Women in agriculture: Bella Hall

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. Bella Hall is one of five women we asked to give us a snapshot into this multi-faceted, varied and ever-changing role

Bella Hall
  • Bella lives on a farm at Metfield on the Norfolk/Suffolk border with husband Dave and their three children
  • The farm covers 1500 acres and has 200-plus milking cows
  • Bella designs and runs the Southwold Maize Maze during the summer

    We are often accused of being obsessed with the weather in this country. Well, in this house, we definitely are.

    It shapes our year, it’s largely responsible for our successes and our failures, it dictates our social life (a Sunday isn’t a Sunday unless it is pouring with rain) and it can be our biggest adversary. This year, though – for once – it feels like it’s been on our side.

    In our part of the world, this has been an incredibly dry year (apologies to those who have had the highest rainfall on record) and this brought many benefits.

    In the spring, all the spray applications to the crops were done on time and in good conditions. This meant we actually had a whole Easter weekend, the first in years, and found ourselves wondering what to do on Easter Monday. I usually don’t bother even trying to organise anything at that time of year; we only end up cancelling because there’s work to be done, or we would invite family for lunch and Dave would turn up minutes before they arrived.

    The fair conditions of the spring set the pattern for later months. Most arable tasks could be performed in an orderly manner and largely during the working week. Dave was able to spend more time with us as a family at weekends. With some fantastic weather in late spring/early summer, we had fun with family and friends at a time when we would normally be far from sociable.

    Harvest came and went without the usual dramas. A bumper crop, our best ever, but because conditions stayed dry it was all in the sheds in record time, unlike the previous year when it had rained all summer and harvest had stretched on into September.

    Although the Indian summer caused problems for the drilling, it was trouble-free compared to some years when it’s been so wet that we’ve drilled into frosts in late November.

    Since starting our maze diversification five years ago I have become increasingly aware of the power that the elements hold over our business (what’s happened in Cumbria has certainly reminded me of the devastating effects extreme conditions can have on homes, businesses and livelihoods).

    Every year we worry whether the maize is ever going to grow tall enough for us even to open. When it’s open we study the weather forecasts avidly to establish what sort of a day I will have at the maze. Too hot and people go to the beach; too wet, people stay at home; cloudy and cold, people come but don’t stay for long affecting our refreshment sales and sandwich orders; warm, slightly cloudy days are perfect and the place is full. The combination of farming and tourism is double trouble. Dave and I now have a shared empathy when it pours with rain in the middle of August. It spells disaster for both of us.

    We started the enterprise in 2005 at a time when farm incomes were under pressure (I was also looking for a way to escape doing the farm office work as I was an awful secretary). Diversification was the buzzword.

    With the aid of a Rural Enterprise Scheme grant, the Maize Maze became a reality and, from breaking even in its first year, has become a respectable part of our overall farm income.

    This year was an important one as it marked its fifth year as a business and fulfilled our obligations under the terms of our grant – we were obliged to keep it open for at least that length of time. Fortunately, thanks largely to the favourable weather and the “stay-cation” concept, this has been our most successful year to date.

    Despite the “double trouble” that it causes during the summer in terms of our workload, we have decided to continue with it. As a mother of three children and the wife of a farmer with irregular work patterns, the maze provides me with a job that can make an important contribution to our income. I can do it on a part-time basis and usually can fit it around the children.

    Also, it’s great to have visitors and for them to take an interest in farming. This is the true benefit to our industry from the diversification era. It has enriched British farming and made it more accessible to the general public. They are engaging with agriculture in a completely new way.

    Diversification in its many different forms has restored pride and interest back to British farmers. Many of these projects have been started by us farmers’ wives. Long may it continue.

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