Our lives in pastures new

One was a tennis instructor, another had a job as a meat inspector, while a third worked for the library service. Now, having gone back to the land, the three are part of a growing band of women turning to farming. Sarah Freeman reports.

It can be difficult to pin down Jenny Clarkson.

Some days she can be in the production hub of her business tasting the latest batch of ice cream, others are spent out on the road taking samples to potential customers and in between she has to find time to complete the endless paperwork which comes with running your own business.

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It’s four years since the 33-year-old gave up her job as a meat inspector to return to the dairy farm in Barkisland which her family have run for 50 years to launch Just Jenny’s, an ice cream enterprise which would, in time, prove award-winning. “I’d always wanted to work for myself and while I quite enjoyed being a meat inspector, it got to the point where I seemed to be doing more travelling than anything else. The one thing it did give me was a lot of time to think. One day I just decided that it was as good a time as any to take the plunge.”

While Jenny knew that she didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk or tied to a nine-to-five job, she also knew that if she was to give up the security of a regular monthly salary, she had to be sure she had a viable business. With her father and brother looking after the farm’s herd of dairy cows, she knew only too well how difficult the economic climate had been for those working in agriculture, yet pressed on.

“We looked at cheese initially, but the set up costs were too great. I knew that I had to start small and grow the business gradually and we just kept coming back to ice cream. Of course, having a family who run a dairy farm helped, but the business had to be able to stand on its own.”

The company launched in 2007 and for the first year, Jenny juggled the fledgling enterprise with her job as a meat inspector. On evenings and weekends she researched potential markets, experimented with different flavours and having secured a number of regular customers she was finally able to devote herself to the business full-time. Today she sells hundreds of litres a week to restaurants, specialist produce shops like Fodder in Harrogate, and staged something of a coup when independent cinema owner Charles Morris agreed to stock Just Jenny’s in his kiosks.

Using no artificial colours and made just a short walk from the cows which provide the milk and cream, Just Jenny’s ticked a lot of boxes for the increasing numbers of consumers keen to support local farmers. However, the ice cream also had to turn a profit.

“Making the ice cream is the easy part, getting it out to market is the hard thing. The truth is you could make the best ice cream in the world, but if no one knows about it, it’s pointless. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I hope I’ve also learned from them. Of course, it would be lovely, to keep growing the business, but one of the advantages of having a smaller operation is that we can be much more flexible and experimental than a big producer. In the run up to Christmas, for example, one of our restaurants asked if we could make a batch of Guinness flavoured ice cream for one of their desserts. Those kind of requests happen all the time and I hope the fact we can turn orders like that around quickly will mean people keep coming back.

“I think attitudes towards women working in the industry have changed over the years,” adds Jenny, who had her first child in August. “It is more accessible to women now with more efficient and manageable machinery – while farming is still very physically demanding, advances in technology, such as computerised monitoring systems for livestock, have made the job slightly less manual.There’s also more diversification these days – there are many other roles in farming than directly handling heavy machinery, such as selling and promotion.”

Jenny’s success is even more admirable given the difficulties of the last year. Relentless rain left many farms underwater for months and if the first few weeks of this year bring heavy snow as some forecasters are predicting it will cap a pretty miserable 12 months for agriculture.

However, despite the hardships and uncertainties according to the Office for National Statistics increasing numbers of women are turning to farming. Latest figures show there are 23,000 female farmers in the UK and while that number is set against 119,000 males working in the industry, a decade ago there were hardly any. Last year a sharp increase meant that for the first time the number of women entering the industry exceeded the number of males leaving it by 1,000 and agricultural colleges like the one at Bishop Burton in East Yorkshire have seen the number of applications from women almost double over recent years.

In wake of the report, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Peter Kendall, said changes in both technology and attitudes had been responsible for making farming a more open field.

“A lot of it is computer-controlled technology now and the idea of you having to work with a pitchfork or lug big bales of straw around has gone. If you go back 20 years there was a real public perception of grumpy old men leaning on a gate, chewing on a bit of straw.”

While her parents ran a farm near Beverly, Anna Longthorp was discouraged her from joining the family business when she was growing up with her careers advisor suggesting she look for opportunities beyond the farm gate. After leaving school, Australia beckoned and when she finally returned from her travels Anna found work as a tennis coach. However, her thoughts kept returning to the farm and more specifically to pigs.

“I was always urged away from farming by careers advisers and teachers in school who described it as ‘a waste of an education’, however my response was that we need educated people in the farming industry and I believe the rise in female farmers is a result of people becoming more educated – people are more attuned to how food has been produced and where it’s come from.

“My dad and brother have always enjoyed the arable side of farming, but I knew that wasn’t for me. When I was eight-years-old they bought 12 sows which were kept in huts next to the house. I loved pig farming right from the start and about five years ago I just saw an opportunity to go it alone.”

Anna’s Happy Trotters, just a short drive from her family’s farm, was born and it was her decision to make the business free range which ensured its success.

“I was really lucky in terms of the timing,” says 30-year-old Anna, who in the next year is hoping to get a foot in the London food market. “People were really thinking about where their food came from and the whole food miles idea had really taken off.”

While good timing may have played a part, Anna’s modesty belies a lot of hard work. “It isn’t easy – farming is physically intensive work and many people would be afraid to do it. It can be exhausting and I think women feel they need to prove themselves more in an industry dominated by men.

“I won’t lie, there are some days when it’s been pretty grim and when the weather is so bad you would kill to stay indoors, but the pigs always seem happy, in fact the more mud the better for them.”

Like both Jenny and Anna, it was changing appetites which convinced Chris Stringer, who had previously worked for the libraries service, there was money to be had in opening a small mill on land at the Ryedale farm where her husband and son were already growing wheat and oats.

“It was back in 1999 when we converted a significant amount of land to organic and up until then I didn’t work on the farm. We were quite early in terms of embracing organic produce and we knew that we needed to explore new routes to market. That’s where I came in and now I look after the production of our own flour.

“There seems to be more women in food production than direct farming roles and I think it’s because women have good business sense and are able to act as a ‘go between’ from farm to consumer, looking at how best to establish brands.”

The need for traditional farms to diversify was brought into sharp relief during the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. As the disease turned many rural areas into no go areas, many farmers began looking for alternative sources of income.

“When foot and mouth happened the question we had to ask ourselves was how could we help our farmers,” says Heather Parry of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society and managing director of Fodder, the seeds of which were sown during the outbreak.

“One of the things we decided to do was to open a shop which would be a showcase for Yorkshire produce. It took us eight years, but we did it and certainly in the last few years we have seen a rise in the number of female suppliers. There are definitely more women going into farming and food production; it started with pioneers such as Judy Bell of Shepherds Purse and I hope it is a trend that will continue.

“Female farmers have an entrepreneurial edge that understands the demand for local, seasonal and high quality produce. They understand the need to create brands and consumer demand for their produce. On the whole, they are less driven by commodity farming and more interested in producing high-quality food that ensures the sustainability of the British farming industry.”

And for Jenny at least, there has been only one noticeable downside in her change of career.

“I used to love ice cream,” she say. “But when you spend all day, every day making it and selling it, the novelty of being able to taste a new batch at 7am quickly wears off.”