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Women in farming

Soil Association’s Helen Browning explores how diversity in farming can support solutions for climate, nature and health
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Soil Association's Helen Browning

This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 08 March 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of women employed in farming, forestry and fishing has fallen from a peak of 215,000 in 2015 to 68,000 today.

This feels counter-intuitive to me; not only is there an increasing focus on diversity in these traditionally male sectors, but today women seem far more visible and, in my experience, more numerous, than in the past.

I started to think about becoming a farmer in the ‘70s; there didn’t seem to be many women around – and there was no sign of ethnic diversity either.

It wasn’t, of course, that women weren’t involved in farming; the ‘farmer’s wife’ was probably holding it all together on many family farms, rearing the calves, doing the books, keeping everyone sane and fed. But they were not recognised as ‘the farmer’.

Post-war farming

As farms became larger and more profitable in the post-war era – it’s hard to believe but there was a spell from the ‘50s through to the early ‘80s when it was possible to make money on the land – many farmers, certainly in England, did much less of the day-to-day work themselves, and their wives likewise.

My mother was strongly opposed to the idea of me farming; it was simply not what girls should aspire to do.

Luckily I had the role models of my great aunts – four sisters who lived together on the family farm, running it and their lives with what always seemed to me to be glorious independence.

They perhaps continued the short-lived era of the land army; when the men went to war, women were needed to keep food production going, and we were liberated from domesticity and allowed, even encouraged, to wear the trousers.

When the survivors returned needing jobs, this seems to have rapidly reversed – except there were fewer men than women for a period.

Some, like my great aunts, remained unmarried and in their case continued to live from the land.

Apart from them, ‘conventional’ farming circles seemed devoid of women either running their own farming businesses or being employed in senior management roles.

So it was with some joy and surprise, as I began to get involved in the organic movement in the ‘80s, that I realised: ‘Ah, this is where all the women are!’

Why equality matters

At traditional farming events, I might be the only female in the room. At organic events, perhaps 40% of participants were women.

Why the difference? Perhaps couples in the more progressive farming world had more equal relationships.

Perhaps women are drawn to organic farming, recognising the importance of working with nature and protecting the environment for future generations.

I’m often asked about the attitude of my male peers as I started my farming career. To be honest, except for the team on the farm – all male, mostly twice my age and initially deeply sceptical of their young female boss (with these organic ideas to boot) – neighbouring farmers and those I met as I started to get involved in committees and commissions were almost universally fine.

The people around me seemed more challenged by my strong interest in organic farming than by my gender.

Once they recognised that I knew a bit of what I talked about, and especially if they visited my farm, they were largely supportive.

I was very lucky to have a father who gave me every opportunity and, later, a partner who backed me practically and emotionally.

My initial battles were mostly with women who seemed uneasy with my lack of conformity to feminine principles.

But I was running my own business. I think it was, and possibly still is, harder for those working in a corporate environment where glass ceilings can be culturally embedded.

Even today I see plenty of women with farming and food businesses, but very few employed as farm managers.

I’m not sure why this is. Are women more drawn to some aspects, such as animal husbandry, and less to others, meaning they don’t get the rounded experience required for the top jobs? And if so, is this because they aren’t given the opportunities, or that they don’t push for them?

Either way, I hope it will change. We have Stella on The Archers but few role models in real life.

So if the ONS numbers are correct, we need to take this as a serious challenge. As in many walks of life, having an equal number of men and women involved will be crucial if we are to transition farming and forestry into the solutions for climate, nature and health that they must become.

More diversity, and not just in gender, will bring the ideas and attributes needed for a vibrant future for the land and for the many people – indeed all of us – who will depend on it.

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