my parents visiting the Farm Shop when they’ve put their life’s work into the farm. Now they can see even their grandkids showing an interest – it’s really lovely.”
Farming’s not exactly new to Louise as she’s had her own chickens and ducks for years, and has two pet turkeys and has been growing some vegetable and herbs at home too, which she shares with her two sons. The shift from financial services to the farm obviously wasn’t something that was planned at any stage, though Louise admits that “having grown up on the farm, there’s always that connection you have with home, so it’s been an easy enough transition. Change doesn’t always have to be bad, and hopefully many other people will feel the same, if for any reason they can’t go back to their previous jobs”. Louise’s icing on the cake is “Here every day, every season is different, and do you know, I feel 10 years younger.”
Eimer: The school going farmer
A student at secondary school at Mulroy College Milford, about to go into her final year there, Eimer Gallagher (17) has shown a strong interest in farming and been helping her Uncle Paul on his farm at Dunmore, Kerrykeel, since she was about 10 or 11. Paul farms land here and also at 2 other locations and keeps around 90 head of beef cattle (mostly Limousin/ Charolais cross) and roughly 40 or sheep, while her dad Joe works for the Department of Agriculture and also farms part-time.
Eimer lives at home on the family farm with her parents and 2 sisters. She tells me she got her first bull calf at age 10, her second when she was 13 and her first cow when she was 14. That first cow has since produced 3 calves for her. One of her best experiences was waiting on her cow to calf, and being brought home from school for to be part of it. Having her own animal from the outset was the draw for her. She likes being outdoors and working on the farm, and being around the animals. When asked what she’s got satisfaction from she replies “I especially liked doing a lot of the lambing this season, taking turns with Dad on the night shifts and being there when he was at work”.
She enjoys the constructive aspect of work on the farm as well eg. fencing, drainage etc. At home she recently constructed her own red-bricked fire pit at home for evenings outdoors.
Away from farming, Eimer likes clothes, and make up (as most other young woman her age), though it didn’t cost her a thought to calf a cow, after just having arrived home from getting her nails re-done! She does like to keep busy! During the holiday season, she’s employed to carry out housekeeping duties at a nearby hotel, and if she’s not there, she’s often working for her uncle James who runs a construction business. She also says she got a lot out of her Transition Year work experience with the local vet’s.
I asked her about how she felt she was viewed by others in the farming community. She says the younger ones are fine, you get total acceptance. The older ones can be a little surprised to see her operating farm machinery, but she’s mostly found them encouraging, and if they offer to help her she hasn’t seen that as a put down but rather just plain courtesy.
When asked about what she intends to do after school, Eimer says she interested in a Sustainable Agriculture course being offered by Ballyhaise Agricultural College, as it a topic becoming more and more important to farmers.
Rachel: The newly introduced sheep breed PRO
As I was searching for more farmers to interview, one young farmer came onto my radar, quite eager to be included. Rachel Gallagher (18) from Croaghross Farm, Portsalon is the PRO of the newly formed Irish Dutch Spotted Sheep Association. Rachel is a passionate advocate of these unusual looking sheep. “The breed is becoming more and more popular every year. This is because of their placidness, their quick thriving rates and ease of lambing. They are quickly up and sucking all by themselves which is a great bonus for commercial farmers. Rachel’s own flock of Spotties includes a prize ram (imported from the UK), 10 pedigree ewes and 16 lambs.
The family farm around 200 acres and have 250 ewes (commercial-type, Milfords and now also some pedigree Dutch Spotties) and a herd of 50 suckler cows. Rachel farms alongside her dad Tony on a part-time capacity, whilst also studying for an Degree in Agriculture at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology. She lives at home with her parents, brother and sister.
She’s always had an interest in farming, and from an early photograph it’s clear even as a toddler she enjoyed being out in the fields with her dad. One thing she takes great enjoyment from is training her sheepdog Fly to work with the sheep, and I was able to watch him in action moving a flock of the Commercials into a pen to be looked over. Another area of enjoyment is selling her lambs each year and seeing them do well for the people who buy them.
Rachel and Tony have exhibited their Milfords at their local shows and have been very successful over the years, picking up champion and reserve champion wins. She hopes to mirror this success with her newly established Dutch Spotted flock when agricultural shows return. “I was hoping to start showing my Spotties last year and this year. But with Covid-19, there have been no shows so far.” She intends to get to shows and sales again to raise her flock’s profile and the breed’s association have a date for a premier sale in Carrick-on-Shannon in August.
Rachel says she’s been going to marts since I was very young, and is treated the same as male farmers for most of the time. She admits though that occasionally an older farmer, interested in some sheep, might talk over her head to her father. Her dad in turn would have to laugh and say “You’ll have to talk to Rachel, they’re her’s”.
Outside of farming, Rachel enjoys riding her 12 year old mare Tilly and jumping cross country. Her first year at college has gone well, and she hopes for her 6-month placement in second year that she can travel to a sheep farm in New Zealand for the experience she could gain there.
She recognises that she may need to supplement a farming income, and thinks possibly agri-sales would suit her as “I’m good with people” and she is that.
Corina: Growing confidence in dairying
Ballyelly Farm, Ramelton is home to Corina Lockhart (18), where she lives with her mum and grandparents. Corina left school last year, not having gotten the points she wanted to get into veterinary nursing. Disheartened and at home, she busied herself by talking on more of the milking duties on her uncle’s pedigree Holstein farm. Her confidence took a bit of a bruising, but working daily with the cows shows a competence in this young woman and a growing confidence that’s not seen initially. In the milking parlour, she transforms – I watch her as she knows exactly what she’s about and works with a quiet , skillful efficiency. The farm has a dairy herd of 170 cows, with 20 or so being replaced each year.
She follows a number of other young female farmers online, and also enjoys Tik Toks and make up and such. She acknowledges that social media has a negative side to it too, with a minority out there who want to bring you down, but has learnt to do her own thing regardless.
Corina tells me she finds farming rewarding and is learning a lot from her uncle. She gets a sense of satisfaction from seeing jobs done well and gets stuck in in all areas, such as cleaning out the cow sheds. She feels women are underestimated in this sector, and gives an example of the surprise from a man with a farm delivery at seeing her drive and handle the forklift with ease. She intends to take a course at agricultural college in the autumn– either Ballyhaise or Greenmount – and sees her future work being based around animals.
There appears to be a path made by woman farmers such as Gillian, who strode their own path regardless in the nineties and noughties. Rachel’s mother Wendy had remarked that back when she was Rachel’s age it was rare to see girls involved to this level on the farm, but nowadays you see many more attending the marts and doing their thing, and acknowledged that this was a good thing.
Although networks were previously set up for women farmers, there wasn’t much of an uptake, but perhaps now would be a better time to reactivate these, particularly with dedicated groups on social media and Zoom meetings now commonplace, but it would need skilful development.
Another area that needs addressing, in terms of equality, is the tradition of farms being passed on to sons over daughters– surely this is an area that warrants wider discussion at this stage, as Ireland’s society has changed so much in these last 25 years.