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The women who are leading the way during Britain's farming crisis are at the forefront.
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The women who are leading the way during Britain’s farming crisis are at the forefront.


In the 1970s, Holly Collins was preparing for her A-level exams in Sussex. While her peers were applying to universities, she sent a letter to the Royal Agricultural College requesting an entry form as she aspired to be a farmer.

“They responded with the following statement: ‘Dear Miss Collins, we do not accept female applicants.'”

Despite facing obstacles, she continued to work on a farm during the next summer: “At the time, many tasks were done by hand, so I would simply show up at the farm and ask for work. I received lower pay compared to the male students I worked with, solely based on my gender. The farmer’s father suggested that I should receive equal pay as I worked the hardest, but unfortunately the farmer did not follow through.”

Since obtaining her own upland farm, called Hollin Bank, at the top of Coniston Water in the Lake District, the 64-year-old woman states that there have been significant advancements for women in the agricultural industry.

Despite facing various challenges such as Brexit, food industry subsidies, unclear food production policies, and environmental concerns, the British farming industry is seeing a rise in women pursuing careers in agriculture and taking on leadership positions.

Although Minette Batters, the initial female president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU), recently stepped down after serving for six years, women continue to hold prominent positions in the union. Rachel Hallos, a farmer from South Pennines, is now the NFU’s vice-president, while Abi Reader serves as deputy president for NFU Cymru. In a historic moment, dairy farmer Rachel Coates will become the Great Yorkshire Show’s first ever female show director in its 186 years of existence. And in the realm of specialized skills, the UK has also marked a milestone by appointing its first female wool grader, 22-year-old Amy-Jo Barton, who works at British Wool in Bradford. Her job involves sorting wool by hand according to its style and characteristics, which she finds to be very therapeutic.

While women comprised 17% of farmers in 2019, data from the Office for National Statistics for 2023 shows that of the 104,700 registered farmers, 22% are female. In the broader category of managers in agricultural services, women make up 32% of the workforce. According to recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 64% of agricultural students are women. For an industry that historically relies on father-to-son succession to pass on land and which used to exclude women from many of its educational establishments, farming has come a long way.

Rachel Coates, the incoming director of the Great Yorkshire Show

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Coates, incoming director of the Great Yorkshire Show, says: “Women have always been the backbone of a farm. Now they’re no longer in the kitchen tied to the Aga, they’re at the forefront of the industry. It’s good to see this take-up of leadership roles.”

Louisa Dines, a lead instructor in agronomy at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, believes that the agricultural sector has been slower in achieving gender diversity compared to other industries, but is now making progress.

According to the speaker, women have always played a significant role in farming communities as these traditionally involve family-run businesses that are closely tied to home life. However, they were not particularly visible as they often operated behind the scenes. In the past, community gatherings were typically held in places like pubs or village halls, where wives were either not invited or had to tend to their children. Even if they did attend, it could be daunting to enter a room dominated by men. Thankfully, the emergence of various communication tools, like social media and video conferencing, has made it more accessible for women to participate in such events.

There are over 14,000 members in the Facebook group “Ladies Who Lamb.” Popular farmers on TikTok and Instagram, such as the Yorkshire Shepherdess and the Red Shepherdess, have a large following. Dines shares that she recently went to an agritech conference to strengthen connections between female farmers in Poland, Ukraine, and England. Before, these women were working independently without a feeling of community, but Dines notes that it was fascinating to observe the progress that has been made.

There is a need for more evolution in established customs. According to a 2022 survey in Northern Ireland, women in farming ranked inheritance as the second most significant difficulty they face, after male predominance. Additionally, the average age of a British farmer is 59 and the tradition of passing down the family business still tends to favor men.

Molly Lewis comes from a long line of sheep farmers in Powys, Wales who have worked on 250 acres of land for the past 350 years. According to her, there is a noticeable change in perspective happening. At 20 years old, she intends to step in and run the farm when her father and uncle retire. She divides her time between assisting with the family business and participating in the nearby agricultural market.

In the past, there was pressure for men to take over the farm, even if they weren’t passionate about it. However, now it is whoever expresses interest that inherits the farm. I have noticed an increase in women happily participating in farm life. It feels organic, especially in our open hill farm in the Elan Valley, where we work closely with our community and neighbors. It is not uncommon to see women and girls performing the same tasks as men on the hills, and it is completely normal.

Lewis mentions the anger among the community towards the Welsh government’s sustainable farming program. The plan, known as the post-Brexit funding scheme, aims to support the industry and mandates that 10% of farmland be covered by trees.

Collins’s farm is home to a small number of diverse livestock and also offers educational classes on traditional agricultural practices like building with dry stone and coppicing. Currently, two graduate students are conducting research on the farm’s financial practices and bird population. Megan Jones and Katherine Andrews were hired by Collins to help manage Hollin Bank.

She mentions facing challenges regarding the lack of respect from male farmers. However, through learning and working with younger female colleagues, she has realized that success in this largely male-dominated field does not require instilling fear in others. Instead, they strive to create a welcoming and supportive environment for anyone who is interested. It remains uncertain whether this approach to farming is specifically characteristic of women, but it is a possibility.

All three individuals at Hollin Bank did not come from farming backgrounds, breaking away from the usual practice of passing on the farm to the next generation. While Collins always had a strong desire to be a farmer, her coworkers initially pursued careers in conservation and environmental restoration.

Katherine Andrews on steep mountainsideView image in fullscreen

Andrews explains that since 70% of the UK is used for farming, they were curious about the relationship between conservation and agriculture. Additionally, they believe it is important to promote a more localized food economy in order to reduce food transportation distance, generate employment, and foster a stronger connection with the land.

The current farming crisis could potentially be resolved by the upcoming generation, as they are eager for change and evolution. Richard Coates, the leader of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, hopes to involve young individuals in order to make farming more relevant and adaptable to the expected changes in the industry.

Dines points to the increased importance of marketing and communication – from farm shops and crafts to environmentally friendly farming practice – “all the public-facing activities at which women excel”.

Jones, formerly employed in restoration, has been a member of Hollin Bank for two years. They also emphasize the importance of communication within both the industry and the community.

“We should focus on enhancing food systems that recognize the valuable expertise of farmers within the environments they operate,” she suggests. “I believe we should heed the advice of farmers and determine viable solutions that are both financially and environmentally sustainable. How can we cultivate resilient ecosystems?”

The increase in female farmers can be attributed to Jones’ description of her favorite part of her job.

One aspect I particularly enjoy about farm work is the daily and seasonal patterns. It involves adjusting and reacting to the natural surroundings and the animals. Whenever we move the sheep or cows, it’s always a great day. Walking alongside them feels like a mobile form of meditation. As someone who didn’t have many opportunities for hands-on activities growing up, I am grateful for the satisfaction and empowerment that comes with using my hands – particularly as a woman.

Source: theguardian.com