Opinion: Women are changing the face of farming

We had a real treat at the National Sheep Association (NSA) Scotland AGM dinner earlier on this year. We had not one but two after-dinner speakers.

Fortunately, they were both very accomplished at what they were asked to do. They knew their subject well and both had a burning passion for farming; it was very enjoyable. What was all the more remarkable was the 50 years age gap that separated them.

When I tell you that the more senior speaker of the two was the inimitable John Thorley OBE, Campaign for Wool chairman and past NSA supremo, you will not be surprised to learn that he was very impressive.

He’s a remarkable man. He has 70-plus years of experience to draw on and a son that’s younger than my latest iPhone.

The second speaker, although having 50 years less experience, spoke without notes and kept the audience captivated with a talk about hill sheep farming that belied her age.

Jennifer Craig is an NSA young ambassador and a great example of how farming is evolving in a way that bodes well for the future. When I started farming it would have been very unusual for a woman to be taking a leading role in a farming business.

“I’m afraid that I don’t buy into the idea that there are not enough young people coming into farming” – Neale McQuistin

It’s inevitable that this must be putting upward pressure on the standard of people who are coming into farming. The pool of people that we are drawing our replacements from has effectively doubled in size. Twice as many people are now vying to fill fewer vacancies; the overall standard of the workforce must be improving all the time.

This evolution is most apparent in the group of professionals that supply services to farming.

When I left school there were four vets in the practice that my father retained and they were all men. Now, I suspect, the women outnumber the men in our local vet practice. My dad’s accountant was a man and now I retain the services of a woman to do my accounts. The men that used to come and AI my sheep and carry out the embryo flushing programmes on my ewes have been replaced by women.

It’s not that young men no longer want to be vets, accountants and AI technicians – there is just more competition in those areas now.

I’m afraid that I don’t buy into the idea that there are not enough young people coming into farming. The fact is we don’t need the same size of workforce to keep farming going in 2015 as we did 40 years ago when I started work. But, the quality of the workforce is improving as more women choose farming as their career.

None of the women in my mum’s generation of farmers’ wives went out to work off the farm, they didn’t need to. My wife and most of the other wives in our area all go to work off farm. I presume, if we are typical, it’s because they need to, and I’m quite sure if all those women were made redundant today, every one of them would find a new job by the end of next week.

Their husbands, myself included, I fear would struggle to do the same. We wouldn’t be qualified to do the jobs we think we should be doing and the competition from women for the jobs we could do would be too great.

The day has arrived when women have started to think – I can be the farmer. Watch your backs gentlemen, the competition is getting stronger all the time.

 Neale McQuistin

Neale is an upland beef and sheep farmer in south-west Scotland. He farms 365ha in partnership with his wife, Janet, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife

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