Tamara breaks the mould

Tamara Hall is a woman in a man's world. Lucy Oates asked how she manages.

With her glossy dark hair and youthful appearance, it's fair to say that Tamara Hall, 36, is not your stereotypical Yorkshire farmer (average age, late 50s).

In fact, she isn't a stereotypical anything. She trained as an engineer at university in Leeds and then swapped careers for clothing. Just a few years ago, she was living and working in Leeds as a self-employed tailor following a spell at Art College.

In 2003, a horse-riding accident led to a period of convalescence at her family home, near Beverley, where, once fit again, she decided to re-cut her cloth again. Instead of returning to big city life, Tamara enrolled on an agronomy course at nearby Bishop Burton College and then took over the running of her family's 1,250-acre arable farm, at Molescroft.

It was not a change of direction Tamara had foreseen.

"I would never have seen myself doing this, and neither would my friends," she says. "Both sides of my family were involved in farming, but at that time, the farm was being run by a manager because my father, Jonathan, was involved with fishing trawlers. He would have got a contractor to run the farm if I hadn't taken over the role of managing director.

"I think I've always seen it from an outsider's point of view, both as a woman and someone who came into farming after working in a completely different field. I didn't have any pre-conceived ideas.

"It was all so new and interesting, and there was so much I'd never thought about. It's not just about drilling fields, there's so much more, like record keeping, costings and making spread-sheets of crop rotations.

"At the beginning, I was really into the agronomy side and not so interested in machinery. Now I'm really into that, too. I gradually took on more work and I was able to reduce staffing and invest in more efficient machinery."

She grows mainly wheat, along with some oilseed rape, barley, peas for Bird's Eye, and beans for export to Egypt.

As a young woman entering a male-dominated industry, one imagines she might have encountered the odd snort of derision. But not so, it seems. However, she admits to being nervous when invited to speak at Bishop Burton College where the audience was made up largely of what she describes as "high-powered farmers from Holderness".

"It was scary, but brilliant. Although I think the fact that you know what you're talking about helps. I love sharing information, and I learnt so much from them.

"When I went on the agronomy course, I thought it would be all men, but everyone was young and so helpful. Generally, men are really okay about it, although I do sometimes get mistaken for someone's wife when I go buying machinery. On occasions, I found that people wouldn't talk to me – they'd head for the nearest man.

"I don't know why farming is still so male-dominated, especially arable farming. It's not so physical any more, and women are more caring. I care about my fields and I think that trait has worked to my advantage. Farming is also much more creative than people imagine. When someone ploughs a straight furrow, it's art."

She has turned five acres of grass paddock over to Natural England's Environmental Stewardship scheme and has overseen the planting of nectar-rich plants, such as vetch and clover, for bees and other insects, and crops of wild bird seed for winter. This, together with the installation of nest boxes, helped to boost the numbers of barn owls and revived the local tree sparrow population.

She reveals that there is also a convincing business case behind it. "Stewardship isn't profitable but we've used it to take the wettest areas out of production, which makes them much easier to manage, reducing horsepower."

The balance between maximising productivity and wildlife conservation has been achieved by investing in the very latest precision farming technology.

Another of Tamara's great passions is her desire to educate people about farming. This prompted her to apply for grant funding towards the cost of an impressive classroom at the farm to host visits from schoolchildren and the public. She is now the regional co-ordinator for the Open Farm scheme.

"Lots of my friends don't have an understanding of farming, and I think it's important for people to have greater awareness of where their food comes from. I asked a group of schoolchildren from East Hull what butter is made of. It never occurred to me that they wouldn't know. I just got blank looks.

"Most farmers are doing their best but they're not good at blowing their own trumpets and that's why I want people to visit the farms. I think sometimes farmers worry too much about having people around their farms, but, so long as it's generally safe and you do a risk assessment, it is fine."

Eight years on, she has become a proud guardian of the East Yorkshire countryside and a passionate advocate for farming; not bad for a city girl.

Open Farm Sunday is on June 12. For information, email Tamara at: tam@molescroftfarms.karoo.co.uk

CW 22/1/11