‘They’re at the forefront’: the women leading the way through Britain’s farming crisis

<span>Holly Collins and Megan Jones in the Lake District. </span><span>Photograph: Bryn Lees</span>
Holly Collins and Megan Jones in the Lake District. Photograph: Bryn Lees

Back in the 1970s, Holly Collins was studying for her A-levels in Sussex. While her friends sent off their university applications, she wrote to the Royal Agricultural College asking for an entry form, hoping to follow her dream of becoming a farmer.

“They wrote back with the following answer: ‘Dear Miss Collins, we do not admit women.’”

Undeterred, she worked on a farm the following summer: “A lot of the tasks then were manual labour, so I’d just turn up at the farm gate and ask for a job. I was paid much less than the male students I worked with because I was female. The farmer’s father told him that, because I was the hardest worker, he should pay me the same as them – but he didn’t.”

Things, says the 64-year-old who now has her own upland farm, Hollin Bank, at the head of Coniston Water in the Lake District, have improved a lot for women in agriculture since then.

Though British farming is arguably at the most precarious point in its long history – thanks to changes caused by Brexit and food industry subsidies, lack of clear food production policies and increased concern over environmental issues – more women than ever are choosing a career in agriculture and, more importantly, moving into leadership roles.

Minette Batters, the first ever female president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU), may have stepped down this spring after six years in office, but women are still well represented in the union, with Rachel Hallos, a South Pennines farmer, installed as NFU vice-president and Abi Reader as deputy president for NFU Cymru. The Great Yorkshire Show has just got its first female show director in its 186-year history – dairy farmer Rachel Coates takes over after this year’s show in July. In the field of specialist skills, the UK has also just appointed its first female wool grader. Amy-Jo Barton, 22, is based at British Wool (formerly the British Wool Marketing Board) in Bradford where she sorts wool by hand based on style and characteristics; a job she finds “very therapeutic”.

While women comprised 17% of farmers in 2019, data from the Office for National Statistics for 2023 shows that of the 104,700 registered farmers, 22% are female. In the broader category of managers in agricultural services, women make up 32% of the workforce. According to recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 64% of agricultural students are women. For an industry that historically relies on father-to-son succession to pass on land and which used to exclude women from many of its educational establishments, farming has come a long way.

Coates, incoming director of the Great Yorkshire Show, says: “Women have always been the backbone of a farm. Now they’re no longer in the kitchen tied to the Aga, they’re at the forefront of the industry. It’s good to see this take-up of leadership roles.”

Louisa Dines, principal lecturer in agronomy at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, thinks farming has lagged behind in terms of gender diversity but is finally catching up with other industries.

“Farmers’ wives and daughters were always important – farms are typically family businesses and intertwined with home life – but women used to operate below the radar,” she says. “Historically local meetings were in the pub or village hall. Wives often weren’t invited or had to look after the children. Even if they did go, it can be intimidating walking into a room full of men, but new communication platforms – such as social media and video conferencing – have made it easier for women to take part.”

There are more than 14,000 members of the Facebook group Ladies Who Lamb and farmers such as the Yorkshire Shepherdess and the Red Shepherdess have huge followings on TikTok and Instagram. Dines says she recently attended an agritech conference to promote links between women in farming in Poland, Ukraine and England. Previously these women had worked in isolation but not had a sense of community. “It was so interesting to see how far we’ve come.”

Traditions need to change more, though. The average age of a British farmer is 59 and the business is still typically passed down the male side of the family. A 2022 survey in Northern Ireland found that inheritance was the second biggest challenge faced by women in farming. The biggest was male dominance.

Molly Lewis, whose family have farmed sheep on 250 acres of pasture in Powys, Wales, for 350 years, says this attitude is starting to shift. The 20-year-old plans to take over when her father and his brother retire. She splits her time between working in the family business and the local agricultural market.

In the past, men sometimes felt pressured to take on the farm even if their heart wasn’t in it, but now it goes to whoever is interested

Molly Lewis, farmer

“In the past, sometimes men felt pressured to take on the farm even if their heart wasn’t in it, but now it goes to whoever is interested. I’ve noticed a lot more women happily getting involved. It feels natural, especially here. We have an open hill farm in the Elan Valley, and do a lot of community work with all our neighbours. You see women and girls on the hills doing the same jobs as the men and no one thinks anything of it.”

Lewis also talks of the community’s fury at the Welsh government’s sustainable farming scheme – the post-Brexit plan for funding the industry which includes ensuring 10% of farmland is under tree cover.

Collins’s farm has low densities of mixed livestock and a nice sideline in educational courses teaching traditional farming skills such as dry stone walling and coppicing. It’s currently host to two masters students researching finance and birdlife. She brought in two women – Megan Jones and Katherine Andrews – to manage Hollin Bank alongside her.

She says she has had difficulties with “a lack of respect” from male farmers. “But I am learning at a late age and from the wonderful young women who work with me that you don’t have to instil fear in others to succeed in this very male world. We try to be warm and encouraging of anyone who is interested. I’m not sure this is a ‘female’ attitude to farming but I suspect it might be.”

None of the three at Hollin Bank grew up in agricultural families, bucking the tradition of succession. While Collins had a “striking ambition” to farm her whole life, her colleagues originally worked in conservation and nature restoration.

“As 70% of the UK is farmland, I wanted to understand how conservation and agriculture intertwine,” says Andrews. “I also believe we need to localise the food economy to save food miles, create jobs and deepen our connection to the land.”

If farming is in crisis it may be this new generation who look to change the status quo who will be able to find a resolution. All of them seem keen to evolve. Coates’s big ambition for the Yorkshire Agricultural Society is to engage young people because “we need to make farming relevant – there are going to be changes in agriculture over the next few years and we need to adapt”.

Dines points to the increased importance of marketing and communication – from farm shops and crafts to environmentally friendly farming practice – “all the public-facing activities at which women excel”.

Jones, who worked in restoration before joining Hollin Bank two years ago, also points to the need for communication within the indusry as well as with the public.

“We need to strengthen food systems that value farmers’ extensive knowledge of the landscapes they work in,” she says. “I think we need to listen to farmers and figure out what works financially and ecologically. How can we build resilient ecosystems?”

The reason so many more women have moved into farming is perhaps best explained when Jones talks about what she enjoys most about her work.

“My favourite thing about working on a farm is the daily and seasonal rhythms. Each day you adapt and respond to the environment and the animals. Days when we move the sheep or cows are always good days, walking with them is like a moving meditation. For someone who spent very little time doing practical work growing up, I find working with my hands very rewarding and empowering – especially as a woman.”