Farming women urged to be ‘proactive in pushing forward’

The incoming chairperson of north Tipperary Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Imelda Walsh, has urged women in farming to be more proactive and to push forward when it comes to involvement in farming organisations.

Having been secretary of north Tipperary IFA for the past four years, the Ballywilliam woman will take over the chair from Tim Cullinan. Nominations for the position closed on December 5, and she was the only candidate nominated.

The lack of female participation in the IFA and across all farming organisations has come in for criticism in the past, with debate sparking ripples of controversy. Walsh contends that women need to take ownership of the issue and push themselves to the forefront. “It is not the case that farming organisations don’t want women,” she said.

Mary Twomey-Casey from Cork and Joan Fitzpatrick from Kilkenny were previous county chairs, and other women have expressed an interest in taking on roles within the IFA in the near future, she said.

Running a 200ac. dairy enterprise outside Nenagh with her husband Tom, she has been active in farming throughout their 31-year marriage.

I didn’t come from a farming background but I was young – 21 – when we married and from the word go, I was interested. We got married in November, and the cows started calving in January, so it was a case of rolling up my sleeves. I wanted to do it.

“We work together as a farm business. To me, if you are interested, it’s not a job of work. I love it and have been an integral part of the running of the business over the years. Tom’s mother, Breda, was also an important part of the farm. She was out milking as well as rearing a big family, with her husband, Mick.”

As a female farmer, she has never had an issue with other farmers, sales reps or contractors, she said. “Nobody has said: ‘Is the boss here?’ Likewise, with North Tipperary IFA, I have never had a problem. I was approached by Mattie Butler – who was completing his term as honorary president of North Tipperary IFA at the time – and asked if I would consider becoming secretary, and I immediately said yes.

“The IFA has been a male-dominated organisation up to now but I was never treated any differently to my male counterparts. It is the same at IFA meetings in Dublin, I have always been treated the very same as the male members,” she said.

Women can be slow in putting themselves forward. They bring a different perspective to things. Perhaps it is our own fault. I don’t think it is fair to blame the farming organisations as I have never been treated any differently to any of the lads. I never felt awkward in a male-dominated situation.”

Women who are farming on their own or in partnership with their husbands play an integral part in their farms, and women who work off-farm contribute a huge value to the business, she said. “Collectively we are working together to grow our businesses. Perhaps we should put ourselves to the forefront; get out more and go to meetings.”

Trailblazers in agri business, she said, include Tara McCarthy, CEO, Bord Bia; Siobhan Talbot, CEO of Glanbia; and Fiona Muldoon, CEO of FBD.

Looking at the bigger picture, farm incomes are, she said, a key concern. “As primary producers, it’s only fair that we should expect a fair income. The uncertainty around the renegotiation of the CAP budget and the finer points of Brexit, are important issues. With the UK – a major contributor to the CAP budget – leaving the EU, that will have to be addressed as we cannot allow the CAP budget to be cut, in particular for beef farmers.”

The IFA is also looking at the situation of tillage farmers with grave concern, she said. “A job of work needs to be done in relation to saving the tillage industry. I am confident that IFA will work together as a team from the grassroots up to take these issues to council.

“We will work collectively for the betterment of all farmers to make sure all have a viable living. There is a huge range of farming enterprises out there now and all farm families deserve a decent living for the work they put in.”

The dairy industry is currently enjoying a good year but Walsh said she is hugely concerned about volatility in the sector. “Most of 2016 was quite bad, and butter is slipping. Other countries are increasing their production, and it’s a case of supply and demand, as in all markets. It is something that needs to be watched.”

Department of Agriculture inspections have been a concern for North Tipperary IFA in the past, and Walsh sees the matter as affecting farmers throughout the country. She contends that a yellow card system should be introduced before the imposition of a penalty in the case of a minor breach, and welcomes the review of the process.

With non-compliance often resulting in Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) penalties, fear of inspections can be a cause of stress on farmers and need to be done in a more farmer-friendly way.

“It needs to be a case of the department and farmers working together. I’m sure the department will take on board the issues raised during the review process,” she said.

Working under time constraints and weather variations can also weigh heavily on farmers, Walsh said.

The couple have two adult children: Thomas who is teaching in Kildare, and helps out at weekends and during school holidays, and who has expressed a keen interest in taking over the family farm; and Louise, who works with Banaghan & Co, Nenagh.

Looking to the future of Irish farming, Walsh is upbeat. “The population of the world is growing and Irish food and Irish farming, with its grass-based system, has a fantastic image abroad – more than we appreciate.

“We stand out for our sustainability and work in reducing carbon footprint. Ireland can be one of the leaders in feeding the world. I would be very optimistic in relation to farming going forward.”

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