Women farmers ‘on the rise’

Farmer Lotty Barbour of Cratfield, near Halesworth

Farmer Lotty Barbour of Cratfield, near Halesworth - Credit: Archant

When Lotty Barbour’s father died suddenly of a heart attack one summer, she felt she had no choice but to see in the harvest.

After that, it was a case of just getting on with it.

The late William Barbour had three daughters and no sons, so the girls grew up knowing their way around the farm.

“I wasn’t intimidated - I saw it as a challenge,” she says. “We had to get on with the job.”

Ten years on, Lotty, now 45, still manages Manor Farm at Cratfield, near Halesworth, and is part of a small but growing army of women farmers. It’s a group that feels optimistic about their future within the industry, as a recent survey by Barclays Business has revealed.

It found that nearly nine in 10 women farmers felt positive, and predicts that the numbers of women farmers will rise over the next two or three years.

“I didn’t have a brother so we were all expected to help on the farm, so it was us or nothing. Our father was always happy to let me help,” she explains.

Most Read

“I took over the farm because we suddenly lost my father just before harvest so therefore there was a farm here with crops that had grown for the year and a harvest to come in.”

From then on, Lotty took over the day-to-day management of the farm. One sister, Vicky Lockie, is a silent partner in the arable business, while her other sister, Sara Saunders, is a farm secretary in her own right and provides support on the accounts side.

Lotty admits it was “a very steep learning curve” but she had studied agriculture at college and managed a farm park. She points out that there have always been women farmers, such as her own great aunt, who farmed from the 1960s to the 1980s in Bedfordshire.

“I don’t think it’s a case that there were no woman in farming, I think it was a case that it was fewer. I know of people way back that ran the farm. It’s not totally unique, but it’s just a case that we have been a minority and we have obviously been working in what people presume is a man’s world,” she says.

“There’s getting more of us, and I’m obviously pro that.”

Lotty’s is a small farm by today’s standards in East Anglia, at 320 acres. She grows wheat and oilseed rape and separately keeps about 120 calves on the beef side of the operation. She sells the beef under the Cratfield Beef label. She is inevitably very hands-on, dealing with both the management and the physical work on the farm. But technology, whether in the field or in the office, is now an integral part of what she does.

“There’s a lot more machinery about to help us, but I think we are also the types of people who’ll muck in and get our hands dirty,” she says.

“A lot of old-school farmers that are retiring now think women can’t do it, whereas the more modern thinking ones think they can.

“I know on farms some people have had a real fight to get involved at all.”

Meanwhile, Lotty’s partner, James Scoones, works independently on his own farm although there is some crossover.

The Barclays report, Women in Farming: The Changing Face of Agriculture in the UK, surveyed 1,410 women farmers. It found that women are becoming increasingly important to the future success of UK farms. Latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the number of women farmers has swelled to 23,000 compared to 19,000 male farmers.

The study found younger female farmers are the most optimistic, with 40% under the age of 24 and 40% of those aged 25 – 34 saying they were very optimistic about the future of their farm, higher than any other female age group.

This outlook was shared by younger female farmers when it comes to the role of women in agriculture in the future. Nearly four in 10 (39%) of those under 24 years old are optimistic about the role of women in agriculture in the future, alongside 42% of 25 – 34 year olds – again, more than any other age groups. Technology and improvements in machinery are probably the biggest contributing factor allowing women to take a more dominant role within the industry.

National agricultural specialist Oliver McEntyre said: “The nature of the farming industry is changing for women, aided by developments in technology there is now less focus on physical strength and more focus on budget and managing the business. As such, female farmers have seen their roles change and grow over recent years, leading to increased optimism.

“We have seen the number of female owned farming businesses increase by 3% in recent years, particularly strong in lowland cattle and sheep farms 11% and farm services, excluding vets, 10% and we anticipate further growth over the next two to three years as well. This increased optimism has resulted in our lending to agricultural businesses increasing by 13% over the past year.

The Barclays Agriculture report revealed that female farmers believe their top greatest strengths lie in office management (66%), domestic duties (52%) practical work (42%) and business strategy (40%) and staff management (29%), highlighting the range of areas they now cover. Further still when it comes to practical duties outside of the office 81% say they tend to livestock compared to 66% of men, 66% of women say they undertake young stock management compared to 50% of men, and 25% of women who perform practical duties undertake milking compared to 16% of men.

Outside of the farm work, more women also have other employment than men. More than a quarter (27%) of women undertake extra employment off the farm but within the agricultural industry compared to 22% of men. An additional 23% also have other employment in a completely different industry to agriculture, compared to just 12% of male farmers. The main reason cited for the extra work is personal financial need with 33% of women saying this is the case compared to 28% of men.

National Farmers Union deputy president Minette Batters said: “There are increasingly more women coming into agriculture, judging by the number in agricultural colleges and universities. There are greater opportunities to be involved in farming–related businesses and the wider industry that doesn’t involve acquiring land – science and retailing, for example. Women have played a key role in many diversification projects, as well as being the backbone of traditional farming practice. I’m not surprised that the survey shows them to be very optimistic about the future.”

Mr McEntyre pointed out that years ago women largely fulfilled the domestic role on farms, and the role they played was very different to today.

“Now they play a key part in decision making, business strategy as well as physical work on the farm. As our report shows as well, many women often have outside work from farming, meaning they work exceptionally long hours. The next few years are definitely an exciting time for women in the farming industry. It’s clear they are hugely optimistic about their future and the exciting opportunities that are now available to them,” he said.