A few days after our fourth daughter was born, and still with that uniquely joyous spring in my step that comes from having a new baby in a family, I walked into a treatment room to have some work done on my bad back.
“Has it arrived yet?”, the physio asked expectantly. “Yes”, I replied with a beaming smile. “I always said I wanted beautiful girls in my life, and now I have five of them – Branwen was born on Thursday, happy and healthy”.
I don’t know what reply I was expecting, but it wasn’t a look of devout sympathy and “Oh, what a shame for you and your farm”.
I was taken aback at the time, and didn’t know how to respond. But in the five years since then, both my wife and I have received numerous similar comments, usually something along the lines of “You’ll keep going for a boy for the farm, will you?”. It’s something that I encountered again recently.
In a way, I can understand it from people outside of the farming community, many of whom, thanks to childhood storybooks and sections of the media, still see us as ruddyfaced men in tweed jackets speaking with broad West Country accents, no matter where we’re from.
But I do find these reactions strange from fellow farmers, given that the majority of us grow up surrounded by strong and highly capable women.
Is it simply that the age-old patriarchal process of farms being passed from fathers to sons is still deeply ingrained in the industry’s psyche, and that it will take time to overcome? Or is it a visibility issue, where women in farming have traditionally been seen to be present and part of things, but very much behind the scenes, dishing out fried breakfasts, filling in the VAT returns, and rushing off for spare parts at a moment’s notice?
Too often, a woman is seen as a “farmer’s wife”, rather than a farmer in her own right, and the enormous contribution women make is undervalued and goes largely unrecognised.
In 2021, though, it’s hard to fathom how these stereotypical attitudes still exist in our industry. Quite apart from the fact that women already produce more than half of the world’s food, and in the global South that figure rises to an estimated 60-80%. They are astronauts, scientists, engineers, surgeons, front-line combat infantry, leaders of nations, and even presidents of farmers’ unions.
As challenging as farming can be at times, I’m certain that my girls, or anyone else’s for that matter, can be farmers if they want to be.
Despite some of the unwanted comments we’ve received, it’s important to stress that things are visibly changing. With 40% of undergraduate students studying agriculture at Harper Adams now female, and many industry organisations running well-supported groups and networks, I’m hopeful that in the near future gender won’t be a consideration at all – only individual ability will.
And in answer to that clumsy question that we’re so often asked, no, we definitely won’t be having any more children. Even if there were any lingering doubts, home-schooling over the past year has categorically put paid to that.
Furthermore, Evans and Daughters has a very nice ring to it. Nothing would make me prouder.
Next week David Alvis and Colin Ferguson