Women in agriculture

Friday, 22 November, 2019

Commodity watch by UFU legislation & rural affairs policy officer, Lorraine McKnight

On Friday 15th November 2019 the Ulster Farmers’ Union held its first Women in Agriculture conference, designed to recognise and celebrate the role women play in our agri-food industry.  As was evident at last week’s conference, there is no doubt that women play a major role in Northern Irish agriculture participating in a wide range of farming activities.  In 2018 the Office for National Statistics reported that 17 per cent of farmers employed in the United Kingdom are now female, an increase of 10 per cent since 2008.

At present, women are underrepresented amongst the leadership teams of many agricultural organisations. This is mainly because women are busy juggling other commitments such as family responsibilities, running a home, off farm employment and volunteer work, but in 2018 the National Famers’ Union of England (NFU) elected its first female president in the organisation’s 110-year history. 

NFU president Minette Batters, is a beef farmer from Wiltshire and has been encouraged in recent years by the increasing number of female students opting to study agricultural related courses at universities and college throughout the UK.  Across the globe, agriculture is becoming much more feminising with women becoming increasingly involved in all kinds of agricultural employment.  In sub Saharan Africa, women make up more than 50 per cent of farmers and ongoing conflicts have accelerated the entry of women into agriculture as men leave home to join their country’s armed forces. 

More and more men are also choosing to emigrate to urban areas in search of employment and the growth of Saharan Africa’s female population, has aided the process of entry to agriculture for many women.  This is a trend which the World Bank has recognised is not confined to Africa with parts of Asia and Latin America following suit, due mainly to diseases such as Aids, climate change and advances in technological innovations, with the need for muscular strength now almost redundant. 

The World Bank has however, reported that female farmers are often significantly disadvantaged working in agriculture when compared to their male counterparts as quite often they have less access to finance and fewer opportunities to improve their technical skills.  This is an issue which industry leaders and politicians alike, should aim to address in order to avoid a gender gap developing in the industry, and to help break down the stigma that can exist when women are considering forging a career in agriculture.

During October 2018, Dutch dairy farmer Willemien Koning-Hoeve, highlighted the need to empower female farmers in developing countries with the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. Most notable was the idea that less than 20 per cent of the land in these countries is under the ownership of women.  This leaves many women in the compromising position that if they did outlive their husband or partner, they could potentially be left with no source of income. 

Ms Koning-Hoeve also citied issues such as gender stereotyping, lack of time and the traditional idea that woman are engaged much more heavily in domestic duties than their male counterparts. These issues all impact heavily upon the ability of women to not only enter the industry, but also their ability to manage their farms effectively.  United Nations agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), are trying to change perceptions towards women holding active roles in agriculture and have been active particularly in African countries, in ensuring that women are also named on any title documents relating to the ownership of land. This is to allow women to continue to retain access to the land on which she has grown food to feed herself and her family, if she is unfortunate to be widowed, divorced or abandoned. 

The IFAD have also worked closely with African families to help break down barriers which traditionally prevented families from jointly making decisions in terms of increasing the family’s prosperity from the land on which they live and work. This has allowed women to enjoy greater levels of freedom, have more decision-making power and an increased income.  The IFAD have identified the need for this process to be practised right across Africa if the agricultural industry is to survive in order to feed its growing population.

One of the biggest barriers preventing more women from entering the industry in Northern Ireland, is the practice of the family farm being passed down to the oldest son.  This is a tradition which is still prevalently practised in Northern Ireland, but it is a tradition which should be challenged according to Newcastle University.  In England when the laws of inheritance were challenged, this allowed more women to take on a more prominent role within agriculture and enabled them to participate in a full range of farming activities. With access to vocational and practical training for women entering agriculture beginning to increase, this will go a long way to attracting more females into the industry. However, training needs to be not only hands on, but also flexible in order to accommodate childcare commitments. This also highlights the need for local government to ensure that farm diversification opportunities are widespread and varied.  Financial incentives which would encourage the purchase of equipment suitable for use by females in agriculture and increased and more easily accessible childcare, are also necessary. 

The Scottish government have established a taskforce made up of industry leaders, politicians and female farmers, and this Taskforce aims to ensure that gender equality is practised across all sectors of Scottish agriculture.  Research carried out in Scotland has shown that the need for women to involve themselves in agricultural duties is paramount if the industry is to remain both competitive and sustainable for future generations. Northern Ireland is undoubtedly behind Scotland in terms of helping to aid the passage of women into agriculture and in order to move this concept forward, a need does exist for further research to be conducted which could potentially act as a catalyst for the establishment of a similar taskforce in Northern Ireland.