‘Poor recognition for farm team effort translates to board level’

Farms are rarely run by one individual but rather a team, yet this is rarely reflected through media or names on herd numbers and often explains the lack of female representation at board level, according to Roberta McDonald, who chairs Ceres, the women in agri-business network.

“Within the industry, recent surveys have shown greater success for achieving gender balance in the public sector than in private business,” said Roberta, who is a sustainability solutions lead at Devenish.

“Food businesses in Ireland perform poorly in comparison to other sectors for achieving gender balance at early or mid-management and executive positions.

“While they perform better at CEO level, the figures are still less than 10%. Increasingly we see having a strong gender balance within a company demonstrates good business and dynamic decision-making,” said Roberta.

‘All the more appealing’

The issue of the dearth of female representation at board level has been consistently highlighted by Ceres.

Roberta comes from a farming background although not in the usual sense of farm ownership. “My dad is a farm manager and we were based in his home county in Wexford before moving to Offaly over 20 years ago,” she said.

“My parents, Ciaran and Teresa, currently manage a Dutch-owned dairy farm in Co. Offaly.

“Bellair farm is originally an estate surrounded by the Bog of Allen, which milks over 350 cows in the midst of patches of native woodland, stonewalls and scenic hills,” said Roberta, who is a board member of Nuffield Ireland; founding member of the Ceres Network; and council member of the Agricultural Science Association (ASA).

“Growing up, myself and my brother and sister were always involved on the farm, and seeing how passionate our parents were about it made it all the more appealing,” she said.


“Thanks to an inspirational ag science teacher and aspiration to do something I was passionate about, I went on to University College Dublin (UCD) to do an animal science degree.

“During my four years, I opted to do an extra summer of work experience in second year and went to Teagasc Moorepark, working on the trials with a PhD student and supervisor Dr. Brendan Horan,” said the Ceres chair.

In the run-up to my final year, I applied for a PhD that was fairly unique at the time, looking at both the financial and social implications of setting up a new dairy farm in Ireland under the new entrants scheme.

“This was different as it mixed usual disciplines of farm management with topics like adult learning and behaviour change. Doing a PhD like this completely changed the way I look at farming and people, and thanks to my supervisors, helped me acquire the skills I needed to take on a new challenge,” said Roberta.

Following on from her time in Moorepark, she went to work in the west with Aurivo co-op.

“After only my second time travelling to Sligo I moved there to work for over five years. John Daly, my manager at the time, was extremely encouraging, and trusted me to create and manage a new farm profitability programme for the region,” said the board member of Nuffield Ireland.

Behaviour change

“Taking my learnings from Moorepark, I was determined to make farmers the centrepoint of what we created and so asking people what they wanted to support their farm profitability and making them the focal point for key messages helped create a different approach to behaviour change that is still being continued today,” Roberta said.

“During my time in Aurivo, I was lucky enough to get a Nuffield scholarship and travel to several countries in the world looking at farm development programmes. I had come from a dairy farm, studied dairy farming and worked in the dairy industry with little interaction with other sectors outside of college.

Nuffield for me was eye-opening. By interacting with people from across the world, whether a prawn fisherman in Indonesia, a rice grower in Japan, or a sugarcane farmer in Australia, I was exposed to a whole new way of thinking.

“After writing up my report and making my presentation I was struck by these learnings long after my travels and the fact that what we do as food producers has an enormous impact on our communities, fellow citizens and the environment.

“I approached Aurivo about moving into a position in sustainability and eventually started the role as sustainability manager where I created a strategy for the business and its supply chain in sustainability,” said the Nuffield Ireland board member.

Major turning point

“Learning from other people in the industry and being exposed to this new world had been a major turning point for me, and one I’m delighted to have pursued, particularly as telling our story and taking action to improve it has become more important in recent years,” said Roberta.

Last year, she started a new role with Devenish as sustainable solutions lead, looking at ways to support sustainability in the industry that ultimately lead to a sustainable living for the farmer but that can also enable the industry to tell an evidence-based story of what they achieved in producing food sustainably.

“People would be my key priority. Promoting the awareness that people learn differently and take up information in many ways – not just farmers – as opposed to a silver bullet, top down approach is a continuous discussion.

In my opinion, the only way to support behaviour change when it comes to sustainability, is to involve the people it impacts most, the farmers. It is important to acknowledge that people learn differently and a top down approach does not always connect with those who we need to connect with most.

“My hopes are to empower people with tools to tell their own stories of sustainability that can progress over time. I am a strong believer in promoting diverse-thinking and learning whenever I can.

“Bringing people together who have different backgrounds, gender or experience can yield very powerful results, as many global studies have already shown. This is no different within farming and our industry,” said the Ceres chair.

The agri-food industry contributes to the life blood of rural Ireland and without its success local businesses and services will struggle.

“However, there has been a lot of negative press of late about prices, diets and climate which has disempowered many people. I am confident however that these are challenges that we can overcome, particularly if we can work together as an industry,” she said.

Work together

“The power of an individual when they work together with others can have a strong impact, for example, farmers creating co-operatives. There exists in Ireland a strong, passionate and committed agri-food industry currently addressing the challenges posed by climate change in many ways.

“Being a part of developing solutions with Devenish Lands at Dowth and an inspiring team turns these challenges into opportunities for the industry,” said the Nuffield Ireland board member.

“My main goal for the future, both within the Ceres Network and my broader career, is to always have purpose in what I do.

“I want to continue to work in a way that will have a positive impact on people’s lives, be that through advancing the sustainability agenda of the industry in my current role in Devenish or through providing networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities aimed at promoting gender balance in the agri-food industry through Ceres,” she said.

“Throughout my career so far, other people have given their time to mentor and support me which has made a difference to how I view things and given me confidence to question, challenge and create. In being a part of Ceres, it is taking this a step further by empowering people to develop in their own career or make changes for the better for those who follow in our footsteps,” Roberta said.

In the next 18 months in Ceres, we plan to host further business breakfast and workshop focused events to continue to support the individual to help themselves.

“Our aim is also to continue to support change in the wider industry through showcasing the depth of knowledge and expertise that exists already within the industry and provide a platform to encourage more balance in a event panel discussions, within companies and at board level.”