31 October 1997

Rural women must fight…

While rural women in other parts of the world staged events

to impress their worth on their communities on World Rural

Womens Day, most rural women in Britain missed the

occasion altogether. But not all, as Ann Rogers reports

THIS is only the beginning, said Mary James summing up the lively London conference which marked World Rural Womens Day – a day designated by the International Federation of Agricultural Producers to highlight "the largely unrecognised contribution of rural women – mainly farmers – to food security and the development of rural areas."

Mrs James, the only woman on the NFU council and chairman of its public affairs commitee, urged women to take their places on committees and councils and to take an active role in the NFU which in many areas is still a male preserve.

In turn the conference, which was organised by the NFU, the Country Landowners Association, the Womens Farming Union and the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, called for the contribution that women make to the rural economy and their particular needs to be drawn to the attention of Harriet Harman, the Social Security Minister with responsibility for womens interests.

"This is not a day for griping and moaning," the chairman , Rachel Thomas, told the meeting of about 40 women from across England and Wales. "Women in rural areas are doing tremendous things. They are a flexible, adaptable human resource that should not be wasted."

A geography teacher from North Devon, Mrs Thomas has held public appointments with Exmoor National Park, the Countryside Commission, the Forestry Commission and the Rural Development Commission and she spoke of the need for those working in agriculture to bond with others working in landbased industries such as forestry, environmental protection, conservation, rural enterprises and community developments. She also stressed the importance of ensuring that the rural voice was heard when the proposed Regional Development Agencies were established.

&#42 Research fellow

Dr Ruth Gasson, a research Fellow at Wye College who has written three books on the role of farm women in the UK, said that she had once calculated that farmers wives contributed 5% of the total hours of manual labour on farms in England and Wales. While manual labour is perhaps the most visible contribution which women make in farming it is not necessarily the biggest one, she said.

About 75% of the respondents to the farm womens survey carried out by the NFU in spring 1996 and analysed by Dr Gasson were responsible for the farm accounts and worked in the farm office. Most dealt with callers and ran errands for the business; 40% were involved in planning and day-to-day management and a 25% in marketing and public relations activities.

"Many have an equal voice in decisions about the long-term development of the farm. Others exert a more subtle influence by acting as a sounding board for ideas," Dr Gasson added, going on to speak of the farmers wifes need to be flexible and ready to drop whatever she is doing to help out when needed.

"Lack of public recognition and professional status is one of the biggest drawbacks that farm women have to cope with," Dr Gasson said, explaining how their work never fitted into agricultural statistic-gathering such as the June 4 census.

"Perhaps the main reason why farm womens work is undervalued is that the majority of women enter farming through marrying a farmer," she said.

Judy Good-man is an example of those farmers wives who have developed their own enterprise on the farm. Mrs Goodman described the development of this enterprise which began with a few nine-day old goslings on the farmhouse lawn and now produces 3000 geese and 1500 bronze turkeys annually.

She advised farmers wives who are not business partners to ensure that they received the married wifes allowance tax-free; have a pension scheme paid for by the farm business plus private health insurance; and to have health and accident insurance when working on the farm or in bed-and-breakfast or other farm enterprises.

"All this is very important because one never knows what is around the corner. We are experienced and hard to replace in the case of a broken arm or leg," she said, concluding, "We are the hidden workforce but we must enjoy what we are doing. We have to be careful that we give ourselves time to stop, think and relax."

Holidays are important, she said, because when you live and work in the same environment it is very difficult to rest the brain.

Womens lack of confidence, mens attitudes to them, and farmings patriarchal structure were among the problems highlighted during the workshop session. Many areas in which training could help women, their families and farm businesses were identified along with ideas of how training might be organised to fit into womens already full lives.

Somerset farmer and NFU council member Mary James urges women to play their part in public life.