What to Think?: Ecofeminism and Eco-Agriculture in Ireland

By McMahon, Martha | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

What to Think?: Ecofeminism and Eco-Agriculture in Ireland


McMahon, Martha, Women & Environments International Magazine


I SPENT LAST FALL TALKING TO women organic farmers in the South West of Ireland. It was part of an ecological feminist research project on women organic farmers and sustainable agriculture. Research that starts from women's experiences helps us see how potentially transgressive movements like organic farming can, in fact, risk being reinscribed by the non-ecological, gendered and productivist notions of food and farming they seek to resist.

Despite the centrality of livestock farming in Ireland, most of the women organic farmers I interviewed grew organic vegetables for local markets. 1 Some also kept some livestock; a minority were primarily livestock farmers. Growing has distinct advantages and presents fewer entry barriers for women farmers. It allows them to make a living or part living on a relatively small acreage. It allows them to combine income-generation goals with fulfilling their desire to feed their families healthy food. On a small scale, it requires less capital investment in machinery and buildings, a distinct advantage to women who are less likely than men to acquire land through inheritance and are who are less able to borrow capital. It also offers a return directly to skill and hard work rather than to capital. Indeed, if the farmer chooses to direct-market the produce, it offers a local economic and social return by increasing the quality of the social relationships generated. It builds community. The higher price available for organic produce promises to make small scale farming more economically viable at a time when it is being dismissed as inefficient and non-viable by government policy. 2 It also offers to loosen the link between farming and patriarchal inheritance systems. 3 It even holds the possibility of totally transforming the very foundation of the kind of agriculture established in colonial times.

I did not set out to interview growers. Indeed, growing of vegetables has been relatively marginal in Irish agriculture. 4 I should have known that women would be "over-represented" among organic growers and growers would be over-represented among organic farmers; thus the decision to centre on women's experiences was also a decision to centre on growers' experiences.

Encouraged by the European Union (EU)-funded Rural Environment Protection Program (REPs) more livestock farmers are converting to organic farming and thus changing the social profile and composition of organic farming in Ireland. 5 The REPs program can be understood as a stewardship payment to farmers who farm ecologically. It includes provision for additional financial support for farmers in conversion to certified organic farming. It caps payments at approximately 100 acres, thus benefiting the average-sized Irish farm which is about 70 acres, rather than large industrial ones, 6 as the ecological stewardship payments are acreage based. Thus, organic growers who typically farm small acreages will receive far smaller payments than livestock farmers, who are typically larger. A hundred-acre drystock farm will receive twenty-times the income support that a five-acre vegetable or mixed farm will get, and farmers under five acres receive no government support at all. Sadly, small farms of under twelve acres are now rapidly disappearing in Ireland.

Organic growing had been particularly important in the evolution of the organic movement in Ireland in a way I suspect will not continue and which will have gendered consequences. The REPs program has a great deal of merit. However, through it, most new Irish organic farmers will be drawn from existing livestock farmers who convert. One can reasonably expect that they will be men rather than women, that the Irish State (or the EU) will play a powerful role in the development of Irish Organic Agriculture, and that the State's historical and questionably close relationship with the meat industry and interests associated with the export of meat will matter. 7 One of the unforeseen consequences of Irish programs to support organic farming may be that of inscribing the dominance of both male farmers and livestock farming within Irish organic farming while at the same time, consolidating the power of bureaucratic national and supra-national State-like organizations to shape organic farming. …

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