There are 300 gay farmers in Cheshire. How do you like that for an opening statistic? That’s shut you up, hasn’t it?
This figure is an estimate by Keith Ineson, the agricultural chaplain for Cheshire. He runs a helpline that counsels gay farmers who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. Mr Ineson’s helpline and website (www.gayfarmer.co.uk) has recently received quite a lot of media coverage on radio, television, newspapers and in magazines. Everywhere, in fact, except in the farming press. We evidently prefer to keep quiet about this sort of thing.
I’ve been looking into this and I can’t find any evidence that Cheshire is especially gay. If you’d said Suffolk, I might have believed it. If you’d said Herefordshire, I would have agreed with you. Cheshire, however, has always struck me as straighter than average. This means that we can extrapolate the Cheshire figure across the UK with confidence and proclaim, with absolute scientific certainty, that there are several thousand gay people working in agriculture.
This is something to shout about. Most people imagine farmers to be dull, conventional, conservative and Conservative. The reputation of farming would be given a hearty boost if the public realised that farmers are a much more rounded and cosmopolitan collection of people than that.
I spoke to Mr Ineson before writing this column and there is a less positive side to this story. His callers are usually deeply unhappy people; some are suicidal. How sad that this should be the case in modern Britain. It demonstrates that the world of farming can still be a tough place for those who don’t fit with the trusty convention of wife, estate car, two children and a black labrador.
Rural life presents social limitations whatever your persuasion, so the specific fear these callers have concerns rural attitudes and lack of acceptance. Although I have always found most farmers to be kind, tolerant and pragmatic people, the farming community isn’t universally enlightened and progressive in its views. Over several years of sitting in, and in front of, farming audiences, I have heard some strong and inexplicable prejudices.
The most uncomfortable occasion recently was when I heard an MP give a speech at a farming dinner. He included quite a lot of what he thought was “bigoted” humour, and what I thought was bigoted “humour”. In most cities he would have been booed and pelted with bread rolls. This, though, was a Lincolnshire farming audience so he got a round of applause and was returned to parliament at the last election with a stonking majority.
It’s a great pity that the accuracy of my bread bowling can’t be trusted, but worse still is that we are sending a shameful message to young people about life in a rural area. I wonder how many sons and daughters are choosing not to follow their family into farming because they feel stifled by these provincial attitudes? This is something that we need to address if we want to restore the cultural and economic importance of the countryside.
Why do farms and farmers try so hard to be just like one another? It’s dull and unimaginative, it creates unnecessary competition and forces farms into larger units. It makes life boring. The United Kingdom is a very diverse and multi-cultural society and I wish that the industry that produces its food was half as broad and colourful.
We should be sending out the message that farming is a great, inclusive and welcoming occupation for anyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference or ginger hair.
Matthew Naylor, aged 37, farms 162ha (400 acres) of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a Nuffield scholar.
Read more from Matthew and the other Farmers Weekly columnists.