One Dorset women is carving out a successful career in agriculture, despite her unusual route into the industry. Caroline Stocks reports.
A change in career is difficult at any time of life, but deciding to become a farmer when you’re a 40-something single mother of two boys and have no farming experience would be a step too far for many.
Yet for Judi James, Littlebredy, Dorchester, it was a challenge that made her more determined to chase the job she had always wanted but had been deterred from.
“My parents were Londoners so farming wasn’t really on their radar,” she says. “My father was actually a careers teacher and when I told him I wanted to be a farmer he wasn’t having any of it.
“Instead of doing what I wanted, I listened to other people’s advice and allowed it to take me completely down the wrong career path.”
Judi found herself working as an articulated lorry driver before she became a car saleswoman after she had her sons Edward (now 27) and Jason (now 13), but her love of agriculture never wavered.
“I had always been interested in horses and had often found myself on the edge of farming, but despite loving the idea of farming I had never been able to get into it. Then I moved to Dorset from East Anglia and thought it was the right time to start doing something about it.”
“It’s ridiculous, though, that when I was combining I had people stop to take photos of me just because I was a woman. That shouldn’t be the case.”
Unsure where to start, Judi contacted an agricultural employment specialist for advice. “He was very negative and told me to forget the idea, which made me instantly decide I was going to do it,” she says.
After enrolling on a rural business administration course at Kingston Maurward College, she started to work with local farms, helping in the offices and occasionally helping out with outdoors work. At the same time, she rented land to keep horses on and, in 2007, decided to take the step to rear her own cattle.
As she was interested in rare breeds, she contacted local Longhorn breeder John Barker to ask his advice. It was a meeting which, she says, changed her life.
“I just wanted to rear my own store cattle for the freezer, so John invited me to the farm for a chat about the cows and showed me and my youngest son the machinery. I thought it was heaven.
“I told him I enjoyed driving tractors and he asked me if I’d like to help out on his 400 acre beef and arable farm. I was the ultimate mature student,” she says. “He taught me everything from the ground up – from cropping to maintaining paddocks. My first job that year was grain carting during harvest, and I thought it was brilliant.”
Since then, she has progressed to helping John run the entire farm, last year taking the combining on herself. With his advice she has also set up her own RSPCA Freedom Food veal production unit, contract-rearing calves for Tesco and Waitrose on her own rented land. Her enterprise, along with the work she does for John, has proved so impressive that she earned herself the title of Dickies’ UK Worker of the Year in 2013.
While she has worked hard to get where she has, Judi says she owes a lot to John and the risk he took to take on an inexperienced woman – especially in a male-dominated industry.
“I could tell he got a bit of stick for taking me on,” she says. “We did an abattoir run when I first started working with him and I got looked at as though to say: ‘Who’s this?’
“The other farmers smiled and said: ‘That’ll be interesting come harvest.’ It made me more determined, though. John put his neck on the line to give me a chance and I wanted to prove I could do it.”
While she did suffer some negative comments, the majority of people she met were supportive, she says. “There are those who say I’m a woman doing a man’s job, but because I’d driven lorries and sold cars I had been down that road before and knew not to react to them.
“These days everything is power-assisted so strength doesn’t come into it, therefore there’s no reason why women shouldn’t farm. It’s ridiculous, though, that when I was combining I had people stop to take photos of me just because I was a woman. That shouldn’t be the case.
“The more women come into the industry and do it successfully, the more confidence women will have in joining it.”
To make the industry truly fair and open to both sexes, issues such as childcare need to be properly addressed, Judi says.
“Being a single mother was difficult, but I was helped by having an understanding boss. John knew I couldn’t afford childcare, so we looked after the boys between us.
“I think farming has to take a serious look at how to work around this, whether it’s people clubbing together to look after children or some other system.”
Now both her sons are old enough to look after themselves, Judi began looking around for her next challenge – which came in the form of a charity combine run in support of Breast Cancer Campaign. It’s a charity that means a lot to her, after two of her friends died of breast cancer and she had her own scare with the disease.
Inspired by the famous London to Brighton cycle ride, the event saw Judi drive a New Holland CX5080 combine more than 170 miles from south London to Dorset.
Three days of travelling through city and countryside – dodging motorways and enjoying occasional police escorts – has so far raised more than £1,000 for her chosen charity.
After jumping down from the combine at Longlands Farm, near Dorchester, where she was welcomed by a crowd of friends, she said: “I’m not as tired as I thought I would be and it was really enjoyable.
“My best moment was when I got clear of London. The lorry drivers were particularly supportive and I got lots of beeps from them. And last night we were parked at a hotel and lots of people came to take a look and were pressing money into our hands. It’s certainly made people look.”
Judi explained: “I lost my sister-in-law at the age of 40 to breast cancer, and want to remember her and a terrific lady who gave me my first break after qualifying in rural business administration. She, too, was sadly lost to this dreadful disease at only 49 years of age. I experienced the fear of this disease, having found a lump myself at only 27 but was blessed to be given the all-clear.
“I had always wanted to do something different. It came to me while I was combining last year and I just thought I wanted to go for it. I realised I had more chance of raising money by doing something bonkers,” she says.
Sight of the combine, with its charity livery, prompted plenty of people to take photos of Judi as she passed. But as she points out: “This time, for a different reason than just because I’m a woman!”
To donate, go to www.justgiving.com/judijamescombineharvester challenge
Women in farming research
Farmers Weekly and Barclays recently carried out a groundbreaking survey into the role of women on farms.
With more than 2,000 respondents, making it the largest-ever such research done, it gave a unique insight into the working lives, aspirations and outlook of women on British farms.
Some of the many findings were:
Women are incredibly optimistic about the role they will play in shaping UK agriculture over the next decade.
- Only 4% of women consider it harder for females entering the industry now compared with when they joined.
- About two-thirds of women suggest that in terms of pay, benefits and daily work routines, they’re treated “mostly” or “always” equally to men.
- Many women feel they shouldered the burden of paperwork, admin and domestic duties.
- Many women clearly still see themselves playing a “supportive” role – a lot suggested they were “influencers” rather than the “final decision maker” in businesses.
- Women are more likely than men to recommend farming as a career and be passionate advocates for the sector.
- Sixty one percent of women consider themselves “rarely” or “never” treated equally when it comes to succession.
You can see all the results – and the reaction to them – online at www.fwi.co.uk/womenonfarm
Banking on women
Barclays Agriculture has more than 250 years of experience supporting UK farming, with a dedicated team of more than 100 experienced agricultural managers supporting customers and their ambitions both today and for future generations. The contribution women make to the success of farming enterprises has always been appreciated but often unheard, therefore Barclays Agriculture was delighted to sponsor this research and, for the first time, highlight the value and impact women contribute to the industry.
Barclays, national agriculture specialist