Susan Dalgety: Can we bet the farm on equality reform?

I am the first generation of the women in my family not to work in agriculture.

In the past, farm work was akin to exploitation, but outdated practices continue when it comes to women in farming, whose contribution to the industry can be undervalued, downplayed, or simply unseen according to areport by the Women in Agriculture taskforce
In the past, farm work was akin to exploitation, but outdated practices continue when it comes to women in farming, whose contribution to the industry can be undervalued, downplayed, or simply unseen according to areport by the Women in Agriculture taskforce

My maternal great-grandmother was left in charge of a few acres of land in County Down, and six children, after her husband died on a boat to America, ironically in search of a better life for his family.

My maternal grandmother spent her whole life milking cows, shawing (weeding) turnips and picking potatoes. She died, aged 56, after a hard day’s shift in the farm.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

One of my earlier memories of my mother is watching her crawl, on her hands and knees, as she shawed a sloping field full of turnips, while I played at the bottom. Luckily, she is still alive.

The £30 she earned each season for this back-breaking work meant my three siblings and I got Clark’s shoes for school. My father’s wages, as a ploughman, didn’t run to such luxuries.

I never grew up wanting to follow in their footsteps. In 1960s Wigtownshire, farm work was akin to exploitation. My father earned a pittance, supplemented by a daily supply of fresh, warm, unpasteurised milk and a tied cottage.

My only foray into farming – picking tatties – ended in humiliation. At 13, I persuaded my father that I should be allowed to join his tattie-picking squad during the October holidays.

Much against his better judgment, he gave me a start, dropping one of the experienced village women to indulge his oldest child. I lasted one morning before I resigned. Back-breaking, poorly-paid, hard labour was not for me. It took him a few days to forgive me. I don’t think the woman from the village ever did.

The only other route into farming – marrying the son of a farmer and becoming the proverbial farmer’s wife – was closed off to me.

In part because of class. As the daughter of a farm worker, I was a non-person to the lads and lassies in the Young Farmers, which suited me fine. But mostly because of culture. As a rural teenager, I dreamt of David Bowie and the streets of London, not ruddy-cheeked Andrew in his too-big Wrangler jeans and Massey Ferguson.

I may not have aspired to be a tractor driver like my father, or a dairy worker like my granny, but today an agricultural career is a much more attractive option.

Around 70,000 people work in Scotland’s agriculture sector, it is worth nearly £1 billion a year and some farms even produce their own craft gin. And with the advent of Brexit and the impact of climate change, our farms, and the food they produce, will become even more essential to our national well-being and our trade balance.

But, it seems, Scottish farming is stuck firmly in the past, at least in its attitudes to women.

The lads may drive four-track tractors with touch screen controls, a joystick and leather seats, but they still think their mothers and sisters should be in the farm kitchen, preparing their mince and tatties, not ploughing the fields or drawing up a business plan.

A report by the Women in Agriculture taskforce, commissioned by the Scottish Government and published on Thursday, says that women’s contribution to the industry can be “undervalued, downplayed, or simply unseen.”

“Scottish agriculture cannot afford to be seen as the last bastion of sexism and outdated attitudes,” warns the task force’s co-chair, farmer Joyce Campbell.

And her co-chair, the usually rather patrician, but on this occasion clearly fired up, Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, says it is “neither acceptable nor business savvy” for the agricultural industry to be so male-dominated.

“Male-only structures and boards must be consigned to the past, as Scottish agriculture simply cannot afford to leave women behind,” he booms.

Some of the outdated practices revealed in the report include the tradition of passing on large farms intact to one son instead of sharing them across the family, as one male farmer explains when talking about his sister.

“She’s a tough cookie. But she’s not a farmer you know... (she) would have made a better farmer than me, there was never any question of her having the opportunity rather than me as far as I’m aware.”

And although one-third of Scotland’s farm operators are women, the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS) does not have a single woman among its national office holders, regional board or committee chairmen.

And I didn’t just take the taskforce’s word for it, I checked the NFUS website, searching in vain for an Iona or a Sofia among the Colins, Jamies and Andrews. They are, indeed, all blokes.

The report offers a range of recommendations to improve the gender balance of the industry, from help for farming families in their succession planning to better access to training for women.

But the taskforce shied away, for the moment, from imposing a gender quota on representative organisations, preferring instead to establish an Equality Charter for Scottish Agriculture.

It might just work, because the report goes on to say that, within three years, all agricultural organisations who want to engage formally with the Scottish Government must show how they have complied with the charter. So if you want to sit down with Fergus, lads, a few more women leaders in the Farmers Union won’t go amiss.

I was swept back to my adolescence a second time this week, while watching a BBC report about re-usable menstrual products, featuring students from Edinburgh’s Broughton High School.

I am not going to debate the merits of using a silicon cup to catch menstrual blood instead of a single-use tampon. I know which I preferred, but I don’t want to reveal my squeamishness here.

What impressed me was the quiet confidence of the young women and their male companion. They discussed menstruation as matter-of-factly as they would have debated shopping opportunities on Princes Street.

As a teenager, we hid our “sanny pads” in brown bags in our already overflowing school satchels, fearful that anyone – particularly a boy – would spot it was “your time of the month”.

We barely discussed menstruation amongst our peer group, let alone with our teachers, or God forbid, on national television.

Periods were a girl’s punishment for being a woman. Or that is how it sometimes felt. Thank goodness times have changed. If only the Farmers’ Union could escape the 1960s.