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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Life and Style
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'