Growing up in Shanahoe, Co. Laois, Sally Shortall got a good insight into women’s contribution to farming.

“My mother, Teresa, was widowed young – my dad died when she was 39 – and she took over the running of the farm.

I remember people asking her if the boss was home. That was in 1974, and the marriage bar was only lifted in 1973. She is a strong woman.

Speaking to AgriLand, Prof. Shortall – a noted academic, currently based at Newcastle University went on to highlight the contribution of women in farming.

She will also expand on such issues when she addresses the next meeting of the South East Women in Farming group at the Woodford Dolmen Hotel, Carlow, on Tuesday, August 7, at 7:30pm.

Her current title is the Duke of Northumberland chairperson of Rural Economy. Her professorship is based within the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University.

Her brothers both farm in Laois.

John, her oldest brother, inherited his father’s tillage, beef and sheep home farm in Luggacurran, while Charles took over the Shortall tillage and beef farm at Shanahoe.

She initially studied social science at UCC and worked as a youth community worker. She went on to do a PhD on women in farming – interviewing women in north Laois and Carlow as part of her research.

Recognised labour

“I was interested in establishing why the labour of farming wives – who were so dedicated to farming – was not being recognised?” said Prof. Shortall who then went to Canada, where she did a lot of work with the Canadian Farm Women’s Network.

Before she went to Canada she worked at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) while finishing her PhD. On her return, she worked with the National Economic and Social Council (NESC).

In October 2016, the academic moved to Newcastle University to strengthen its expertise in agriculture and the rural economy.

Wealth of research

It has been a highly successful career to date for Prof. Shortall, who is also the president of the European Society for Rural Sociology.

She has carried out a wealth of research on agriculture, food, rural development, governance, and stakeholder engagement – both nationally and internationally.

In addition to this the Laois native has: conducted research for the United Nations; the European Parliament; the OECD; and has led a research project on women in agriculture for the Scottish Government.

A task force co-chaired by Minister Fergus Ewing and Joyce Campbell, a prize-winning sheep farmer, has been set up to implement its recommendations.

We are working away on implementing the recommendations. We meet once a month and have sub-groups working on the different themes. It really is a delight to have someone commission research and want it implemented.

She is involved in a programme with the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute in Northern Ireland investigating ‘rural proofing’ and how it can be achieved. She is an external examiner for Trinity College Dublin and is involved in a major research project application with Teagasc.

Slow change

Prof. Shortall also has a paper in the Journal of Irish Geography which highlights that Irish farms are still inherited by sons; while wives’ off-farm jobs may be key to business survival.

The paper examines how attitudes to gender are changing – but often slowly – in Irish agriculture.

My PhD notes show how women in the past often referred to their husbands as ‘the bossmen’. There is more awareness since then; but in general women are still not inheriting farms.

“For my research on women in farming in Scotland, I interviewed one woman who was the eldest of four girls and who wanted to farm.

Norway way

Her brother was born when she was 13 years of age and she knew that was it – he would be taking over the farm.

Now she and her husband are working as new entrants into farming, renting land. She cites Norway as an example of what can be done.

Norway wanted to increase the number of women in agriculture and introduced the Allodial Law in 1974 which makes the eldest child the legal heir.

“Ireland has a very strong cultural tradition of men in farming and farming is very much tied up with masculinity and passing land on from father to son.

“Ireland and Scotland are similar in that, with the biggest difference being that Irish farms are smaller.

“Otherwise, all the same issues apply – including access to credit and the perception of women in farming organisations,” she said.

Policy change

Policy is required to change the situation, Prof. Shortall said. “We need a direction – there needs to be incentives to make people think differently.”

The mother of 20-year-old twin boys, she returns to Northern Ireland and Laois regularly. Her mother still lives on the family farm in Shanahoe.