A perspective from the United Kingdom (UK)
In the United Kingdom (UK) women are finally reaching significant places in the agricultural world such as Minette Batters recently elected as Deputy President of the National Farmers Union, (NFU), Christine Tacon, CBE, appointed by our Government as the first Groceries Code Adjudicator having run the Co-Operative Groups farming business for 11 years and Kate Allum is the Chief Executive of First Milk, the largest dairy farmer co-operative in the UK. Caroline Drummond is the Chief Executive of LEAF - Linking Environment and Farming - which is the leading organisation promoting sustainable food and farming. This organisation runs Open Farm Sunday where on a Sunday in June each year farmers welcome the general public onto their farms, usually free of charge, to show them how their food is grown, how farmers take care of the rural environment and take the opportunity to talk to people. This year 375 farms took part and 205,000 visitors enjoyed a great day out on a farm. Initiatives like this are vital to re-connect a mainly urban population with how their food is produced. We were very proud to open our farm this year and look forward to taking part in the future. Christine & Caroline were part of a small group of women involved in agriculture that realized the significance of their role within UK agricultural and formed 'Ladies in Agriculture'. Three times a year this group meets at The Farmers Club in London where members invite a guest, as I was last year, who then automatically become a member of this group themselves, and invite further guests so the membership is growing rapidly. Business issues are discussed, support provided to each other and the younger generation are particularly encouraged to join. At the last meeting in March of this year, 60 women attended and Government minister George Eustice, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Marine Environment addressed the group and was then questioned and challenged on a variety of issues.
There is a national television programme shown on a Sunday evening called 'Countryfile' where presenters focus on a different county of the UK each week showcasing what is happening in rural life. The programme used to be on during the day but since moving to this prime slot in 2009 the presenters have become household names. This is certainly helping to encourage young people into a career in agriculture with a significant rise in applications to study at agricultural colleges and universities. At Harper Adams, one of our major agricultural universities, the percentage of female students has risen by 5% since 2009. Most of the female students take animal welfare courses and the male students predominantly study agricultural engineering. Advances in technology have significantly helped with less hard labour required than two generations ago - machinery is nowadays used for working the soil, harvesting, milking and cleaning out barns, etc. These can be operated by women or men but it is still usual for men to drive the big machinery and women to care for livestock and have charge of the farm paperwork. The use of modern technology in our homes, from electricity and running water to washing machines, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners have meant women are no longer having to spend most of the day on housework but are out working on the farm.
On national radio we have an early morning show 'Farming Today' that discusses the latest news on farming, food and the countryside and the presenters and producers are all female at the moment. The two main national weekly newspapers for the farming industry are both edited by women - Emma Penny at the Farmers Guardian and Jane King at the Farmers Weekly. A recent survey by the Farmers Weekly on the role of women on farms has revealed a ground swell of a positive attitude to the role women have in UK agriculture - now only 4% of women consider it harder for girls to start a career in farming compared to when they themselves began but the survey does show women still consider they are not treated fairly on family farm succession. The major banks I have spoken to do not hold records on the gender of their agricultural clients and I am told there are less sole trader accounts nowadays as most are partnerships or corporate style accounts.
The Young Farmers Clubs (YFC) of England and Wales are one of the main organisations for our rural youth. They have 25,000 members from the age of 10 to 26 making up 644 clubs. Each club is led by the young people organising their own meetings and social activities. They have the opportunity to take part in varied competitions from public speaking to judging livestock such as sheep and cattle and a huge selection of arts and crafts competitions in teams or individually. Each year they have a campaign and this year it is to ‘Beat Rural Isolation and Tackle Mental Health Issues’. The National Farmers Union offers free membership to students and YFC members and the Next Generation Policy Forum of NFU is a recent innovation. Sixteen younger farming members from all over England Wales are nominated by the counties and their views are taken into account for current policy developments. Most of the main sector and organisational boards within NFU have women representing members but men still form the overwhelming majority.
The UK Government 'Farm Practices' Survey Autumn 2012 for England shows that almost three quarters of farms were long-established family farms and now officially there are 23,000 female farmers compared to hardly any ten years ago. These figures are for small hobby farms as well as commercial holdings. Often the women are the driving force to diversify farm businesses; they work on the farm, bring up a family and often work off the farm as well. To the general public the perception is still of the 'farmer' being the man of the household supported by his hardworking wife, but this is changing. For example, Bec inherited her family farm and has diversified by converting redundant old farm buildings into rented business premises such as a micro-brewery, Caroline has invested in top of the range luxury hideaway retreats for the tourism trade and Claire made sure their newly built broiler chicken units had viewing platforms so that members of the public can see exactly how they rear chicken for supermarkets.
I have had the opportunity to meet some of these amazing women involved in UK agriculture having been awarded a UK Nuffield Farming Trust Scholarship. Currently there are six nations with Nuffield programmes - UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France, with the Netherlands, India and Brazil working towards membership. Lord Nuffield was a forward thinking businessman who realized that to travel abroad and seek out best practice in your chosen area is instrumental in bringing in innovation with the exchange of ideas and in your own personal development. As part of my study on 'Innovative Women in Today's Agriculture' I have travelled to Isle of Man, Ireland, Canada, Norway, Kenya, Uganda and India. We have so much to learn from women farming in Africa and India - I feel very humbled and honoured to have had the opportunity to meet incredibly hardworking, inspiring, caring women leaders such as Christine at Kitui in Kenya, Victoria Kakoko Sebagereka in Uganda and Nagalakshmi in India. I would like to see the Nuffield programme embraced by Scandinavian countries, support given to rekindle the link with Kenya and start to find ways of bringing in other developing countries such as Uganda.
Education and connections worldwide are enhancing our support of each other and with this comes greater confidence to use modern techniques for the survival and enhancement of our family farms.
Thank you for this opportunity to contribute to this debate.
Tanya Robbins, NSch – June 2014