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Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a fifth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the company in 2015.
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Radio producer turned ‘accidental’ farmer with a love for tractor driving

In this week’s women in ag segment, That’s Farming, speaks to a first-generation farmer, Emma-Victoria Houlton. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in her swapping radio production and podcasting for a role on a vegetable farm.

You can reinvent your career at any age, and 37-year-old Emma-Victoria Houlton is a testament to that.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a turning point for the radio producer who operated her own production company for the last decade.

The pandemic cancelled and postponed many of the Saddleworth, Greater Manchester native’s contracts, and, as a result, cashflow “became tight pretty quickly”.

To help keep her small team in work, she decided to stop withdrawing her salary from her production company and begin job hunting.

She stumbled across an article online, which outlined that many farms were desperate for workers due to the pandemic and Brexit.

“I decided to get out there and go and look for a job on a farm,” she told That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane.

Vegetable farm

Emma found a database of local farms online and reached out to as many as she could.

She explained that it was quite competitive at the time as there were many people on furlough over the pandemic looking for extra work.

She secured a position as a field operative on a vegetable farm, Farringtons, two days into the first lockdown.

“The job was only supposed to be temporary to keep the money coming in, but I very quickly fell in love with farming and working outside.”

“I had zero experience of working on a farm, and I had never been behind the wheel of a tractor.”

“I have since been cultivated into a management and tractor driving role and am still working on the farm now,” she added.

“If someone said to me years ago that I would become a farmer, I would have laughed at them.

“I had a very established media career at the time. Life on a farm felt a million miles away,” the radio and podcasting professional added.

“However, I have always wanted to get into farming but have no background in it; I just thought it would be a pipe dream. But needing to get that farm job because of the pandemic gave me the push I needed.”

Operations

Paul, Stephen, Ben and Ron Farrington oversee the running of the spring greens (cabbage and kale) operation.

They sow and propagate their own cabbage and kale plants, along with plants for other customers in their greenhouses on the farm in Hesketh Bank, Preston.

Crops are mainly grown on their site in Flintshire, North Wales. They plant using an automatic planter and harvest spring greens all-year-round, manually with a team of people.

Their team packs freshly harvested crops at the Hesketh Bank site and distribute them.

“Even though sometimes it can seem quite stressful at times, I love problem-solving.”

“Each day is very different. During my early days of working on the farm, I was thrown in at the deep end, but I took it all in my stride.”

“Farming has undoubtedly taught me a lot about myself; it has brought out confidence and resilience I never thought was possible.”

“The mud, either getting the tractor or yourself stuck in it, is challenging. We don’t have ‘downtime’ when harvesting our crops; we harvest all year round. So, in the winter, the mud quickly becomes quite a challenge for us.

Her main job is to drive the harvesting rig and ensure the team work as quickly and efficiently as possible.

She also does shifts running the planting team during planting season and is part of the Farringtons tractor team that do all aspects of land work such as tillering and subsoiling.

A typical day in her life on the vegetable farm

The former field operative lives an hour away from the site in North Wales that she works at, so her day begins at 4.45 am. The team start harvesting at 7 am.

“The orders are different each day, so we don’t know what time we will finish.”

“We have to stay until all the orders are done. During the season, once we complete harvesting and the team are away (usually around noon), I will jump in the tractor to go and work the land for the rest of the day.”

“Alternatively, I may take over from Paul on the planter so he can head off and get on with other things at the farm.”

“During the season, I get home at about 7 pm. During winter, my days are not quite as long,” she added.

In her role at Farringtons, she works leading a team. In her previous line of work, she led and worked with very diverse teams.”

“This experience has been beneficial in getting the best out of the harvesting team in the field.”

“Also, running my own business has allowed me to bring a different perspective from a non-agricultural industry into the farm business.”

“The wider farming community has been pretty supportive, and I have already made a lot of friends who are also first-generation farmers.”

Women in agriculture

As a first-generation farmer and woman in the sector, she revealed that she comes up against her fair share of challenges.

However, the fam she works at “does not treat me any differently to someone who has been farming for years”.

“Everyone is expected to work just as well and just as hard,” she added.

“We are expected to work just as hard as a man. Over the last 18 months, we have also become a female-majority team at Farringtons!”

“Women are certainly beginning to get the recognition they deserve. It is great to see more women choosing to go and study agricultural subjects at university.”

“I think seeing other women progressing up the ranks within the agri industry will encourage others, especially in more technical or mechanical roles such as a tractor driver or an agri engineer, which are not typically jobs women undertake.”

“Several female members of staff at our farm have commented that seeing me in a leadership role and working with machinery has given them the confidence to step up and give it a go themselves.”

“As a woman who drives a tractor, I have received quite a lot of trolling and hate comments online, all of which come from men.”

“Also, I have been on the receiving end of sexist comments from some delivery drivers that have come to pick up produce from our sites.”

“I just let it all wash over me, though. Honestly, I don’t know what is so offensive about a woman driving heavy plant, but it seems to trigger a lot of men!”

Plans

Emma has her eyes fixed on finding a farm business tenancy or share farming opportunity in North Wales at the moment.

She desires to grow specialist forage for the equine and pet market along with a calf rearing enterprise.

The 37-year-old plans to combine her background in podcasting and a newfound passion for farming with a new podcast series in 2022.

“I have gone back to doing a bit of producing now that it is winter, but I will certainly never be making it my full-time gig ever again.”

“I regret not getting into farming sooner,” she told That’s Farming.

Seeds for success 

She believes that being reliable and having a can-do attitude are the “two qualities that will help you go far in a farming career”.

“My advice to people is to get stuck in! Try and volunteer at a local farm; the only way you will find out if you would like a career in farming is to give it a go for yourself.”

“People from non-farming backgrounds can be farmers. You need to have passion, resilience and the drive and to be able to work very hard like any other farmer.”

“There are so many exciting advancements in precision technology that I think will help us produce more efficiently and reduce food waste within the supply chain along. There is also a much bigger focus on regenerative farming techniques.”

“I would love to be running a 200-acre farm, be making some phenomenal forage and have a thriving precision livestock business; that is my ultimate goal.”

Reflecting on her recent journey, she said: “I am an accidental farmer who has fallen in love with the art of driving a tractor and working in the great outdoors.”

“I won silver Farm Worker of the Year at the British Farming Awards 2021. I have only been doing this for 18 months, so I was gobsmacked to receive an award,” the vegetable farm worker concluded.

Do you work on a vegetable farm? To share your story, email – catherina@thatsfarming.com

See more women in agriculture profiles.

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