Sector trends

Female farmers dig in their heels

More women than men are opting for a profession in agriculture but female farmers are struggling to create a level playing field.

“The traditional image is the 50-something man with the tweed, the dog and the stick – so yes, when I told my friends I wanted to be a farmer, a few eyebrows did go up.”

If there is such a thing as a typical farmer, Rachel Watling is not it. She’s 24, holds a first-class honours degree in international business management and, unusually for someone with her passion, there is no farm in her family. Yet passionate she is – about the sector, and the recognition of the female farmers and agricultural workers.

“I get asked ridiculous questions about my job and my capability to do it. I used to be a grain trader and when I phoned male farmers you could sometimes hear their hesitancy. Once I called ahead of a visit and the farmer told me to meet him by the drill. When he found me there waiting he said: ‘You know what a drill is then?’ I thought, ‘Well, yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this job…’”

It’s nothing new

Of course, there have been female farmers since before biblical times, but in the 21st century, more women than ever before are following careers in agriculture. Over 25,000 women in the UK run farms; a third of all sector workers are female; 25% more young women than men enrol in agricultural courses; and, for the first time in its history, the president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) – Minette Batters – is a woman.

And yet despite all this, many female agricultural workers still struggle to be respected doing what the public – and often the industry itself – still perceives as a man’s work.

“People are often astonished to find I’m a farmer,” says Laura Hodgkins, from Cocking Hill Farm in the South Downs of Sussex. “If I’m all dressed up at a wedding and people ask what I do, they say: ‘Well you don’t look like a farmer.’ Am I supposed to be chewing on some straw or something? Then I get loads of questions – more than I ever did in my previous career in marketing – and so many are questions that men wouldn’t get asked. How on earth did I get into that? Do I drive a tractor? How do I cope with the physical work? It’s nice to educate people but it’s a little frustrating that I’m a curiosity.”

Women are still excluded

The industry itself does not always embrace female farmers. Chloe Quantick won two awards for her South Devon cattle at the recent Dartmouth Fatstock Show – but was banned from attending the men-only presentation dinner. Moreover, the committee had just voted on whether to extend the 100-year-old ceremony to include women, but elected to keep women out.

“They need to stop being sexist and let us in,” Quantick told the BBC. “We should be allowed to go.”

On the flip side, there are several female-only farming organisations: Ladies in Pigs, Ladies in Agriculture and Ladies in Beef, the latter co-founded by Batters, uses a network of “dynamic lady beef champions” to promote British meat to consumers. Women in Dairy, founded four years ago, trains female workers in the industry.

But Watling, although a member of some of them, has mixed views about their existence. “They’re really motivating and have fantastic speakers, but a part of me thinks if we do want equality, shouldn’t we all be as one rather than have female groups? Although I do appreciate if that were the case, we wouldn’t be as visible.”

And she admits she uses her gender to get her voice heard, mainly through her online blog, written under the name Agri Blonde. “It does underline immediately I’m a female in agriculture, but if you’re as passionate and vocal about farming issues as I am, you need a brand, and you use what you have to stand out. I’ve been to conferences where people have said: ‘Oh, you’re Agri Blonde!’, which is lovely.”

Technology is broadening reach

Of course, the influx of women into the sector in part reflects the changing nature of agriculture, which offers a gamut of career choices, particularly in technology, that weren’t available 20 years ago – agronomy, soil analysis and drones to name just a few. Not only that, but tech is also taking the physical strain out of many tasks that might traditionally have been done only by a man.

“We’ve just updated our farm loader,” Batters reported recently. “I used to struggle with the hydraulic pipes on the old one – it was a matter of strength. On the new one, a child could do it.”

But many women’s main struggle is not with the work. A recent study showed female agricultural workers earn 86p for every pound paid to their male counterparts – although that is up 9% on a decade ago.

Their main battle is with outdated attitudes. Cumbrian sheep and cattle farmer Andrea Meanwell recently had to tell a visiting agriculture sales rep three times that she was in charge because he refused to believe her. “He saw me with a wheelbarrow but did not imagine that I could possibly run the farm,” she says. “When the penny finally dropped he was actually quite embarrassed. Women farmers should not be dismissed by others just because of their gender.”

Fellow female farmer Laura Madigan tells a similar tale: “I was feeding calves and a fella came into my yard and asked, and I quote: ‘Hello, love, is there a man here?’”

Change is inevitable

So how can women change these attitudes? “It’s about proving to men that you can speak their language, that you do know what you’re talking about. When you see they are building respect for you and change their opinion, you do get a little fist-pump moment,” says Watling.

“Farming’s been around for thousands of years, we’re not going to change attitudes overnight. It’s even ingrained in me, and I sometimes find myself slipping up. I wrote a blog the other day that started: ‘Years ago a farmer had to feed xx people. Now he has to feed …’ and I read it back and thought: ‘He OR SHE!’ So even I’m guilty.

“But farmers as a whole have to change in this post-subsidy world. We need diversification, technology, new ways of doing things. There’s a bigger revolution going on, but acceptance of female farmers and agriculture workers is part of that.”

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