Return of the land girls: The growing army of women moving into farming

Charlotte Philby meets women moving into farming to improve their work-life balance – despite the terrible weather

Ask someone to describe a typical farmer and they might imagine a burly, weather-beaten man putting in unforgivingly long days of gruelling physical work.

While elements of the stereotype may still be valid – the average age of a farmer in Britain is 56, and the recent terrible weather has made the work even harder – a new generation is changing the face of the industry.

Take Jade Foster, a 26-year-old mother-of-one and thriving dairy farmer at Netherhall Farm in Fletching, East Sussex. Agricultural work has given Jade the flexibility that other jobs would not – she works part-time between three farms in the area, covering for regular cowmen, with daily shifts split into two parts.

As a single mother, she says it also gives her a rare work-life balance: "I'm responsible while I'm here, but when I get home I can switch off." In that sense she has "day-to-day control" of her life.

More to the point, adds Becky Miles from DairyCo – a not-for-profit organisation working on behalf of Britain's dairy farmers – women are better at certain aspects of the job. She is overseeing an industry initiative launching this week to widen representation in this traditionally male field. "Of course it makes sense. Women bring a different temperament which animals respond to – they tend to have a less aggressive approach."

There are now more than 23,000 women farmers in the UK, compared with 119,000 men. As the number of men starting out in the industry dropped in this country by 5,000 last year, the number of women taking to agriculture, be it arable, pastoral or dairy, rose by 6,000.

About time, too, says 31-year-old Jess Vaughan. She has been running the family farm in Gloucestershire alongside her father for seven years. "It is underestimated how much women have been involved over the ages. Behind every good farmer there is a good wife doing the paperwork and helping him along."

The nature of the industry has fundamentally changed, she says: "It is more about budgets and managing business now, and less about brawn and physical strength."

Vaughan got into dairy farming out of a love of nature – "You get to work outdoors, you're not stuck in an office, and the relationship you get with the animals is fantastic" – but it has also given her an avenue for her entrepreneurial instincts. As a result of the slump in milk prices, which has rumbled on since the 1990s, she decided to tap into the public thirst for local produce, creating the Jess's Ladies organic milk range, now stocked in 100 stores.

Jade Foster has no family background in farming. Like a number of young people moving into the industry, she did a two-year diploma in animal management. She then took a foundation degree in agriculture after having her son, William, who is now five and also aspires to being a farmer.

The number of women studying agriculture is on the rise. Plumbton College, where Jade studied, notes the percentage of female students has nearly doubled in five years from 16 per cent in 2005/06 to 30 per cent in 2010/11. At Sparsholt College, near Winchester, half of those enlisted on agriculture courses are female.

On Jade's course there was a mix of students. "Most of the women were going into working with sheep," she says. "A couple went into dairy farming, there was one full-time herds-lady." More than a quarter of those signing up to Dairy Pro – the dairy industry's continuing professional development programme, which creates a network of farmers, experienced and otherwise to help develop skills and training – are women under 45.

On an average day Jade starts at 5am. Cows are creatures of habit – among this herd of 146 Holstein-Friesians and Norwegian Reds, the same animals tend to sleep in the same beds (laid with sand rather than straw, which is easier to keep clean).

"They line into the milking parlour in roughly the same order, so if one that is usually at the front is way behind at the back, you know something is wrong." (So the cows can be monitored to see which are on heat, they file through to the parlour under a heat sensor which uses the same technology as a Nintendo Wii.) It is a "good wage", for which she oversees the cows – milking, calving in season (end of July to December), and grazing for six months of the year.

The animals should be out in the fields by now, but there isn't anything for them to eat given the prolonged bad weather. For the first time, farms across the UK have been importing wheat for cattle feed: "We've been running out of stock we'd usually be saving for autumn calving." The condition of forage has been poor. And while the cost of producing milk has gone up, the supermarkets won't pay any more, and in today's unstable market diversification is a risk.

But it is a greatly rewarding job, Jade concludes: "When it goes well, it is all worthwhile. You're making sure you have healthy, happy cows. You can see all the milk when your shift is finished – you can see something for your efforts by the end of the day. And then I get home to see my son."

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