Retiring CLA North Director, Dorothy Fairburn pays tribute to "wonderful" team which has supported her for two decades

After more than two decades supporting rural communities, Dorothy Fairburn will next week step down as Director North of the Country landowners and Business Association (CLA).

For more than two decades Dorothy has been supporting farmers, landowners and rural businesses.
For more than two decades Dorothy has been supporting farmers, landowners and rural businesses.

Having announced her retirement at the beginning of the year and with her successor, Lucinda Douglas now appointed, Dorothy is getting ready to leave the job she admitted she will miss “enormously” as well as the people she has worked alongside for the past 20 years.

The CLA has bookended Dorothy’s career which started with a degree in agriculture from the University of London’s Wye College.

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At the time, Dorothy said the role of women in farming was very different to how it is now and she had no expectation of working on the family farm near Rievaulx in North Yorkshire.

“I had two brothers and there wasn’t an opportunity at home, that’s how it was at the time and I grew up understanding that. When I graduated no-one would have taken me on as an assistant farm manager or in a similar sort of role.

“The role of women in farming has been one of the biggest changes I have seen in my lifetime.

“I think a lot of agriculture has strong female skillsets and seeing more women taking leading roles is one of the really good things to come out of the past few years.”

Dorothy started work at CLA’s head office in London and that experience led to her interest in becoming a land agent and a return to Yorkshire.

Working for Savills in York she looked after estates in East Yorkshire seeing what she describes as some “real top-notch farming”.

“I learnt a lot and when I qualified a job came up with the National Trust looking after its big estates including Malham and Upper Wharfedale along with houses like Nunnington Hall.

“It was so much fun we did landscaping improvements, rebuilt walls in Wharfedale and I was working with farmers then seeing their sons coming on and taking over so we experienced succession farming. I also got to work with the country’s leading experts on all sorts of subjects from butterflies to architecture. It was fascinating to learn from them.”

During her time with the National Trust, Dorothy was also responsible for the acquisition of new properties including Roseberry Topping, the distinctive North Yorkshire landmark.

For many years she has also been involved with London-based charity, Crisis at Christmas, volunteering over the festive period and providing meals for people who are homeless.

“Working with the volunteers is a lot of fun as well as hard work. It is really rewarding.”

Moving back to the CLA at the beginning of 2000, Dorothy’s role was initially looking after Yorkshire before it expanded to take in the whole of the North of England.

“It added a new dimension to the job,” she said. “I had a new patch and new people to get to know visiting some wonderful places which we are so lucky to have on our doorstep.”

The challenges which have faced these farming and rural communities over the past two decades have meant a varied workload and Dorothy said it is the changing shape of the agricultural landscape which has made the job so interesting.

“We have been through several iterations of the agricultural farming policy and now we are going through Brexit and the whole agricultural transition plan.

“We have had access issues and right to roam as well as crises like foot-and-mouth, the job is constantly changing and remains interesting.”

A pivotal moment for the industry, Dorothy described working through the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001 as an “extraordinary” experience.

“It was the most horrific time and we had members who were losing their livelihoods. But it pulled the industry together, we needed to work with each other to overcome it.

“The important thing was supporting farmers any way we could. The CLA was in the circle receiving information from the Ministry and so we knew where they would be culling and could contact members in that area to offer support.

“Afterwards it was helping people to rebuild their businesses.”

Dorothy was awarded an MBE in the 2011 New Year Honours List in recognition of her services to rural affairs and supporting members through change has been at the heart of her role.

With the restructuring currently taking place in UK agricultural policy, she admitted to feeling envy at the challenges Lucinda will be taking on.

“Lucinda will be excellent, she will take the role forward, but I am envious. I think one of the key issues will be helping members cope with the transition plan which, while being hugely challenging, will also provide huge opportunities.”

The Great Yorkshire Show, an event which has been a highlight for Dorothy, will mark the hand-over to the new Director North of the CLA.

Dorothy paid tribute to the “wonderful team” she has worked with during her time in the role she describes as a vocation.

“The staff team I have worked with have been great and the members are wonderful and really appreciate what we do for them. I am going to miss it enormously after all this time. I have loved it.”

On Farming's Future

I think it is hugely challenging but I really would encourage everybody to look at the changes that are happening with a positive mindset.

We need to look for the opportunities, for some farmers majoring on the conservation side could be something they can really make a go of and receive high-level payments, but the underlying message is to look at the core business and to get that right.

See what is working and analyse it. Look at the profits that different parts of the business are making and decide from that what is working and what isn’t. I think if you do a good job well then you should be able to make a living from it.

Skills and precision agriculture will be a growth area and I think the approach has got to change as the use of technology means farmers will be looking at continual professional development.

It is really exciting, the use of technology also means the work attracts different people into the industry and it becomes more interesting to younger people looking at careers. But we will also need to provide support to upskill people already working on farms so businesses can move forward.

However, if we need to compete on a more global scale connectivity will be an issue. Better broadband and connectivity has been the focus of a long-running CLA campaign. If the broadband isn’t good enough to watch a seminar, run new technology and gather data, how are farms going to improve? It is something that needs to be addressed.

On Food Standards

I think there is an increased interest in food and where it comes from which is something we need to build on.

It is not necessarily whether something is organic or not but its provenance, knowing where it comes from and making a conscious decision. Do you buy cheap chicken produced in a way we know nothing about or do you want to pay for a chicken you know has come from a farm up the road and is better quality?

We know people do still buy on price but that shouldn’t mean farmers are forced into producing low-cost food. Some supermarkets do make a big effort to support British farmers with meat sales but milk is treated as a loss leader which impacts down the chain.

We know from economic studies the proportion of people’s income spent on food over the last century has gone down, but if farmers are constantly having to cut their costs it produces the sort of farming systems the average person has said they would rather not have.

Recognising quality produce is important and when we left the EU it was essential programmes such as the geographical indication scheme was rolled over.

Having cooking skills and ability to prepare food is really important and during the pandemic we have seen a rise in people cooking from home. I work with young volunteers in the kitchens at Crisis at Christmas and a big part of it is being able to show them how to prepare and make a meal.

On Mental Health

One of the big changes in my lifetime has been the status of farmers.

When I grew up farmers were respected members of the community but then by the end of the last century farmers were perceived as the awful people who sprayed chemicals, ripped out hedges and were responsible for climate change.

Now we are beginning to see a change again following the pandemic and the raised awareness of food standards. In 1993 I did a Nuffield Scholarship on stress and suicide in the farming community. At the time mental health was not really being talked about at all.

There was this statistic people used to bandy about saying farmers were twice as likely as the average member of the public to commit suicide. And I thought why? But nobody had that information.

For my scholarship I went out to New Zealand where farmers had just lost their farm support and to France where the industry is really valued. The French care about their farmers as they like good food and they need farmers to produce it.

The lesson from New Zealand was also interesting as the suicide rate among farmers went down when they lost their subsidies as suddenly everyone was in the same boat and they were able to talk about it without being embarrassed. The Government also set up support to help farmers with their business skills and personal resilience.

It is important to understand what our objectives in life are and build that resilience into it.