Ciara Lynch looked at my seven year old – no shoes, cow poo between her out stretched toes – and they both laughed. I did not!

“We will have to power-hose you before you get back in the car.” Looking back at me, she smiled, ”She is my kindred spirit!”

The cow cubicles in the empty shed on which we sit are part of the winter accommodation at the farm she leases, just outside Slane, with her husband Peter Farrell. The shed is spotless – unlike my children – and the lady sitting beside me seems almost too elegant to have been covering the silage pit or milking cows earlier in the day. And therein lies the problem – perception of female farmers and the lack of visibility of who they are, how they work and how bloody good they are at it.

Building women’s confidence and addressing some of their own biases and concerns is something that Ciara as co-chair of Dairy Women Ireland (DWI) is working toward.

Late entrant dairy farmer

Circuitous is how you might describe Ciara’s route to dairy farming as although her grandfather was a dairy farmer, he sold up in the 1990s and milking cows skipped a generation.

“I’ve always loved working with animals and thought I was going to be a vet, but career guidance in school were like, ‘No, it’s not a great lifestyle, you should do business’ so I did business and marketing [in DCU].”

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Working on advertising campaigns from concept to pitch to being on set filming TV adverts, Ciara, in her old world, had clients in New York, Qatar and Dubai.

“It sounds really glamorous travelling to all these places. I was leading client services, which meant a lot of face to face with clients and travel, but it took an awful lot out. There was one period when I was over in the Middle East maybe two or three times within a three-month period. It just got exhausting.”

Living in Meath and travelling up and down to Sandyford meant two- or three-hour commutes. Eventually she thought, “this is just too much”.

Peter

“I met the dairy farmer and understood his lifestyle, loved his lifestyle. I’d be jealous watching him skipping over the fence to go to the yard as I’d be driving out the gate,” she says of meeting Peter.

But still loving her own marketing work and the fast progression she was achieving, Ciara’s farm involvement was limited to milking in holiday periods and giving a hand in the evenings.

The couple always had a plan that in time, she would come to work on the farm, but it was only when she “hit a wall and lost the grá for it” that a decision was made.

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“It was a lot of stress, but because I loved the business I worked in, I just couldn’t say no. They were a husband and wife team and I learned a lot from their way of doing business.”

Knowing she could not keep doing what she was doing, Peter and Ciara sat down to discuss the options on “what would it look like?”

For Peter, to enable Ciara to get on board meant growing the business. Almost four years ago, a second farm was leased and this plan became a reality. Although it was a steep learning curve for Ciara, she has also brought a whole new skillset.

New skills, old hat

Initially this was through the softer skills such as people management.

“We’ve gone from the home farm, which is very much a family-run business, to here where you’re dealing with people who aren’t family so there’s a level of professionalism that comes with that. You have to be really respectful of family time and weekends. The roster is done two months in advance so people have time to swap holidays or if someone has a match, to swap in and out.”

In terms of working together as a couple, she explains that Peter will do a lot of the strategy and financial side whereas she will do a lot of the execution.

“I will make sure that team meeting is done and weekly reminders, foot baths happen this day, the vet is coming this day, scanning, making sure that everything is set up and ready to go.”

Also responsible for standard operating procedures (SOP), she brings the eye of the person who came in asking, “how do I turn on the milking machine”.

“I can give that SOP to somebody who comes in and they can run that machine. So it’s that level of detail that I’m bringing to the business.”

The farms are run as businesses. Her experience in marketing companies taught her, “if you keep treating yourself or speaking of yourself as a small business, you will stay as a small business. Whereas if you put roles in and systems in place, you’re treating it as a bigger business and then that’s how it grows. That’s how you become an employer of choice.”

Of course Ciara recognises that the corporate environment is different to a farm and laughs telling me how she is a “list person”, holding up her pink notebook.

“I’m obsessed with lists. That was the hardest thing for me coming in, realising how fluid a day or week can be. This time of year is fine, but during the calving season, you can forget about lists or trying to sit everybody around the table to go through what the plan is for the week. The couple of weeks before calving season that’s when I’m like – checklist!”

High heels to heifers

While she credits learning much about her (new) trade from her (new) husband, who is constantly reading, she also did a lot of research herself.

“The hardest part was you don’t know what you don’t know. It was more so connecting the dots and appreciating that something that we do today has an effect on what happens in six or eight months’ time.”

Although there is negativity surrounding social media, Ciara has found Instagram incredibly helpful.

“I think you can use it for good or you can use it for bad. I have made wonderful actual friends from it that I actually meet for dinner or coffees. We chat about the calving season, what’s gone well, what hasn’t gone well, what’s up and coming in the industry, what we need to be aware of.”

Her discussion group – The Royal Tara Group – also came from the platform and serves the Louth, Meath, Westmeath and North Leinster area.

Ciara’s first experience of a discussion group event was run by her local vets. Although there were a couple of women, it was mostly young men.

“They just didn’t speak,” she remarks. “I’ve come from that background where if one person asks a question, chances are six other people in the room want to ask the question, but they’re too afraid to. I have no shame – if I don’t understand, I will ask for them to go back over it again.”

Dairy Women Ireland (DWI)

Co-chair of the recently formed Dairy Women Ireland with UCD’s Monica Gorman, Ciara explains its foundation.

“Peter and I attended a course with Lynaire Ryan and Páidí Kelly – a strategic management course – which I found so interesting. After that, Lynaire and Páidí realised that there were a lot of partners of dairy farmers who weren’t necessarily directly involved in the business, but wanted to learn a bit more.

“They approached me, explained about the Dairy Women’s Network in New Zealand and asked me would I be interested. I thought back to that time when I was starting out – when I was searching for information – and immediately said yes.”

Ciara in her past life attended a lot of women in business networking events in Dublin. She found these very beneficial and looks to DWI as providing similar support and motivation to dairy farming women.

“You can either take control of your life and go, ‘OK, what’s next?’ Or you can just go, ‘God, five years have passed and I haven’t really moved on from where I was.’ If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not growing and if you don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it for you.

“With DWI, it’s not just women coming around a table and talking about their farming problems, it’s about the tools we can provide for people to solve those problems. Part of the issue is visibility. Peter and I have five nieces. They see me milking cows and jumpstarting the jeep and covered in muck in wellies and to them that’s not unusual.

When asked about the negativity around female only groups, she said: “To be really clear, we work with our partners or husbands or wives or whatever the situation may be. This is not a man bashing exercise or us vs them- it is about giving women a voice to connect and to network and learn from each other.”

Check your privilege

Extra supports for female farmers have been introduced through CAP in the form of funding for women-only discussion groups and additional TAMs funding. However, this has not been universally welcomed by either women or men, with a discussion ensuing around the need for such additional supports.

Speaking with women, Ciara is aware of how this perception can manifest.

“People can think something isn’t really happening and will therefore turn a blind eye to it. Women in a similar position to me were not asked to join a local discussion group. One lady in particular, it was made difficult for her to get in or to get involved – there wasn’t really room for her,” she says sardonically.

“There’s absolutely no obligation to go to a ladies-only group. If you want to go [to a mixed group], knock yourself out.I just think something special happens when people feel comfortable to discuss their own issues or challenges. If you’re taking time off farm, you might have to get somebody to mind the kids or organise to have your milking shift covered. Why would you go to somewhere where you feel like you’re not welcome?

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“It’s often only when you go through something yourself that you realise there is a problem. I think that until you’ve experienced it, you can’t deny it happens. It happens in every industry. For example, I haven’t experienced direct racism, but that’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist.

“Check your privilege. If you haven’t experienced it, that is absolutely not to say somebody else hasn’t. You’re just really lucky and that’s coming from somebody who has worked in the Middle East where the men don’t even look at you and will address your male colleague as opposed to you.”

Those heels?

“Careers are like shoes. You have to try on a few pairs to find the right fit. You make this decision at 18 or 19, pick this course and you will do that for the rest of your life. That’s not what happens. It’s only when you go through it yourself, you realise loads of people actually pivot careers. It’s not a failure thing. It’s a change in direction. Ask yourself- What have I learned? How do I adapt? and then you just go for it.”

Ciara can be found Instagramming (very humorously) and positively @highheelstoheifers.

DWI can be found on twitter @DairyWomenIre and instagram @dairywomenireland

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