Barbara Hughes is Wales’ top female farmer

As Barbara Hughes wanders through the housing sheltering her herd of 130 dairy cows, she confides that there is one person she would dearly enjoy sharing this moment with.

Barbara was only a teenager when a career’s officer firmly told her she had no hope of fulfilling her ambition to farm because her family had no background in agriculture.

Nearly four decades on and Barbara has proved just how wrong that assumption was.

“I’d like to show her just what I’ve achieved and tell her that young people should always be encouraged to follow their instinct,” she says. “If you have a passion for a career, it doesn’t matter what that might be – determination will get you there and you will do that job well.”

Her diminutive stature belies the inner resolve that enabled Barbara to fulfill her childhood dream.

She reckons, too, that her love of the land is innate. She recalls the days when she would dash home from school to help on a neighbouring farm. “I was nine when I was helping to milk the cows and feed and muck out the pigs and poultry. If my parents couldn’t find me, they knew I was at the farm,” she says.

After that brush-off from the career’s officer, Barbara trained as a chef and, ironically, her first job was cooking at an agricultural college.

When she was 18, she married and, as luck would have it, her husband Derek had a smallholding. The 22 acres wasn’t enough to keep the family when their children arrived, so Derek got a job with the AA while Barbara ran the farm.

They started with 12 cows and a few pigs and sheep, Barbara then spotted a newspaper advertisement for the tenancy of a 36-acre county council dairy farm in Flintshire and was selected from 65 applicants.

Barbara recalls peeling potatoes for supper in the milking parlour and handing responsibility to her children at a young age. Her eldest daughter, Stella, was in charge of Anna, the youngest, when Barbara was busy on the farm. “On reflection it wasn’t an easy time, but we just got on with it.”

When her eldest child was seven, she took on a further 135 acres nearby and ran both units – meaning she could build up the herd.

“We were doing well and making money, but then the county council informed us it was going to develop the 35 acres we had been renting,” she says.

Fortunately, the county council was able to offer an alternative farm, this time 70 acres on the outskirts of Malpas, and the family moved there 13 years ago. They have since bought 150 acres of adjoining land and built up a herd of 130 cows, but Barbara is doubtful they would have been able to achieve what they have had the price of cows been where it is today.

“When we began farming, cows were cheap so there were opportunities for youngsters to build up a herd.”

In her early days, it was rare for a woman to have a leading role on the farm, but even though agriculture remains dominated by men she has never felt at a disadvantage. If anything, she has worked the situation in her favour.

“I’ve got away with murder,” she laughs. “Derek reckons I can always get a better deal on cattle than he does. When I sell cattle, I give packets of sweets and bars of chocolate as luck money. I don’t think a man would get away with that.”

She recalls an incident at a sale when she was outbid on the Friesian bull she had hoped to buy. She had an opportunity to speak to the buyer later in the day and struck an agreement with him. “I told him my bull had been firing blanks for three months, which it had, and that half the herd was empty. He offered to let me hire the bull but to me that would have been dead money so he then agreed we could go halves on the sale and share the bull.”

She reckons she gets some of her business sense from her mother-in-law. “She was a good business lady. I had good training from her,” says Barbara.

As the cow numbers increased, Barbara struggled to cope, so Derek gave up his AA job and they now work together on the farm. “After 28 years with the AA, I work for a harder taskmaster now,” Derek says.

Barbara’s forthright nature has propelled her into office representing other farmers. Just three months before the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain (DFB), she joined its council and it was a role that proved to be one of her toughest.

“I remember the time and date, 3pm on 3 June, when we were told that the business was going to be wound up. When I got home from that meeting, the news had broken and my mobile and home telephone didn’t stop ringing for days. We personally lost £53,000, but I just didn’t have time to think about that because people were ringing me in sheer desperation. It was the worst thing I have ever experienced in farming.”

In the aftermath of the DFB collapse, the Hughes family joined Milk Link and Barbara decided to stand for election as a council member. Barbara was held in such high regard for the way she had assisted farmers during the DFB crisis that she won convincingly.

Another role she is passionate about is dairy committee chairman of the Women’s Food and Farming Union, having joined the organisation 14 years ago. “I have fought for the industry and done my best to get a fair milk price,” she says. “I think the WFU is an organisation all women farmers need to be part of. We get things done.”

It was the WFU that sparked her most recent initiative – a pick-your-own pumpkin business. She knew of another member in Staffordshire who was doing something similar and decided to have a go.

It wasn’t as straightforward as she had hoped. She needed to find a contractor to sow the seeds for her because specialist equipment was needed and then, just as the seedlings started to appear, so did the thistles, in their hundreds.

“We never had thistles in that field until last year, we must have disturbed something when we prepared the soil for planting,” says Barbara. “I remember spending an hour every night hoeing the thistles, but no sooner had I cleared them then more would be appear.”

Derek found the solution with a lawnmower, mowing between the rows. “It really did have an impact, by July the pumpkin plants were waist high and they had left the thistle behind.”

In September, the leaves of the plants died back and the field became a mass of orange as hundreds of pumpkins became visible.

The business didn’t generate a profit, but Barbara believes that by cutting out some costs and selling more pumpkins the enterprise could be profitable this year.

“I’m not one to give up,” she says.

And if her career’s officer is reading this she might be surprised to learn that Barbara is the current holder of the NFU Cymru Woman Farmer of the Year title. Now that’s an achievement for someone with supposedly no prospects in farming.

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