Financial services for farmers one of the areas where women have had most success

Financial services for farmers one of the areas where women have had most success
Laura Fitzgerald at work on the family farm in Ballyclough, Co Cork. Ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday, Ifac celebrates Laura and its other high-achieving female staff members. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Growing up in Ballyclough, Co Cork, you couldn’t get Laura Fitzgerald off the farm.

“I’d be stuck by my dad’s side, helping feed calves, sitting on the tractor with him when he was ploughing.

“When the cattle needed moving, we’d all have a gap to stand in.”

Cultivating early the skill of ensuring things got to their required destination can only have been an advantage to Laura on the GAA pitch.

She kicked the winning point for Mourneabbey in the All-Ireland Ladies’ Senior Club Football Championship Final last November, against Galway’s Kilkerrin-Clonberne.

As she got ready to go to the club’s victory social last Friday night, Laura described it as “one last hurrah”.

For Mourneabbey to win two-in-a-row, to retain their All-Ireland title, was fantastic, she says.

“All our hard work paid off. It was a team effort.

“And the club has given us mighty support throughout the year. The home-coming was great.”

At home, dad Willie and mum Deirdre, were “pretty happy too”, she says.

“I was fairly stressed before the final, so they were all relieved it was worth it in the end.”

Her farming background (the family was in dairy before switching to dry stock when Laura was about 12) stands her in great stead for her current position as a trainee accountant with Ifac in Mallow. For over 40 years, Ifac has provided accountancy and financial advice services for the farming, food and agri-business sectors. Laura came to it after studying Agricultural Science at the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT).

“What drew me to agri-science was learning the science behind the commonsense of farming. The elements of fertiliser, when to spread fertiliser, the components of animal feed, things you take for granted on the farm, but it’s fascinating to see the thinking behind them.”

The move from farming and agri-science into accounting was almost a 180° turn, she says. “But I was always very interested in numbers, so it was nice the two married.

“And it’s a nice feeling, to think I’m helping out farmers,” says Laura, who covers “everything from accounts to tax, financial planning and management”.

An issue that concerns her is how the average age of farmers is rising.

“It looks unappealing for young people to take over from their parents and grandparents.

“Coming from a farming background, you never like to see a family without someone to pass the farm onto.”

For this reason, at WIT, she was “surprised but happy” to find a good percentage of students were heading home to take over the farm, and a good percentage of these were women.

“It’s exciting to see there’ll be such a gender mix.”

Financial services for farmers one of the areas where women have had most success

Brexit, the beef crisis, and what lies ahead, are other concerns. “It’s tough to watch how it’s panning out, and taking so long to sort out, to think how are the Government and farmers going to overcome it.

“But it’s happening, so we’re going to have to power through as best we can.”

The notion of ‘powering through’ seems very possible, coming from a young woman with an impressive sports awards haul including under-16 minor medals and six senior county titles, as well as six senior Munster titles, and now the two All-Irelands.

With Ifac celebrating its high-achieving female staff members ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday, Noreen Lacey, head of business development at the firm, says what’s important, even beyond gender, is that business teams are diverse.

“Diversity delivers better results. Ifac takes that on board. The female to male ratio is 60:40, in favour of women.”

Pointing out that 36% of all accountants in the UK and Ireland are female, while 41% of all Chartered Accountants Ireland members are women (2018 figures), up 9% since 2008, she says the 2018 data also shows that 49% of trainee chartered accountants are female.

“Ifac actively promotes women at every opportunity,” she says, citing their partner fast-track programme, targeted at giving senior accountants the skill-sets to become partners. The female to male split is 50:50.

With many years’ experience working in the agri- financial industry, Noreen has held significant positions at AIB, ACC Bank and Glanbia.

She’s also a dairy farmer, in partnership with her husband, milking about 90 cows.

Like her, he works off-farm as well.

“Certain times of year are busier. With the cows calving, the pressure’s on at the moment. We start at 5am,” she says, adding that this isn’t anything remarkable.

“Some people go really early to the gym and they do a full work-out. It clears their head. Working on the farm clears my head. On a lovely spring morning, there’s nothing better.”

On the Irish Grassland Association council, she sees one of the big, tough issues for farmers is the price they get paid for their product.

“Anything affecting the market has a big effect. Any cut to the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] will directly affect the bottom line profits for farmers.

“Over the last four years, 59% of beef farmers were losing money before they got their EU subsidies.

“Any cut to those payments will have a devastating effect on farm income.”

Noreen was previously on the steering committee of the Teagasc Grass 10 initiative (to increase grass utilisation on Irish livestock farms), and she highlights a recent survey that shows farmers are very much aware of their role in protecting the environment.

But she calls for just transition, in the move towards green.

“For many farmers, the profit levels are small.

“They may need support to transition their systems to be more environmentally friendly.”

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