‘Stereotypes are breaking down – but farming has a way to go’
- Credit: Archant
When farmers’ daughter Beth Duchesne first started driving a tractor on the road 10 years ago, gender stereotyping was so rife she could stop traffic.
"People used to stop in the street or nearly crash because they were looking up at the cab not expecting to see a young girl driving it," says the 27-year-old, who is now a senior agribusiness consultant with property consultants Bidwells.
While Beth - who lives in Bury St Edmunds - believes a lot has changed for the better, and attitudes are improving, there is still a way to go.
"Unfortunately, there is still a lot of the stereotyping within the industry. The older, male farmer is the one in all the books and who everyone sees when someone mentions a farmer," she says.
"It's not just the perception of the general public. When I first started as a consultant, it was difficult to gain respect from other farmers because I am a young girl starting out in my career, and it wasn't the 'natural' job I should have been doing.
"But 99% of the time I found that if I started talking about tractors or what I had been doing practically on the farm, that those barriers started to fall down and the tone of conversation changed to be a lot more positive and I was taken a lot more seriously.
"I do still feel that I need to prove myself in the industry a bit more than others may do, but times are changing, and it is a lot more common now for a woman to be advising farmers and driving tractors than it used to be."
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However, there is still a lot of negativity around farming, climate change and its impact on the environment, she admits.
"Sometimes you do get asked difficult questions," she says. "The industry doesn't have the greatest reputation and often gets the blame for things which aren't completely true or as a result of historic legacies."
But there is an opportunity to change how the industry is seen, and its importance to society, she says.
She believes her generation is "slightly more rebellious and not afraid to break the status quo and do something differently". She also thinks she and her peers are a bit more confident to question how things are done than previous ones.
Beth is based at Bidwells' Cambridge office, where she is part of its agribusiness team, managing farms across the UK and in particular East Anglia, with most of her clients based in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.
She and her colleagues provide day-to-day farm management advice, and have specialist knowledge of UK and European Union subsidies and grants, diversification and strategic planning.
Brought up on the family farm in Bury St Edmunds, she has been involved in agriculture from an early age.
As a youngster, she attended West Suffolk College, gaining a BTEC in business management, and went on to study agriculture with farm business management at Harper Adams University before joining Bidwells in 2014.
Her job involves looking at the financial side, as well as crop management, markets, sales strategies, benchmarking, grant and subsidies schemes and general farm performance.
She also advises landowners on the strategic side of their businesses, including expansion, investment into the farming enterprises and opportunities within the industry.
"I have always been interested in farming and it played such a huge part of my life growing up that to a certain extent it was probably in my blood," she says.
"There are so many opportunities and challenges out there, that you really have no idea what challenges you are going to face, or even what you will have to do the next day.
"I don't think I would have met as many people or had the opportunities to travel the world in another career. The sense of community within agriculture is amazing and you can't go anywhere without meeting a farmer."
Technological advances in agriculture are not as widely used in farming as they are in other industries, she admits.
"Some of this is down to cost, efficacy and availability, but some of it is also down to being brave and taking a risk. Our generation have been brought up with the internet and exciting bits of technology and therefore slightly more positive about its uptake and use on farm," she says.
Agriculture is heading into a period of big change and needs the next generation to tackle the challenges, she acknowledges.
"Innovation and improving competitiveness in the industry will be essential, and we will only be able to achieve this by young, driven and enthusiastic individuals pushing the boundaries and looking at new ways of doing things," she says.
She wants the industry to play a pivotal role not only in food production, but also in adding to the natural world and tackling climate change.
"The industry will cope, because it has to, but I can see the potential for a significant industry restructure in terms of the type and size of farming businesses we have today, especially in the arable and mixed farming sectors," she says.
"The first few years could be difficult, but once we have reappeared out the other side I think we will have a much more resilient industry."
Beth sits on the Country Land and Business (CLA) Suffolk Branch Committee.