In this week’s Women in Ag segment, That’s Farming speaks to Melissa Hilland, who swapped PE teaching for vegetable farming after her boyfriend’s family gave her a lifeline.
Sometimes life takes unexpected turns, and that is exactly how 27-year-old Melissa Hilland became a farmer.
Although was she not born into a farming family, she was surrounded by agriculture throughout her childhood and spent most of her time with her grandparents.
Hilland, who hails from Moira, Northern Ireland, believes her grandfather’s “keen interest in farming rubbed off on me”.
From a young age, she was instantly drawn in by the aspect of farming, and agricultural shows were always pinnacle dates in her calendar.
“My fondest farming memory is of my granda Jimmy’s Fordson Dexta. Of course, I could hardly steer or reach the pedals, but I did not let that stop me,” she told That’s Farming.
“When I joined Young Farmers’, it sparked my farming interest even more. There I met my boyfriend, not knowing then he would be the reason I would venture into a career in agriculture.”
“I caught the farming bug – Once it takes hold of you, that is you. I would not love what I do now if I had not have got that lifeline – and I will always be grateful for that.”
“My uncle and cousins had a contracting business, Maxwell Contracts. Also, throughout school, I practically lived at my friend Megan’s farm and basically became part of the furniture.”
Melissa always had a passion for farming but never “grasped an opportunity” to chase it.
Sport was her life throughout school, and she always longed to pursue a professional career as a PE teacher. Melissa passed all her GCSEs and A-Levels and began a degree with the Open University.
Her boyfriend’s family offered her the opportunity to work on their farm part-time while she studied, but she had a change of heart in final year.
“I became so engrossed in farming and fell completely head over heels for it. I dropped out of my degree and pursued a full-time career in farming.”
“Growing up, I was such a tomboy; I was always stuck in the middle of everything, from playing football to riding quads/bikes. I knew I wanted to do something physical and outdoors, but never believed it would be farming.”
Melissa now works as a yards woman at Co. Down-based Eglantine Farm Produce, which is dedicated to growing, packing, and selling high-quality fresh produce for retail, wholesale, and processing throughout the Island of Ireland.
They grow mainly carrots and potatoes and work in conjunction with other growers.
Melissa outlined that growing vegetables is a long process, from planting to packing, which relies on good management from start to finish. “You soon realise the weather is either your best friend or your worst enemy.” she laughed.
Crops go through several growing processes, which start by selecting appropriate fields, soil sampling (nutrient content), and acquiring seed.
Then, growers prepare seedbeds through fertilising, ploughing, ridging, bed-tilling, de-stoning, and bed-forming before planting.
They cover some early crops with polythene/fleece to enhance growth performance and often use straw for protection against frost in winter.
They monitor crops regularly and have an integrated spray programme, which is instrumental in keeping crops healthy and alive, feeding trace elements, and keeping up-to-date with ever-changing regulations.
Finally, they harvest, wash, grade, pack and distribute their range of crops. “Carrots are dug fresh daily, depending on orders and weather. They are hydro-cooled, graded into sizes, picked using an automatic picker and then packed,” added Melissa, who previously worked in custom embroidery.
“Meanwhile, potatoes are dug in October/November when skins are set, and dry matter is correct. From there, they are graded into sizes and put into cold storage. Finally, they are washed, picked, and packed when needed.”
A lifestyle like no other
The 27-year-old is involved in all aspects of vegetable farming, from office work (audits, records, orders, customer service) to tractor/machinery-related tasks, forklift driving and pack housework (picking and packing).
“There is always something to do – you will never get bored. I am at my happiest sitting behind the wheel of a tractor. You really have to want to farm and have a love for it. Farming is a lifestyle, not just a job.”
“Times are changing; farming is not a male-dominated industry anymore. Women are coming to the forefront of agriculture, as today, there is a bigger recognition for women in the industry due to the increased interest and publicity on social media.”
“As long as women continue to push the positive message and promote the sector, this will, in turn, encourage younger females to consider agriculture as a career path. I believe if you want a job enough, you will work hard enough to achieve it.”
“I felt like I had to go above and beyond to prove myself. When I look back now, my talent, abilities and work ethic spoke for themselves.”
The road ahead
Melissa’s determined and ‘never say never’ attitude bodes well for her future in the sector.
She plans to promote the industry through social media’s power, to “try change other attitudes towards women in ag, showing girls can do it too”.
“There is more to agriculture than what meets the eye; you have to explore it. A career in agriculture is not just a case of being a farmer as there is much more to it.”
“I am happy where I am and love what I am doing now, but who knows what the future holds. I may consider doing my class one and two licences or opening a farm shop.”
“Farming is farming, despite gender. If you work hard and love what you are doing, that is all that matters. Just remember, ‘behind every good man, there is an even better woman’. Without farming, there is no future. Support local,” she concluded.
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