That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, Fiona Wilshaw (24) of Bates Farm, Warrington, North Cheshire, UK, in this week’s Women in Ag segment.
“I am a Harper Adams graduate, taking a wealth of academic knowledge to our home farm, where I am trying to keep up with the basics whilst also introducing small improvements to hopefully make a big difference.
I am currently living at home on our family farm and am the third generation to be farming at Bates Farm, which my grandad purchased in 1953, six years before my dad was born.
Our family has rented other farms in the local area before they permanently moved the whole business to Bates Farm.
I can remember dad’s childminding responsibilities included farming duties. My sister and I would have old sofa cushions to make the uncomfortable behind the tractor seat space comfortable for the long hours of sowing and ploughing.
Dad said when I was only three or four, I noticed fertiliser was not coming out of the spreader; he did not take notice until the crop was stripey a few weeks later.
I have always been involved and interested in our farm; however, I had not been encouraged to take on a full-time role on the farm when I was growing up.
My late gran has been one of my biggest cheerleaders. She was very encouraging of me moving away to university and told all of her friends that I was ‘a real farmer’.
My sister has been very encouraging of my return home to the farm after trying a career which was fairly desk-based and did not match my skill-set.
Towards the end of high school, I decided on a biology route, although I did not enjoy chemistry enough to pursue A Levels, which would be required to be a large animal vet.
In an education timeline, I only decided to pursue an agricultural course at university whilst I was at college, aged 17.
I think as I gained my driving licence, I became a key member of our harvest team and the more responsibility I had, the more I enjoyed working on our farm.
Moreover, I spent a lot of time working on other farms and in other businesses, such as with nutritionists, feed mills, and animal health companies, to try and find an area of the industry I would like to specialise in.
I farm with my dad on our family farm. I don’t have a separate holding, but my sister and I did buy 8 Dutch Spotted females and a tup last summer. We have lambed 3 ewes so far but will wait until next year to lamb the gimmers.
We are a mixed farm with between 300-400 beef cattle (lighter at the moment but it depends on the year and how successful a harvest is).
Overall, we farm 200-acres of combinable crops (usually barley, wheat, oats and beans) and have 70-acres of grass which are not as suitable for cultivating. Consequently, we have just over 100 ewes, which are mated with a texel tup to produce spring lambs.
As highlighted, I studied animal production science at Harper Adams University, Shropshire, UK (including a 1-year work placement with McDonald’s and Kerry Agribusiness in Kerry, Ireland) from 2017-2021.
I worked on a grass-based spring-calving dairy farm from 2019-2020.
I desired to gain as much experience of other farms and all different areas of the industry whilst I am young.
People are always keen to pass on knowledge to interested students, but once you finish uni, your opportunities may be slightly more limited.
Working in Ireland was a great experience for getting to know a new culture. I think I learned similar skills to those who go all the way to NZ – whilst still being only a short flight away from home.
I would like to see agriculture in other countries, and although I am not able to take time away to travel at the moment, I would love to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship in the future.
But, I am glad I did a practical placement; however, this was partly due to chance.
I have a lot of dairy experience on other people’s farms, and I would like to see other beef and sheep systems.
I just live and breathe farming. If I have a chilled night, I love watching Farmflix.
I worked in a genetics company for around 18 months and missed spending my 9-5 not doing practical farming – even though my evenings and weekends were still spent on the farm.
At the moment, I am managing the whole farm as my dad is away from the farm for heart surgery. He will hopefully be home next week but will be ‘armchair farming’ for the next few months.
This has been quite a big responsibility for me as I have only been back into the swing of full-time since December 2022 and quite quickly had to manage our turkey processing team and other routine jobs.
I have had a lot of support from farm helpers and family friends, along with key advice and instructions from Dad. We are over ¾ the way through lambing, So I will be relieved when the night shifts can finish, and I can stop dreaming about all things sheep.
I start with morning checks on all of our cattle and peep into the lambing shed to see if we have any new arrivals. I then start feeding the sheep and lambs, then bedding the cattle with a straw blower.
The next priority is checking the hoppers have plenty of feed in for the cattle.
We then have the middle of the day for any seasonal jobs which could include field work, moving cattle, dehorning, sheep work, before feeding resumes at the end of the day.
I am quite an emotional person, so I feel the highs and lows quite dramatically.
I think this makes you a good stock person – the joy of seeing a lamb survive that you thought would not make it or when you are lambing a ewe that you think might not be alive comes out and sneezes is unreal.
I find working at home amazing; you have the flexibility to run your car for an MOT, and it is no bother. However, I find working with family a challenge at times.
It is hard to get a break when you live and work together. I would like to improve my work/life balance this year and have a few days off.
It is not ideal that I have been home for four months and not had a full day off; it can leave me feeling burned out.
But in saying that, I worked in industry straight out of uni, and I am a lot happier working on our own farm.
As much as I love farming, I also enjoy showing the public what we get up to behind the gates.
This is our third year of hosting spring farm tours to allow the public to meet the lambs.
We will have welcomed around 1,200 people this year.
Our lambing tours started as lockdown restrictions were lifted, with my sister as a key driver, while I was still in my final year of uni and trying to whip up my dissertation.
I hope to organise more farm walks this year to meet other people with similar farms to ours.
Aims for farm
My main aims for this year are to ensure we have a better handle on our accounts and to formulate a plan for our business’s growth whilst introducing more written procedures, which will make it easier for other people to jump in and do a job without long instructions.
Short term, I just want to keep learning about our farm. I have the basics from working over summers/ being around the farm, but I am still getting to grips with fiddly water troughs and different ways of stacking bales into a shed. I also need to do a PA2 (sprayer test).
Longer term, I would like to map out where our farm has the capacity to work alongside the public, potentially selling fresh produce more regularly (currently, we sell pumpkins for Halloween on our pick-your-own patch and turkeys and veg boxes at Christmas).
I would like to get a few pigs and make some sausages as a side project.
24-hour milking marathon
Last year, with Kate and Emma, two other Cheshire young farmers, we designed a massive challenge, which involved milking 3,500 cows across six farms lasting 29 hours.
We raised an amazing £4,000 during this challenge, but we also managed to raise awareness for our chosen charity, The Farm Safety Foundation, which works to improve the mental health of young farmers through education.
They also roll out farm safety training with the aim of reducing accidents on farms.
Our challenge reached local news channels on the TV along with national radio and papers too – we could not believe it! In total, we raised over £18,000 and lots of awareness too.
Women in agriculture
I think social media is an amazing tool for seeing women in agriculture doing their thing.
It connects you to people who are capable and help you to benchmark what others are doing, and helps you to set goals for yourself and your farm. I love getting ideas from other farmers who share their daily stories.
Moreover, I feel very fortunate to have encountered minimal gender barriers on our farm.
I think if I had a brother, my role would be very different, but my dad has come to realise women are just as capable on-farm as males.
He thinks that is because the work is now less manual than in the past/more machinery to help us. But trust me, I will prove my strength against any male on the farm – I am a little too stubborn at times.
I want to prove myself against anyone, male or female. My sister challenges my perspective on life and helps me to grow as a person; she likes to push me outside of my comfort zone.
Outside of farm work, I am currently the chair lady for Altrincham Young Farmers. After Covid-19, our club was very light on numbers, so I took on the role of chair and built a lovely community of members – both farmers and non-farmers.
Through the group, I have won grass rationing and milking competitions.
Some of my favourite quotes that I wish to share with readers are:
- ‘Keep going and keep growing’
- ‘When you’re tired, learn to rest, not quit’
- ‘Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be’
- ‘Do not compare your beginning to someoneelse’s middle – your journey is unique’.
Some of my proudest achievements
When I was first trusted to go to auction solo and come home with a new tup for our ewes, there was nothing more nerve-wracking than waiting until 9 pm for dad to finally get back to the yard to give his feedback! He is now called Bruce and has been doing well with us for three years.
Our farm has quite a sink-or-swim mindset – when dad bought a new drill in 2020, I was helping him with the computer side of it.
Then, he asked me to drive so he could get out of the cab to look at how the seedbed was being formed.
He then never got back in until I had run out of seed! Learning to sow headlands was a brain challenge – but I have since learned to add a tramline to the headland, which we do not do too often.
I felt very smug when I went to sow fertiliser on that field and got to reap the rewards of my planning!
I remember when I first started to muck out with the JCB – dad was on the phone, and I wanted to crack on.
The grab was already full of muck, so I thought about how hard it could be to empty it.
Then once that seemed to go to plan, I filled it, and all of a sudden, I was mucking out solo, so when dad finished on the phone, he left me to it.
I think this is one of the advantages of farming at home – you are a little more brave/ confident to give something a go.”
To share your story, email – [email protected]