‘The family farm has to be recognised and protected’

The new county chairperson of Tipperary South Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Erica O’Keefe, has urged both women farming alone and those working on family farms to make their voices heard by getting involved in the organisation.

At the helm of a suckler and sheep enterprise, she also breeds horses.

O’Keefe took over the running of the family farm in 2005, having been working alongside her late father, Michael, since she left school at 16.

‘No disadvantage to being a woman in farming’

She said: “I have two sisters and a brother, and we all helped out on the home farm, and my siblings still help out.

“I had always been interested in working with animals and farming. I went to boarding school, and helped out in any spare time I had.

“After leaving school, I always went to the sheep mart in Cashel on Tuesdays, and there were always a lot of female farmers in the area – I never found any disadvantages to being a woman in farming.”

As her father had always been involved in the local IFA branch, it was a natural progression for O’Keefe to start attending south executive meetings in Cahir around five years ago.

“Three years ago I was approached and asked to represent south Tipperary on the sheep committee. I was elected county chairperson after being asked to put my name forward while I was attending a Skillnets course in Athlone.”

‘The backbone of family farms’

While IFA and farming in general have been male-dominated in the past, she sees a significant change in recent times.

There is still room for further participation she said, commenting: “I would like to see more women in south Tipperary – and nationally – getting involved in IFA.

“There are women in discussion groups but I would like to see more women going to IFA meetings.

“There is a good number of women farming on their own and also a lot of women are the backbone of family farms.

‘Must be protected’

“There is a lot of work done by women in the background – such as with lambs, calves and paperwork. They provide fantastic back-up during the busy season.

The family farm has to be recognised and protected. If we don’t have people farming the land, rural Ireland in general will suffer – farming keeps money in the area.

Succession is a major issue for Irish farm families.

O’Keefe said: “Farming is a nice way of life but it’s not just the traditional family farm any more. It has to be classed as a business. You have to try and make a living out of it.”

Farming can also be “tough going” and isolating, she said. “It can be a lonely life – that’s why people need to get out and meet others in organisations and groups.”