Thia Hennessy is a member of a number of national and international associations which examine issues such as the economic performance of farms, the sustainability of food production and the impact of climate change on agriculture. She is the current Professor of Agri-Food Economics at UCC and Dean of Cork University Business School.
Coming from a dairy farm in Co Cork, Thia always had an interest in agriculture and farming. Her first degree was a BA in economics and finance at Maynooth University. Following that, Thia went on to do a Masters in agri-food business at UCD. She explains, “I was going on to do a general business masters, but, at the time, there was one in UCD where you could specialise in agri-food business.”
Professor Seamus Sheehy, a lecturer at UCD (who sadly died in 2018), had an impact on Thia’s education. She describes him as “a real legend at that time; he was a very stimulating lecturer [and] I became very interested in agricultural policy at that stage.”After graduating, Thia went on to work for Teagasc while undertaking a part-time PhD in Agricultural Economics in the University of Reading.
Transforming the national farm survey
Prior to joining UCC in September 2016, Thia worked for Teagasc where she managed their agricultural and environmental economic research programme. In this role, she was also responsible for the Teagasc National Farm survey. She explains that the Farm Survey is the official source of statistics for farming in Ireland. It provides data to the CSO and its European equivalent and has been in existence since Ireland first joined the European Economic Community (EEC, now the EU) in 1974.
Thia says when she first took over the project, it was mainly focused around the economic situation of farming.
“We could see the environmental issues coming down the line and the need to report on climate change,” she tells Irish Country Living. During her time in this role, Thia shifted emphasis of the survey to collect data other than just that associated with finance and economics. It was equally important to measure the sustainability of farming at that time.
“[This data is] very important, now, in informing the whole debate around farming and agriculture in Ireland,” she says.
Having published numerous academic papers, Thia’s research interests include sustainable development within the agri-food sector - with a particular interest in the impact of public policy on the farm sector.
The most topical global issues facing the food sector at the moment, according to Thia, are climate change, food price inflation and the impact of the war in Ukraine on supply chains.
Over the last 12 months, her main focus has been on chairing the food vision committee for beef and sheep. She describes it as “identifying a strategy for the beef sector to meet the climate change targets that are set out in the national climate action plan.”
What that involves is reviewing research conducted by other people.
“[We’re] looking at what measures could contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of the beef sector and what measures would have the least cost and the most benefit. [We’re] identifying those
Finding the work-life balance
With three children aged 13, 11 and 9, Thia admits, “It is busy.”
“The [kids] have a lot of hobbies and activities, there is a lot of time in the evenings and weekends spent going to training and matches,” she says. “It’s about being part of a team at home and at work, I have great colleagues that I rely on for a lot of things. I suppose you need all of that support.”
Women in Agriculture
Although the official status of women in agriculture is improving, Thia emphasises the sector is still quite male-dominated. Being on the board of directors for Teagasc, she says the company, “is very aware of what needs to be done and is proactive in promoting opportunities for women and having policies targeted towards gender equality.” She adds, “as a sector, we are still a good bit behind other sectors and have more to do, but it is very positive that people are acknowledging it.”
As the Dean of Cork University Business School at UCC, with 4,000 students and 200 staff, she says she still sees “pockets of study” which continue to either be male or female-dominated.
“It’s something that goes right across business sectors. We have a number of scholarships targeted specifically at female students. We are members and supporters of the 30% Club, which strives to get 30% of board positions occupied by women.”
Although more people are aware of gender inequalities now, Thia highlights: “I would still be very much about having a merit-based approach to everything we do. I hate being asked to do things because people need a woman for a panel or in a picture. I hate being asked because I am the token women, which happens often, because they want to get the balance.”
Dean of Cork University Business School
Thia was involved in establishing the first agricultural science programme at UCC, where the first cohort of students are now in their final year. She says it was a very proud achievement for the university. “There hadn’t been an agricultural science degree in the history of UCC, which was a real gap given that we’re in the centre of the agricultural area of the country.”
Advice for students
The opportunities for graduates are plentiful at the moment. Thia says that when she meets those trying to recruit graduates it’s “an absolute race” for talent.
“It’s a very lucky time to be graduating,” she says. “Remote working has opened up so many opportunities for people in terms of where they work and live.”
She advises students to find what they love, and pursue it, “?the next generation seems to be interested in working for companies that make an impact beyond generating a profit.” Thia also believes data-driven roles will be in demand in the future.
“There is a lot of research being done about how the future of work is changing due to the rise of artificial intelligence - a lot of jobs are becoming automated,” she explains. “There is huge demand for people who have a data analytics element to their [education]; allowing them to make data-informed decisions.”