Seeds of change: Women’s role in greening European agriculture

Female-led rural enterprise will help Europe achieve its environmental goals, according to an EU-funded expert.

By  Horizon Staff

Dr Maura Farrell grew up surrounded by strong women who played a key role in shaping her ideas about women in farming and rural life. Both of her grandmothers farmed their whole lives and had as much a connection to the land and farming as her grandfathers.

In rural business, Farrell cites the example of her mother-in-law as a particular inspiration. A woman widowed with four small children, she continued to run a feed and fertiliser business in a small rural town in Ireland at a time when this was not considered the norm for women.

Her strength of character and business acumen served her well through the years, in facing an employee strike, driving lorries to sell potatoes and battles on an annual basis with prices of wool, feed and fertiliser. Women such as these not only shaped Farrell’s thinking in this area, they also laid the groundwork for rural women of today.

Farrell is an associate professor in the school of Geography, Archaeology and Irish Studies at the University of Galway in Ireland. Her research focuses on the impact of social, cultural and economic change on rural inhabitants, particularly women. Farrell says that although things have improved dramatically for women in farming and in many rural areas across the EU, they still face many obstacles and challenges.

She coordinates a multi-country project called FLIARA which has received funding from the EU to create a European-wide rural innovation network that supports women in shaping a sustainable rural future. The project, which has partners in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, runs for three years until the end of 2025.

Rural innovation

They are one of a handful of EU-funded research teams that are looking more closely at the role European women play in rural development and in farming, and how to better support and encourage their active participation as innovation leaders.

In the majority of European countries, the agricultural sector is dominated by men. Only around 30% of European farms are run by women, and female voices are a small minority in most agricultural associations.

There is an air of change in Europe’s rural areas, however, and women are increasingly getting more involved in managerial roles in farming and the development of innovative rural businesses. They are also active in building and strengthening rural communities.

The EU is encouraging this general trend which can only help Europe achieve the ambitious goals set out in the European Green Deal. A cleaner, more eco-friendly and sustainable farming sector is a central part of this, as are strong and flourishing rural communities.

Farrell talked to Horizon Magazine about how women can take an active part in driving innovation in agriculture and rural life, and the important role they have to play in helping build a greener, more sustainable future.

What challenges do women in rural areas in Europe face?

Women living in rural areas across the EU face additional challenges to their urban counterparts when attempting to establish a new business or innovative initiative. For a start, they have to deal with a lack of basic services and facilities generally available in urban areas, such as childcare, a strong public transport network and reliable broadband connection. There is also more limited access to training and education.

In addition, access to financing for establishing a business within a rural context can be very difficult, with many financial institutions reluctant to fund women in business.

What can be done to help women overcome these hurdles?

We need to encourage greater acceptance of and support for rural women as entrepreneurs and businesswomen. A certain level of “rural proofing” is needed across different levels of national governance to ensure an improvement in rural services and facilities.

We could also do with greater, more targeted support for women attempting to establish a business, such as easier access to training and financial assistance.

How can more attention be brought to women’s role here?

Increasing the visibility of female-led innovation in rural areas is hugely important as it helps to change the narrative around women’s role in farming, as well as in rural entrepreneurship and business.

There are already many very successful female farmers and rural entrepreneurs across Europe, but in order to encourage more women – especially younger women – to engage in these areas, it is important for them to have good role models and examples of success. One of our goals in FLIARA is to help showcase female leaders in innovation, influence policy, and create a new and more positive narrative around women in farming and in rural areas.

What does female-led innovation here mean concretely?

We are thinking about new ideas, products, services or processes that help to bring about positive change. Women have a role to play as leaders or drivers of such change, which can range from farm diversification to a variety of on- or off-farm businesses, as well as novel or innovative farm practices.

Innovation could also be community based – through the creation of new community groups – and have economic, social and cultural impact.

FLIARA has built a Europe-wide network of 200 female innovators, including 20 “ambassadors” who are travelling around Europe to talk with groups of female farmers and provide inspiration and share best practices.

What is already being done to support female-led agriculture?

Since 2023, for the first time in the history of the EU, its Common Agricultural Policy strategy refers explicitly to gender equality and the need to increase the participation of women in farming and rural life.

Although only two countries – Ireland and Spain – have so far proposed direct measures to support women in farming, several other EU countries have included broader rural development policies that encourage greater participation of women.

Does the position of women vary among EU countries?

There is huge diversity across Europe in the roles that women play in agriculture and rural life. For example, in Lithuania and Latvia, nearly half of all farms are managed by women.

In total contrast, in Malta, Denmark and the Netherlands, under 10% of women are farm managers. In the majority of EU countries, men tend to be the main landowners.

How do women contribute to more eco-friendly farming?

If we want to achieve the goals set out in the European Green Deal, we need everyone to participate – both men and women.

Women, however, are increasingly showing a strong commitment to building a sustainable, environment-friendly society, and can play a key role in developing new, more sustainable ways of doing things. We need to help them to fulfil their potential in this area.

What particular strengths do women bring to this area? 

Women tend to have a strong awareness of environmental issues and are increasingly viewed as important drivers of sustainable farming practices. Additionally, their natural creativity and problem-solving abilities mean that they excel in diversification.

They are often key players in agritourism, craft industries and artisan food production, for example, and demonstrate strong entrepreneurial and business skills. Changing rural society needs this kind of innovation to overcome the potential challenges ahead.

Research in this article was funded by the EU’s Horizon Programme. The views of the interviewees don’t necessarily reflect those of the European Commission.

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This article was originally published in Horizon the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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