Opinion: We must enable women to play a wider role in farming

I have been lucky enough to return from a few days away at Center Parcs with my husband and son. We were well overdue a break, and this was sure to be our last chance before calving started again.

We had a great time, but there are only so many times you can endure being dragged through a soft play area designed for people a quarter your size. I was glad to get back to the farm, despite the mayhem that is about to ensue.

See also: Liz Haines’ 10 hopes for the next generation

With my son almost turned two, I’m not sure if this calving season will be harder or easier than last. Gone are the days when he would happily nap for a couple of hours in the pickup. Everyone says that growing up on a farm is the best possible childhood, and of course I feel incredibly lucky to bring my son up around animals, knowing the value of hard work and with both parents home most days.

Liz-HainesLiz Haines and her husband Nick milk 320 spring-calving cows in north Shropshire

However, it can be isolating, particularly for mothers. Every meet-up involves getting in the car, and we frequently have to cancel plans at the last minute. Other parents don’t always understand, nor are they keen to bring their precious little ones into the perceived dirt and danger of the farm.

Neale McQuistin’s column a few weeks ago about the gender imbalance in farm unions resonated with me. As the only woman to attend our buying group meetings, one of two in our discussion group and being in a distinct minority at Arla meetings, I’m used to the daunting feeling of walking into a room full of men.

However, the more I do it, the more confident I feel. These events are my chance to be involved in the business beyond the farmyard, and escape the monotony of days at home with a toddler who fills me with pride daily, but can still only string three words together, one of which is usually “tractor”.

The Women in Dairy group initiative by RABDF and Promar International provides an invaluable space for sharing experiences and learning. However, women are still under-represented at wider, industry-level events, and I don’t think simply bringing in a quota system for 30% inclusion of women on boards will help those who are stuck at home feeling isolated.

We need to address the reasons why they aren’t participating. Are the topics relevant to them? Would they feel comfortable bringing a small baby or breastfeeding at a meeting? Are the meetings held at times that fit with school/childcare arrangements?

A while ago I joined an online group, and it opened my eyes to the amazing range of women involved in farming. Many have their own careers in fascinating areas, others are full-time farmers, and some are focused on looking after the family so the farm can keep running.

The group acts as an incredible support network. I would love to meet more of these women in the “real” world. Moreover, I hope the rest of the farming community will continue to develop events that meet women’s needs so more can get involved.

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