Business management

Tips for joining farming’s growing female force

It may traditionally have been a man’s world, but the number of women working in farming is on the up. Here, four successful women in agriculture, and its supporting industries, offer their advice for young women considering a career in farming.

“Be your own cheerleader”

Hannah Jackson, aka The Red Shepherdess, contract shepherdess, Cumbria

“Farming is a great community but breaking into it can be challenging for women – especially if you don’t have a farming background. 

“You need to prove yourself, find opportunities, and be your own cheerleader. That can be daunting when you’re surrounded by men, but I never let being a woman be an excuse not to pursue a career doing something I loved.

“Being a woman in farming can be difficult to navigate, but there are lots of opportunities. Technology in particular is helping to open up more roles for women by making jobs less physically demanding. I’ve found that women bring innovation to the field too: we’re not scared to do things differently and leave tradition behind.

“To give yourself the best chance, get a broad understanding of the industry. Get as much experience as you can – even if it’s not in an area where you know you want to work eventually. 

“Knock on doors and apply for everything that’s offered: thanks to conference scholarships with the NFU [National Farmers’ Union] and the National Sheep Association I learnt everything from business skills to media skills and veterinary advice. Social media has also been an invaluable tool for connecting with other farmers and learning from them.

“You’re always going to come across people who will make judgements, but farming’s definitely becoming fairer. Most men see that women are the backbone of the industry, whether they are farming, doing accounts or looking after the family, and acknowledge success isn’t possible without their other half.”

“Find a mentor”

Minette Batters, National Farmers’ Union president and beef, sheep and arable farmer, Wiltshire

“Agriculture is definitely more accessible to women than it has been in the past, and it’s continuing to improve. Women bring a different perspective to the industry, and it’s important that they’re part of it.

“By the very nature of the job, farming can be incredibly challenging, so the best advice I can offer young women is to find a mentor. Whether it’s a family member or another farmer, having someone you can talk to when you want some advice or are feeling overwhelmed is really important. 

“Something I’ve always found, especially in my current role as NFU president, is that having experience of different sectors – and understanding how different businesses in those sectors might tackle problems – can be really helpful. 

“Before any young women make decisions about their careers, I’d recommend they get some experience across the supply chain. Broadening their horizons will be enormously beneficial wherever they do eventually end up.

“When I started farming, I quickly learned that farmers speak their mind. But what I found is that flattery gets you to a lot of places: Be nice to people and you will be amazed at what you get back.

Whether it’s a family member or another farmer, having someone you can talk to when you want some advice or are feeling overwhelmed is really important

Minette Batters
President, National Farmers’ Union

“It’s easy to think that being aggressive and assertive will help when you’re in a male-dominated environment, but it doesn’t. I’ve found that the people who are really friendly and genuine are the people who resonate. People don’t want to have to deal with difficult people, and if you try to be helpful and friendly it makes a difference – and makes life more enjoyable too.”

“Know when to ask for help”

Claire Whittle, livestock vet, Shropshire

“The opportunities for women in agriculture are endless, but for me the best thing about working in the industry is the chance to feel part of a community. Farming is one of the last bastions of proper community – everybody does their bit for each other and it’s a wonderful feeling to know you can be a part of helping people’s businesses and animals to thrive. 

“It’s definitely becoming easier for women to become farm vets. Unfortunately, some sexism arises occasionally, but these instances are fewer as more women enter the profession. I can count on one hand the number of times being a woman vet has been brought up as a ‘problem’. 

“The old attitude that you need to be ‘big and strong’ to be a farm vet is changing too – our job is much more than just strength; it’s about brains not brawn.

“I don’t come from a farming background, so getting lots of farm work experience and being prepared to ask questions has been invaluable and is something I’d recommend to young women.

“Farmers know a lot, and many are prepared to teach, but this means you need to know your weaknesses and when to ask for help. I still call my colleagues for advice on cases when I’m not 100% sure, and I know my farmers appreciate that.

“You have amazing highs and lows as a farm vet, but ultimately your response to the bad days is what makes you better at your job. If you have a bad case, you go home and reflect on what could have gone better and what you would do next time. Every day’s still a school day, and that’s okay.”

“Follow your passion”

Caroline Miller, farmer and founder of luxury farm retreat, The Hideaway Experience, Dundee

“Access to finance and land prices will always make it difficult for anyone who wants to farm independently, but for women, becoming farmers can be even more challenging.

“Few women seem to inherit family farms — something I know from my own experience as my brother was always the one lined up to be the farmer.

“I ended up studying sociology at university and went on to work in market research and event management before working and travelling overseas. As it turned out, having those experiences outside the industry were vital – I was able to support the family business with knowledge and new ideas from outside the farm.

“Farms are businesses, and they’re not all about working with stock or crops (although women can do this as easily as men). They need financial management, long-term strategy and innovation.

“Farmers need to be able to communicate with customers, the public and about products they sell, and women can play a key role here. The same is true for farm diversification. Agritourism, which I’m involved in, requires a commercial and consumer-facing focus which few farmers have traditionally had to consider.

“In many diversified enterprises women are the driving force behind the venture’s success, and this can see them ending up with more responsibilities and decision-making in the wider business.

“Attitudes towards women are definitely changing, but not fast enough. Women need to put themselves forward for all types of opportunities: The more women who come forward, get involved and support each other, the more progress is made. 

“My biggest piece of advice would be to do what you are interested in and makes you happy. You’ll always be successful if you have a passion.”

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