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A woman's work

With our agriculture in crisis a new breed of farmer's wife is transforming life on the land with energy and lateral thinking. Jack O'Sullivan meets one in full flow in rural Kent
Julie Dinnis's chocolate cake is so sticky, it is impossible to talk while eating it. I nod silently as she laughs: "You probably thought I'd be a buxom lady with red cheeks, a frilly dress and a white pinny, baking cakes. That's the image of a farmer's wife, isn't it?"

But, excellent cakes aside, Julie Dinnis certainly does not fit the stereotype. In the eight centuries that her medieval, moated manor house has stood in Kent's Darent Valley, there cannot have been many mistresses of the house who have parked a baby's buggy beside them while they muck out the horses.

For Mrs Dinnis, 32, there has been no maternity leave since George, her first child, was born in May. She still rounds up the cattle when they escape and walk into the nearby village of Shoreham. And she still drives the truck when they are moved to outlying grazing on the chalklands of the North Downs.

Mrs Dinnis speaks of her delight at discovering that George dropped asleep the minute she started up the giant combine harvester. Indeed she hopes to patent his specially adapted pram with its extra large, fat tyres, capable of travelling across the roughest terrain on the 400 acres that she and her husband John own as partners in the business.

Julie Dinnis is one of a new generation of farming women who, ironically, are thriving amid one of Britain's worst agricultural crises this century. As traditional activities such as raising livestock and cultivating crops plunge into loss, their innovation, creativity and hard work are keeping many farms going. Such is their hidden contribution that even the conservative National Farmer's Union is changing its membership rules so that farmers' wives also qualify as members.

For Mrs Dinnis the answer to financial difficulties is horses. We are sitting in the kitchen, with the Aga belting out heat. In the background is the sound of ducks in the moat swimming past the stone-mullioned windows. John, 39, with his face tanned by a lifetime on the land, is trying to feed George. Julie is planning a new business venture.

"We need to set up some cross-country jumps," she says. "So people will come in a lorry for the day and pay to ride around the farm. That's our next project."

"If you say so," responds the slightly weary father.

"John thinks he will have to build the jumps," says Julie. "But I've got people to design them. We'll use the farm staff to build them."

A sigh from the direction of the high chair. "You know it will be me who builds them." Julie concedes. "Okay, it'll be you." Pause. "And you can look after the baby, while I jump them." Everyone laughs.

For the past six years, Mrs Dinnis has been building a business around horses. It started when she began doing "liveries" - offering board and lodging - for horses belonging to friends. With the onset of BSE, old cattle buildings were converted into stables. Now 45 horses are housed on the property. But as she walks me around the farm it is clear that, if this did not prove profitable, she would simply shift into another activity. "You can see how the buildings are just boards at the front and have a single pillar," she says. "So they could easily be turned over to another use such as storage."

Meanwhile, the horses have gradually edged in on the farm's traditional activities. "About five years ago we set up a farm ride along the headlands of the fields. These are the least productive areas. But it took a while. I had to convince John that they would not destroy the crops."

Gradually, the farm is becoming like a golf course, charging the equivalent of green fees for horse-lovers to enjoy a day out. And Mrs Dinnis has also spotted the potential for building off-farm business, establishing herself as the county's co-ordinator for the supply of chopped straw bedding for stables.

In many ways, John is lucky that he did not marry a farmer's daughter. Julie's father is a civil engineer and she brought fresh skills and outlook to the farm. First, of course, was her love of horses, with which she spent much of her youth. But before marrying, she also worked in project management for a land agent. She is well qualified to develop the farm's assets and do the accounts.

In 1989, she oversaw the conversion of farm buildings into small workshops. "Now," she says, "we have five small units, with one making furniture, another doing gearboxes, another selling midwifery equipment, one making signs and the fifth supplying water-purifying equipment."

You do not expect such a buzz of activity as you arrive at Filston Farm, down a single track, which is almost overwhelmed by tall hedges and leads into an apparently sleepy yard. There are kingfishers in the moat. And the house itself feels ancient, with its large, squat front door opening up into a vast hallway. In the tile-floored cellar, where Mrs Dinnis brews walnut wine, it is not difficult to believe the story that 1,000 Roundheads hid there as a Royalist army searched the district where Oliver Cromwell's sister lived. Upstairs, on the third floor, there is a bare, timbered room untouched for decades. Here, you can still catch a slight whiff of the chickens that were housed here during the war to protect them from foxes.

Yet such is the current activity in this backwater that the family has had to erect barriers made of old tyres in the road to slow down the considerable traffic. Some of the cars are tenants living in once-derelict cottages, which Mrs Dinnis renovated for renting. "We had to redecorate them, choose new carpets, and put in central heating and new kitchens," says Mrs Dinnis. "All this sort of stuff is jobs for the girls." The changes seem only beginning. She considered starting a creche but decided that Lady, the German shepherd, Gromit, the springer, and Sorrel, the giant deerhound, who follow baby George everywhere, might frighten off some mothers.

"We're always looking for new opportunities," says Mrs Dinnis. "I've thought about doing bed and breakfast, but the house is too big. The safety people said we would have to split up the large hallway with fire doors. A fire officer suggested that we invest a million pounds and open a hotel, but I'm not sure. I like people, but not that much. But we have already turned one side of the house into self-contained units, which we could have as a honeymoon suite for Saturday nights.

"Then there is always the option of weddings and functions. I actually have a booking for a wedding in August 2000. They could use our lounge and then walk out on to the bridge over the moat into a marquee in the horse paddock. Of course, we would have to de-poo it," she laughs.

Julie Dinnis has plenty of female friends nearby who are being similarly innovative on farms. "A neighbouring farm has gone into dried flowers, using special drying equipment. Further down the valley a farmer's wife has diversified into bed and breakfast and her sister is into haute couture. She has a workshop on the farm making wedding dresses and fancy outfits."

John Dinnis recognises the impact his wife has made on the farm. "I don't think it would be as diverse but for Julie," he says. "The projects need a lot of management and someone who likes people - all of which she is good at. If you had to employ someone to do them, it probably wouldn't be worth it once you paid their wages." And he sees the difference between his wife and his own mother, Mary, who is retired. "She was a land girl during the war, but when she married, her job was really to run the house. Those were the days before dishwashers and washing machines. There was so much more to do in the house. She wasn't involved in the business side of the farm." Julie adds: "She says to me: `I don't know how you manage to do everything.' I don't think she ever drove a tractor."

John Dinnis now sees his wife's activities as the future for the farm. "We realise that agriculture is in long-term decline. When George grows up it will be very different. I guess that our major product, rather than being wheat or livestock, will be the landscape of the countryside. People will want to see the fields, the hedges and the wildlife. George will be a park-keeper."

You can't help feeling that Julie has helped her husband to face reality. "Our core activity is in trouble," she says. "But we have quite a simple approach to life. We don't need loads of money. We now know that if the worst happened to farming, we would survive here."