In two days’ time Minette Batters could become the first woman president of the National Farmers Union of England and Wales if she gets more votes than incumbent Meurig Raymond.
But given the inherent buttoned-up, male-dominated, ageing, chauvinistic world of NFU politics, I wouldn’t bet on Ms Batters ousting the stolid “establishment” figure of Raymond, who is trying for a second two-year term.
While saying she thinks – I paraphrase – that Raymond has done a wonderful job, she has campaigned on the need for the union to take a new approach. Part of that would be to stop concentrating on links with a fading Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) that is losing its budget and its influence.
The union, she says, should aim for closer liaison with other government departments and must engage more closely with the public against anti-farming lobbyists. Through, presumably, gritted teeth Raymond said it is a good thing to have healthy competition for the top job and he believes his “passion and commitment” will see him re-elected.
Well, that and the traditional farming fear of a step into the unknown. The “better the devil we know” saying probably originated with farmers. Batters, who finally managed to get a tenancy agreement of her own in 1998 and now runs a beef herd, a horse livery, a wedding and corporate events business and a catering business specialising in home-grown produce, is making a brave attempt that deserves to succeed. But in Scotland we know all about brave attempts.
Almost unnoticed, Rosey Dunn, the union’s north-east regional chairman, is standing for deputy president. Although the chances of a ladies’ double must be nil, at least the English union has got as far as this. Looking at the top table figures at the recent NFU Scotland annual conference I wouldn’t bet on a woman standing for presidential election there any time in the next ten – oh, make that 20 – years.
Oddity or Neanderthal, call it what you like, the presence of women in what is still the main public voice for Scottish farming is like the dog in the Sherlock Holmes story.
“But Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night time.”
“That was the curious incident.”
The fact that they are missing from the annual exclusively male, mainly middle-aged, NFU Scotland line-up – you will look in vain for a woman in the extensive list of area and commodity committee chairmen – is curious when we think how important women are at individual farm level. Most are prominent in running a farm office competently as opposed to chaotically. Many are the brains and driving force behind farm diversification.
Plus many have off-farm jobs bringing in income above and beyond their accepted role as caterer, organiser of anything to do with children and school, emergency collector of supplies and parts, helper with moving livestock, counsellor and comforter for male farmers stressed by harvest, lambing, bank managers, weather and the futility of life.
So why don’t women figure as they should at the top of NFU activity? Or even much in the mid-reaches? Where do all the bright young women go who run every young farmers’ club in Scotland? And run, paid and unpaid, the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs.
One answer is that Scottish farming is still stuck with primogeniture. Sons take over. Daughters fend for themselves, many successfully, away from farming or in associated industries. With rare exceptions, either of circumstances or enlightened parents, farming in Scotland is for men and the same goes, in spades, for union politics.
Some farmers do appreciate their wives. Last year Peter Chapman, a successful Aberdeenshire farmer, signed off his last Farmers’ Guardian column by writing: “Thanks to my long-suffering wife of 20 years, Grace, who has given me three fantastic children and who puts up with my fluctuating emotions during the busy times of the year. She turns her hand to any job and is always a great sounding board for new ideas. Love you Grace, I could not do without you.”
Well said, and more farmers should say it. Much more effort should also be made to get women to take the NFU seriously and try for the top jobs. Look no further than the Scottish government for the impact women can have.