NI agriculture: 'I just totally fell in love with the family farm'

Bronagh O'Kane

Family emigration and the Covid pandemic helped lea Bronagh O’Kane to her love affair with farming

After 20 years of living in Scotland, Bronagh O’Kane came home to help out on the family farm.

It was never really in the plan for her, she said: “I wasn’t involved in the farm growing up.”

But with one brother emigrating and another starting his own business, combined with the effect of the Covid pandemic, that changed very quickly.

“So I had from the end of 2019 until about June 2020, all the first calving and everything on my own, and I just totally fell in love with it.

“That was the start of the conversation – could I take on the family farm?”

Two years later she has moved the farm to native breeds, changed how the soil is managed and dealt with the occasional raised eyebrow.

“I did have farmers at the mart asking me: ‘Don’t you have any brothers?’ I just laugh at it, they don’t mean anything harmful by it.

“It’s just what they’re used to seeing.”


Bronagh hopes attitudes towards women in farming will keep changing over time

An Agriculture Committee report earlier this year, called Breaking the Grass’ Ceiling, found that the culture in the agriculture sector was a challenge for women.

It also found that women make up as little as 5% of registered principal farmers in Northern Ireland.

At the third annual Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) Women in Agriculture conference later, delegates will hear from those working in farming – something UFU rural affairs chair Jennifer Hawkes said was “hugely beneficial”.

She said “sharing experiences is key to creating solutions” and helping support women – something that would also have “huge benefits for the Northern Ireland agri-food industry as a whole”.

Ms Hawkes encouraged all men in farming who could attend the event to come along.

“They have an important role to play in the women-in-agriculture movement because while things are changing, with more women leading farm businesses, the biggest percentage of farmers is still older males.

“Therefore encouraging a daughter’s interest in farming, supporting their wife on a farm or helping to ensure we have an agri-food industry that credits on merit alone is hugely critical.

“Some efforts may seem smaller than others, but they all make a world of difference.”

Bronagh O’Kane is hoping for attitudes and opportunities in farming to keep changing with time.

“Chatting with other farmers, it is natural for them to think it’ll go to the sons,” she said.

“There might be a different feeling in the air of considering who’s best fitted, who really wants it first and not based on the tradition of giving it to the older son because that’s what people do.

“It’s what’s best for your family, your context, your farm.”