Women in agriculture: Barbara Welford

When FW asked readers to vote for the greatest figure in agriculture over the past 75 years, they were unequivocal. It’s been, they said, the farmer’s wife. Barbara Welford is one of five women we asked to give us a snapshot into this multi-faceted, varied and ever-changing role

Barbara Welford
  • Barbara, husband Andy and son Joe are partners in the family-run farm on the North York moors near Whitby.
  • They farm 300 acres, part owned, part rented and milk 200 cows.
  • They have a son and two daughters.
  • Barbara works part-time in the Children and Families Service for the Local Authority.

    It’s difficult to know what standards a typical farmer’s wife adopts. Personally I have learned to put up with a lot of dirt.

    I just know that after vacuuming the carpet and mopping the floor that people will walk back in leaving a trail of mud and straw in their wake. In the winter the radiator gets covered with hats and gloves that need drying out; as they stiffen in the heat a farmyard aroma tends to pervade the house.

    Worse than that, work surfaces sometimes get smeared with cow muck transferred from clothing. Any protest about this receives the reply that research shows that people have poor health because their environment is too clean.

    In our house we should, therefore, be grateful that we are being exposed to germs and we will be healthier as a result. It is quite true that we have never been hit by E coli or any other infection.

    It’s impossible to keep the house tidy; any flat surface gets covered with paperwork, magazines and correspondence as the farm office is too cold and remote a place to work in.

    Farmers think they are far too busy to load the dishwasher or even to carry the dirty plates from the table to the draining board, so throughout the day the debris from meals mounts up. Even the fridge is not left alone; food items get displaced to make way for vaccinations and veterinary supplies.

    It has often been said that farming is not a job but a way of life. Other families have days off together, couples go shopping or visit places of interest. Farmers’ days away from the farm often involve a visit to a cattle market or to another farm to see a new building or piece of machinery.

    The work goes on 24-7 and this impacts on everyone. The phone rings all the time. Work goes on until after dark. Cows calve in the middle of the night. The farmer is never off duty and this affects the rest of the family. It’s often very hard to get away. The sheer relentlessness is an aspect of the life that often shocks urban friends who tend to have romantic visions of a rural idyll.

    In recent years, some farm incomes have dropped so much that in many cases it is now the wife’s paid work that helps to keep the family on the farm. That work takes different forms. It might be bed and breakfast or some other type of diversification, but in many cases it is now outside employment. So the modern wife often has several jobs as well as running the home and helping on the farm. No wonder she was recently voted as the most important figure in farming, and how heartwarming that many of those votes must have come from farming husbands.

    The reality is that, despite the dirt, the anti-social hours, the frustrations and difficulties involved in farming, most farmers’ wives are as committed to the business and to the rural way of life as their husbands. It is that spirit of partnership, shared commitment and willingness to deal with adversity that is at the heart of the successful business.

    My husband isn’t exactly big on presents or flowers (I suppose he rarely leaves the farm and the local farmers’ store is about the only shop he can find his way round). His canny Yorkshire nature also tells him that such things are an extravagance. But he is generous when buying rounds in the pub and he is one of the world’s workers. Another of his strengths is dealing with adversity, which is just as well because on a farm things rarely go according to plan. He also good at making custard.

    There is an old saying around our way that a woman who marries a farmer has to realise that she will never come first in his life, and if he has a good dog she will not be second either. There is some truth in this but, fortunately for me, while there are many things our dog can be described as, “good” isn’t one of them.

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