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Being a farmer was never an option for me growing up – but things are slowly changing

DEFRA Library

4 min read

For the first two decades of my life I was immersed in the family dairy farm where I grew up.

From an early age it was all hands on deck; moving cattle to pastures new, erecting fences, feeding calves, summer bale hauling, Christmas turkey plucking, running my small chicken business and a bed and breakfast enterprise in the West Country farmhouse.

My gap year was spent working on the farm, then off to study for a rural environment degree. I came out fired up to save the world and restore our countryside through sustainable farming.

Many women, like me, with an interest in this sector were forced to think more broadly

However, in the 80s there was little option for women to farm. The farm inheritance structure meant many tenancy agreements largely favoured men and the manual and physical nature of farming was considered “challenging” for women. The main role for a woman was in her capacity as a “farmer’s wife”. My mother took this up a notch, setting up the Women’s Farming Union in the region, the British Food Hall at the Royal Bath and West Show, and as a fierce campaigner for British food and a fair deal for farmers.

Back then, my father ran the farm alongside my uncle and their two sons, so sadly for me there wasn’t an opportunity to join the family set-up. At the time, I only knew of one female farmer. A diminutive, feisty lady, Mary James, who milked a superb herd of Jersey cows. Unsurprisingly, many women with an interest in this sector were forced to think more broadly.

For me it was a job with the National Farmers’ Union – running Bath Food Week, a local food initiative called the Taste of Somerset and campaigning for our local farmers on broad issues. This too was a male-dominated world – the men all decades older than me. Then a stint in academia doing rural research (all male too!) and following that a long career in broadcasting specialising in agriculture, the environment and gardening. I was the second woman to produce and present Radio 4’s Farming Today.

An increased emphasis on equality and new technology today means brute strength now isn’t a prerequisite to farming, but still just 12 per cent of principal farmers are women. It’s a slightly improved picture for those under 24, where this rises to 26 per cent.

A recent Farmers Weekly survey found 60 per cent of women in farming believe “industry attitude” is preventing them from achieving their career goals. There are certainly many women keen to get into the industry, demonstrated by the fact that 64 per cent of agricultural students are now women. More than half of the nearly 200 participants in our recent Defra new entrants support scheme pilot, which looked at how we can better support and unblock barriers for those wanting to enter farming, were women.

Today, my family’s farm, which is part owned, part tenanted, is run by my brother and cousin, and in a sign of the changing times my niece will soon be joining them.

In terms of wider land-based roles, a new world of opportunity is opening up and women are well placed to get involved. Forestry Commission apprenticeships and short training courses, for example, are skilling up the workforce required to deliver government tree targets and our forestry for the future. 

Our exciting green agenda, driven by the framework set through the Environment Act which I was proud to steer through Parliament, means there is a surge in jobs. 

The cross-government Green Recovery Task Force, on which I sit, is focused on ensuring we have the skills in place to drive this new world so that we protect the environment and produce the sustainable food we need.

Clearly, there is more to do to smooth the career advancement of women in the sector and utilise latent talent fully.  We have some great role models in Minette Batters and Victoria Vyvyan – optimistic signs for the future.

 

Rebecca Pow, Conservative MP for Taunton Deane and nature minister

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