The buxom farmer's wife might be an image popular in story books, but it's one that's changing fast. Today's farmers' wives are likely to be experts in nutrition, innovative farming practices and strategic breeding programmes, and they're gradually emerging as leading players in an industry that's reinventing itself to keep up with the times.
Liz Best, an organic dairy farmer who lives in Gloucestershire, would know. She's been judged by the First Milk dairy farmer co-operative as producer of the county's highest-quality milk four years running, and has just won its national award as well, beating more than 2,500 other producers. Getting up at 5.15am for the first milking of the day is an occupational necessity, but it's more than hard work that has won Best her prizes. It's also having meticulous attention to detail and a good head for business and insisting on scrupulous cleanliness. First Milk praised her exceptional standards in practice and hygiene, going the extra mile to ensure that her animals are stress-free, for instance, even using mats and straw in sheds.
"I've always done the milking – I love the animals," she says. "You've got to be dedicated and love what you're doing." Her son Simon is studying farm management, and though he has experience of farm work, she is a firm believer that education plus experience is what counts today. "You have to have a business head and be on the ball," she says.
Tom Hind, chief dairy adviser for the National Farmers' Union, agrees that those joining the industry and aiming for a management position need training in the skills now required to run a dairy business. "It's not just milking cows," he says. "It's about nutrition, managing animals to reduce risks of disease and maintaining high levels of fertility, knowing how to feed and breed cows so they're healthy and live long. And you have to manage the financial risk. Milk prices are higher than they used to be, but costs are equally high."
But despite recent retrenchment in the industry – the number of dairy farms is probably around half that of 10 years ago – and current economic turmoil, Hind says that as a population gets richer, the more dairy produce it consumes. So if you're dedicated and ahead of the game in dairy farming, there should be money to be made. In Britain, skilled farm workers are hard to come by – the demand is there, and so are the salaries.
According to Tom Campbell, chairman of the First Milk Academy, which runs workshops and business clubs for members who want to find ways to increase efficiency, an assistant dairyman can earn between £20,000 and £30,000 a year, plus accommodation, and a qualified one around £35,000, also with accommodation. "Jobs in agriculture have had a bad image because of declining industries, bad pay and bad hours," he says. "People may not realise that these salaries and conditions are available. You do work long hours, but it can be hugely enjoyable working with animals in the countryside."
Getting on the ladder can be tricky if your parents don't own a farm and you aren't able to inherit animals and infrastructure. Barbara Hughes, dairy committee chair of the Women's Food and Farming Union, which runs programmes to encourage youngsters to the enter the business, says that if the price paid for milk rises further, making it more profitable to produce it, more people will be attracted to it. "For beginners, county council dairy starter units – small farms that people can rent – are a good proposition. Some councils have sold them off, but they do still exist, and people starting in a small unit may be able to move up to a larger one if it becomes free."
Share farming schemes, common in New Zealand, are taking off here, with farmers starting with a small slice of the business and gradually buying more, eventually buying out older farmers.
For careers information and details of local land-based colleges or training providers, contact Lantra, the Sector Skills Council for environmental and land-based industries on 0845 707 8007, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lantracoursefinder.co.uk
How to get in
*Join a local group such as the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs ( www.nfyfc.org.uk ) to get yourself known locally – word of mouth opens up opportunities
*Record your efforts– if you work for a local business, ask the owner to sign a work record for you and make positive comments about your performance
*A new diploma in environmental and land-based studies that can be studied alongside GCSE and A-levels will be available ( in England only) from next September. Visit www.diplomaelbs.co.uk