Opinion: Female farmers making their mark at events

This month, I’ve been honoured with an invitation to speak at the fourth Women in Dairy Conference.

They might regret this, as I’ll have a nine-week-old baby in tow who I’m hoping will sleep during my presentation. Most farmers are used to juggling children with work, so hopefully they will understand.

Women in Dairy was set up by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and AHDB Dairy in 2015. In some ways it is surprising that such an initiative hadn’t been set up sooner. Ladies in Pigs has been around for over 20 years, and Ladies in Beef since 2011.

See also: Fairer sex brings a touch of class to upland sheep farm

However, both organisations focus on promoting the product to consumers. Women in Dairy is different, in that its groups across the country are designed to develop the people rather than the market, with the aim to “connect, share and inspire”.

I have been regularly attending discussion groups since I started farming five years ago, so I was surprised when I went to my first Women in Dairy meeting to find that there were people there who had never been to anything like it.

Lack of provision

This seemed to be partly an issue of confidence, but also lack of provision. Other events are male-dominated, despite Defra stats which show that the number of women running farms jumped by nearly 10% to more than 25,000 between 2010 and 2013, not including female workers and farmers’ wives/partners. 

It’s something of a cliché that women are better at jobs like calf rearing because they have better attention to detail and are more nurturing than men. But that does a disservice to the other things they excel at, from driving machinery to managing staff, financial planning and more.

I’ve reared calves successfully on our farm, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural (my kitchen would look like a bombsite without my cleaner), and I must admit I’m more comfortable at my laptop.

I’m lucky that farming gives me the opportunity to do both. As farms get bigger, the range of roles required becomes even more diverse, and there is more room than ever before for women to showcase their talents. It’s therefore refreshing that Women in Dairy meetings cover a wide range of topics from on-farm practical areas to strategic business skills.

Breaking down barriers

The theme of this years’ conference is “breaking barriers”, something that really resonates with me as a new entrant without a farming background. The biggest barrier I have faced is finding opportunities to invest and grow a business rather than just be an employee, but this affects men and women equally.

Ironically, I would probably have faced more barriers in my previous career in publishing, where most of the workforce is female, but a disproportionate number of commissioning editors and directors are men.

I may have been entitled to maternity leave and pay, but I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the flexibility my life on the farm gives me to be available for my children whilst retaining an important role in the business – all while living in a beautiful part of the countryside rather than a dingy flat in London.

Despite the masculine image of farming, there are more opportunities than ever for women, which is why Women in Dairy is such an important initiative.

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