Women who farm
When someone says ‘farmer’ for many this may default to a familiar image of a man wearing a flat cap and driving a tractor. Mecca Ibrahim, co-founder of Women in the Food Industry, speaks to rising farmers who are changing this picture.
There are numerous challenges in becoming a farmer – so many that the number of farmers in the UK is decreasing, with the average age of a UK farmer being 59, 84% of them men. However, more women are stepping into farming roles than ever before, with many addressing the social and ecological changes our food system so badly needs. I caught up with five women farmers – from different walks of life and with individual farming styles – who are putting food on Londoners’ plates.
Often with her two-year-old son on her shoulders, Scarlet spends her days with her sheepdog Oz, shepherding Herdwick sheep, bringing them down from the fells onto rich pasture. She supplies this tasty, quality marbled meat to Philip Warren Butchers, The Ledbury and other restaurants.
Although currently focussing on sheep, she dreams of owning her own mixed farm one day – and this determined, five-foot-one woman lets nothing hold her back.
Sometimes the grazing terrain gets flooded, making it hard going, but she sees it through with a smile: “I needed a jet ski at times,” she laughs, “not a quad bike!”
THE MARKET GARDENER
Bore Place Market Garden
An organic and agroecological farmer, Seeta grows seasonal UK vegetables for various box schemes, including London’s Better Food Shed, Wholefoods in Brighton and farm shops in the Lewes area. Motivated by a desire to fundamentally change the food system, Seeta was lucky to find herself surrounded and supported by strong women who also felt empowered to change the world through food.
Margins are classically low for organic farmers, however Seeta has researched more direct routes to market. She finds farming satisfying and loves experiencing the changing seasons, even though getting onto land can be very difficult in this country. “If you can find an apprenticeship or get some basic training, go for it!” she says.
THE URBAN FARMER
Motivated by growing as much nutritious food as the land can provide while prioritising people and planet, Chrissy is on a mission to lower affordability barriers and increase the routes into the work of producing good food. Her peri-urban farm grows a diverse range of salad leaves, leafy greens, herbs and some seasonal vegetables which all benefit from a short supply chain.
Challenges range from foxes running amok to more pervasive things like capitalism, she says, but fortunately Chrissy has the support of family, fellow growers and great customers. She’s a great believer in strength in numbers: “There’s so many folks on the same page,” she says. “I’m always learning that making it work in collaboration with others is easier than making it work alone. Brains over brawn!”
THE FAMILY FARMER
Sarah Green’s Organics
Working with her parents and husband, Sarah grows seasonal organic vegetables on the east Essex coast. Only a 90-minute journey from London, the family supply several of the capital’s gastropubs and community food buying groups, including the Better Food Shed.
Sarah’s late grandfather and her parents have always been incredibly supportive of her wanting to work on the family farm. She’s taken her childhood love of working with the seasons and nature and applied it to producing food in a sustainable way for the local community. Although the weather and weeds can be a challenge, Sarah says it’s important to remember you are not alone: “Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance or help,” she advises. “I have found everyone to be very supportive”.
THE DAIRY FARMER
Jackie’s 1,100-acre tenanted farm is based in north Northumberland in the shadow of the Cheviot Hills. Predominantly dairy farmers, she and her husband craft their milk into artisan cheeses, yoghurt and premium ice creams. Their cheese is available nationally through quality shops, delicatessens and online. Motivated by their beautiful surroundings, Jackie wants to make their farm even more sustainable and provide the supportive local community with employment.
Jackie has faced sexism over her 30-year farming career and loves to see women on social media showing what they are doing: both to promote agriculture, but also to ‘normalise’ their occupations. “It’s frustrating sometimes to see how far we haven’t progressed,” she says, “but it’s only by moving forward, not accepting these attitudes and believing in yourself will we see a difference.”
Hungry for more? Here's another article on inspirational women in food.
This first appeared in The Jellied Eel magazine issue 63, May 2021