Farming no longer just a man's world, says new report from Lanyon Bowdler

Changing attitudes, improved education and advances in technology are all helping draw more women into agriculture

The NFUs new specialist adviser for farmers in Northumberland and North Durham, Samantha Davies
The NFUs new specialist adviser for farmers in Northumberland and North Durham, Samantha Davies

Women have long played a vital role in agriculture in the UK, but never more so than now, evidence suggests.

And, despite the numerous challenges facing the industry today - from dropping farm gate milk prices to delays on crucial payments - new research from Farmers Weekly and Barclays shows they are refreshingly optimistic about it.

In a nationwide poll, involving 2,000 people involved in agriculture, 91% of females said they were upbeat about the future role of women in the sector, highlighting farming as a great career choice, bringing many benefits along the way.

The survey revealed that, compared to their male counterparts, women were more likely to recommend farming to young people as a career path.

It is also appears that entering the industry has become easier for women than was previously the case, with just 4% of female survey respondents saying it was harder to a get a foothold in it now than when they joined.

Around two-thirds, meanwhile, said they believed they were treated equally to men when it comes to pay, benefits and daily work routines.

Looking ahead, 87% predicted they would feel this way a decade from now.

Dr Jane Sullivan of Newton Rigg College
Dr Jane Sullivan of Newton Rigg College

According to Farmers Weekly editor Jane King, this “debunks the myth” that farming is an old-fashioned industry where stereotypes prevail.

“It’s an exciting an progressive job and should be uppermost among the careers that young women consider when they leave school, college and university.”

It’s within this changing climate that solicitors’ firm Lanyon Bowdler has produced a report entitled Women in Agriculture: Shaping the Future, which draws not simply on statistics but on real-life experiences of women involved in farming throughout the country.

The business points out that at the end of 2012, there were 23,000 female farmers in the UK - markedly lower than the 119,000 males in the industry, but an enormous leap from the turn of the century, when there were much fewer women in farming roles.

Increasingly, the report also shows, women are becoming firmly established in positions of power affecting the wider industry.

Elizabeth Truss, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the most striking example, but the NFU too appears to have embraced the contributions women can make at a high profile level.

This year, for example, Minette Batters was appointed deputy president of the organisation, which has more than 55,000 members across England and Wales, while, in North Durham and Northumberland, Samantha Davies has taken over as county adviser.

Other notable females in the industry include Marie Francis, the first woman ever to stand in an NFU election, and who now sits on various Defra committees; Christine Tacon, who was recently appointed the first Groceries Code Adjudicator after running the Co-operative Group’s farming business for more than a decade; Caroline Drummond, who having worked on farms in a number of counties, is now chief executive of Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF): and Helen Browning who, from joining the Soil Association as a volunteer, has worked her way up to the top spot at the organisation.

Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for Enviroment, Food and rural affairs at the Northern Farming Conference in Hexham.

Closer to home, there’s Liz Philip, principal at Askham Bryan College, who looks after its 2,400 acre farm; and Dr Jane Sullivan, a research scientist and director of Newton Rigg College in Cumbria.

At Askham Bryan, which specialises in agriculture courses, the proportion of students who are female has swelled significantly in recent years, going from 12% in 2004 to 25% in 2014.

At the Penrith-based Newton Rigg - now part of the Askham Bryan network - similarly, females are drawn a wide range of courses in agriculture and connected areas.

Upon completing training, according to the Lanyon Bowdler report, women can find themselves not only with a wider range of options than ever before, but equipped with talents perfectly suited to getting the most from them.

Samantha Gray, the owner of Middle Farm Cottages and a 32-acre holding, for example, said women tended to excel in the business side of operating a farm.

Reminiscing on how she first got involved in the sector, she explained that the first thing she did, after settling on her career choice, was to contact chefs in the local area and ask them what they would want from the farm.

She recognised that buyers would pay extra for high quality produce - as well as the knowledge that animals had been reared well.

Having made those all-important initial contacts, alongside marketing her products from an early stage, interest in her pork was soon expressed both by local restaurants in some in London.

Running a small farm, she told the authors of the report, can be particularly appeal as it can provide a good work-life balance.

“This is a lifestyle choice more and more people are seeking and its a very rewarding way of life,” she said.

“The escape to the country is the ultimate dream for many people and is broadcasted into our home on a regular basis by the like of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.”

The report also suggests new technologies are playing a major role in facilitating a greater involvement of women in the agricultural industry.

“Whether operating drones or planning routes for GPS driverless tractors, farmers are making the most of the new equipment at their disposal,” it said.

“This is having a positive impact on women in the industry, who are able to excel in these positions and help to drive the agricultural sphere forwards.

“Women are not only getting involved in practical activities, but thriving in marketing, sales and day-to-day management roles. “

The report acknowledged that perceived deterrents to careers in farming still existed.

However, they tended to affect both men and women equally.

For example, Ms Gray suggested that the idea of raising - and becoming attached to - an animal that would ultimately be killed could be a daunting prospect for some.

However, she said: “Our duty as farmers is to make sure they have a good life and good death, and to educate people that they’re making the right choices when they buy meat.”

Another factor potentially dissuading people from getting into the sector, Ms Gray added, was the prospect of leaving secure work for self-employment.

The hurdle, though, could be overcome by careful consideration of the value the business could offer.

As the report from Lanyon Bowdler concludes: “Such strides have been made by women in the agricultural industry that it may seem strange to separate their contribution and that made by men.

“However, it is important to celebrate the role females have played in helping the sector reach where it is now, and consider how they will continue to benefit it in the future.

“The answer to that second point seems fairly straightforward - their contribution will be huge.”

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