Mairead Lavery, editor Irish Country Living, Mairead McGuinness MEP, Katherine O’Leary, columnist Irish Country Living pictured in Killarney at the Women in Agriculture conference.
It’s not very often that I get to address an audience of over 600 women in Ireland, or indeed elsewhere for that matter. So it was a real delight to be asked to address the Country Living “Women in Agriculture” conference held in Killarney recently.
All credit to Mairead Lavery, editor of Country Living for putting together a very interesting line up with topics ranging from mental health, obesity, farm succession planning and women and enterprise.
But the conference was much more than the sum of its constituent parts. There was a very unique energy and atmosphere at the conference – a real sense of joy and happiness, which is all too often missing from large conferences of its type.
Of course the reason why this conference worked at so many levels was down to the effort and planning put into it by the editor and staff – these successful events do not happen by accident.
I was invited to talk about my work, past and present and my strong links to farming – coming from a farming family in Co. Louth, studying agriculture, working as an agricultural journalist and now as an MEP who has worked a lot on CAP reform and other farming and food related issues.
I spoke about my role now as a vice-chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament and how I have extra responsibilities and duties as chairman of the EPP Working Group on Foreign Affairs.
To impress on the gathering the need to appreciate what we have in Ireland, despite our many problems, I spoke about the recent drowning tragedies off the coast of Italy. The island of Lampadusa was probably unknown to many Irish people until the terrible deaths of people fleeing from dire circumstances in their homeland in Africa to what they hoped would be a better life in Europe. Sadly within kilometres of their dream, their boat capsized and hundreds lost their lives. It is not a unique occurrence. Many people perish in this way, attempting to escape to a better place and losing everything in their desperate efforts.
I was struck by a story relayed to me by EU Commission President, Jos√© Manuel Barroso when he visited Lampadusa to offer his sympathies to survivors and those involved in the rescue efforts.
He talked about a woman whose name we will never know, who was giving birth at the time of the tragedy and whose baby remained attached to her by the umbilical cord when both mother and newborn child were recovered dead from the water.
What a tragic start and end to life and what an enormous problem we face as a global community in addressing the needs of so many who face terrible circumstances, due to poverty, conflict, wars, inequality and famine. To me, it is one of the greatest challenges we face and the EU is next door to countries where many of the difficulties originate.
Opening our doors to all will not solve the problems, and may indeed create more difficulties; but action to assist those countries to address their difficulties and allow their people to stay at home is part of the solution.
I also spoke about the courage of people like Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who was awarded the EU’s Sakahrov Prize for Freedom of Thought and Human Rights in 1990 but only collected in October 2013 because she was under house arrest and unable to leave her house and her country, Burma.
What struck me about this amazing woman was her determination in the face of adversity and her passionate belief in freedom and democracy – with all its imperfections.
In fact, that was the most interesting part of her speech to the European Parliament in October: her comments about our inability as human beings to create a perfect democracy because we humans are imperfect.
She spoke of the welcome challenge we face every day in picking one of our many imperfections to work on. She spoke about how the world would be a dull place without these imperfections. “There is something nice and challenging about imperfection” to quote the woman herself!
Of course I spoke about my very normal and ordinary life as a mother and farmer’s wife and how at weekends I stand in gaps….usually the wrong gap! From the reaction of the audience it was abundantly clear that all farm women have had that experience…I’ve shared many a laugh with women since the conference on this self-same subject – how to accurately interpret what’s on ‘his’ mind when he’s moving cattle and sheep….and how the hell we will ever know which gap needs to be guarded!
The conference dealt a great deal with succession planning on farms, the need for it and how to make it happen without offending anyone – sometimes an almost impossible task.
I was glad to be able to say that in our household of eight children, my parents did the succession planning so well that there was and is no dispute over the farm and how it was passed on. It is testimony to my mother, in particular, that this was and is the case. Her vision to make sure there was a smooth transition between the generations was followed up with action over a number of years. I gather that on many family farms this is the case, with women leading the debate around the kitchen table and more often or not in the marital bed trying to persuade and cajole a reluctant husband or partner to take the first steps.
The audience listened with great attention to the presentation by Cork woman Katherine O’Leary of the situation on the family farm as a son came back home to farm. Her openness was a breath of fresh air, would that such openness was more common place!
Of course it is always afterwards that the unspoken can be spoken of. The family breakdowns, rows and disputes over land, the mistrust of daughters-in-laws, the dreaded mother-in-law, the farmer who will not discuss or contemplate what is to happen when he can no longer farm. Some situations are intractable and so often lives are blighted by those closest to us who, for whatever reason, cannot and will not even talk about the situation.
The Killarney Conference will no doubt have opened up the subject for discussion in the 600 plus households who were represented there. But as one women said to me on leaving the conference….”we need another conference with 600 men in the audience to really get things going…now a there’s a thought!
My sincere thanks again to the Farmers Journal Living team and to the many women I managed to speak to afterwards. I forgot to mention so many things I wanted to say including how adversity is a great teacher, the importance of laughter and how we all share the same basic need for friendship, food, water and security and that I have found farming to provide me with all of that.
Above all my thanks to the wonderful Des Willoughby who entertained the audience and had us all singing and dancing – definitely not something I’m likely to witness at a conference in the near future. But then the Women in Farming Conference is different and long may it remain so!