That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Helen Marsden (29), Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in this week’s Women in Ag segment.
“I am a farmer’s granddaughter, but my parents did not farm, so I consider myself to be a first-generation farmer.
I fell in love with farming when I started helping on a small, family-run beef and sheep farm next to where I grew up in Lancashire, England.
From there, I spent mostly every weekend and evening there after school learning new skills such as lambing, calving and maintaining good animal welfare.
They also had their own farm shop, and I was able to gain some knowledge of butchery and preparing meat for sale. I think I was heavily influenced by my granddad to love farming.
He retired when I was young, but we would talk for hours about the lambing and calving I was doing on the farm, and he would tell endless stories about his old tractors, working horses and cattle.
Everyone was very open with me about the financial challenges of farming, the long hours for little reward, the increasing cost of land, and the lack of clarity or security within agricultural policy.
I was strongly encouraged to go and pursue a more gainful career, knowing that I could return to farming in future should I choose, and in following this advice, I carved my own career as a secondary school teacher for several years, despite knowing that farming was in my heart.
When I met my husband, Tom, in 2016, also a first-generation farmer, I was able to balance teaching with farming over the weekends and school holidays.
I did this for several years, but having our daughter in 2020 and spending more time working on the farm during lockdown made me realise that farming was really how I wanted to spend my life.
Ambitious young farmers
As ambitious young farmers, Tom and I had been building our flock of sheep by renting parcels of land across Lancashire.
Tom was working as a livestock manager running 2000 sheep and 100 cattle, and we were constantly looking out for the next farming opportunity, so we made investments in machinery and built our assets whilst we were both employed.
We had applied for several tenancies and contract agreements, often being short-listed to the final two or three but being unsuccessful in the final stages.
These setbacks only made us more determined, and we treated every application process as a valuable learning experience, each time asking for feedback about our application and interviews.
For each application, we sought advice and knowledge from farming friends and contacts that we had, knowing that listening to other people’s experiences would be invaluable to us.
In 2022, our efforts finally paid off, and we were offered a contract farming opportunity on a 1,600-acre hill farm in Dumfries and Galloway.
We were selected out of 37 candidates who applied for the opportunity, so it definitely felt like a real achievement.
1,500 sheep & 100 cattle on 1,600ac
We now run a flock of 1,500 North Country Cheviots, Scottish Blackface and Mule ewes and a herd of 100 Luing cattle on a low-input grass-based system.
Our cattle are outwintered and fed silage, and we will lamb and calve everything outside throughout April and May.
The farm is currently understocked, so we have the scope to increase our flock and herd numbers in future.
Our aim is to farm stock that are best suited to the landscape here in terms of performance, whilst remaining low input.
We want to farm sustainably and will experiment with our mixed rotational grazing system to ensure that we are improving the health of our soils.
Moreover, we are both interested in regenerative farming practices and have lots of ideas that previously we have never had the opportunity to implement.
We share the day-to-day responsibilities of running the farm whilst also looking after our daughter.
Life as a mother and a farmer is very rewarding. Our daughter loves to be on the farm with us, and it is a joy to watch her learn whilst getting fresh air, exercise and enjoying time with the animals.
However, juggling our responsibilities can be challenging, particularly as rural childcare provision is extremely lacking, which means that our daughter is with us at work seven days a week.
Although we take a certain amount of pride in working with our daughter, there are times when it is not safe or appropriate to have her with us.
Since facing these challenges, ourselves, I have discovered that the lack of rural childcare impacts many farming parents who are trying to juggle demanding work with livestock and machinery around young children.
Farming never stops, and no matter how much we romanticise the idea of it being a family affair, we all know that farm accidents can and do happen.
This April, we will be lambing and calving all of our stock between the two of us, so we have organised visiting family and friends to support us with childcare.
Our families are three hours away, but we are very lucky that they are willing to come and lend a hand when needed.
Despite the challenges, we are finding ways to adapt, and it will only get easier watching our daughter become more involved with the farm as she gets older.
Regardless of whether or not she chooses to farm herself, we hope that she will share our passion for what we do and the lifestyle that we have.
There are many reasons why we love what we do; working with animals, working outside within nature, feeling connected to our landscape, taking pride in the health and wellbeing of the stock in our care, producing nutritious food from land that would otherwise be unproductive.
Women in agriculture
My personal experience of being a woman in agriculture has been positive. My knowledge and skills have never been questioned because I am female.
I have worked in other industries where I have experienced misogyny, and farming, thankfully, seems to have made progress in this regard.
Nearly one in five farmers are female; however, I do feel that the industry still has a way to go before the experiences of men and women are the same.
As an industry, it is glaringly obvious (from speaking with other women, reading memoirs, forums and what is shared on social media, etc.) that women still shoulder the majority of the ’traditional’ domestic load; the housework, the childcare, the paperwork, juggling the organisation of family life. Many do all of this and farm full-time.
Therefore, our opportunities to farm may have increased, but perhaps too, our workload has increased rather than levelled with those of our male counterparts.
I follow many inspirational farming women on social media; Joyce Campbell, Helen Rebanks, Emma Gray and Lizzy Thomson, to name but a few.
These amazing women are proof that there is space within the industry for women to thrive, lead, teach, compete, and raise families.
There are certainly more doors open for young women to enter the industry, and to any young person who is thinking of starting a career in agriculture, I would encourage them wholeheartedly.
There are many opportunities for hard-working young people to travel and see how farming is done in other parts of the world, which is something that both Tom and I wish we had done when we were younger.
I suppose I would have three pieces of advice for anyone who is at the start of their career in agriculture:
- Travel – See the world and gain as many different experiences as you can before you commit to the financial ties of buying stock, renting land, taking on tenancies etc.
- Do not give up when you face setbacks – We had many before the right opportunity came our way, and each one was a valuable learning experience.
- Ask questions and keep learning – Never assume that you do not need to keep trying new ideas and approaches, and lean on the knowledge and experience of others to help you do so.
I still consider myself to be at the start of my career in agriculture, and although we have taken the first big step by starting our contract farming agreement, we still have a lot of work and a lot of learning to do.
Each year will bring new experiences, new strategies, new challenges, new agricultural policies, and new environmental guidance.
With that in mind, we are determined to rise to the challenges ahead of us and do our best with the new opportunity we have been given.”
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