International Women’s Day: My Tweed Coat
In the autumn of 2015, ready for my first ever Nuffield Farming Conference, I bought a tweed coat.
It’s dark green with threads of red and gold, a brown suede collar, and deep roomy pockets which keep my hands toasty in winter. It’s a Joules ‘fieldcoat’ and says: ‘Boldly British’ on the lining (though it’s actually made in China and is only 60% wool). It was partly a fashion choice, but mainly I was investing in a cultural uniform. I was making myself into the person I thought I should be: a countrywoman worthy of my farming scholarship. Accepted by farmers, landowners, and bigwigs. The men in suits.
People like Matthew Naylor.
He grows (a lot of) flowers on reclaimed silt land around the Wash in South Lincolnshire: 50 million stems of daffodils, delphiniums, alliums, asters, sunflowers, Sweet Williams, gladioli, and peonies for supermarkets around the UK and mainland Europe. The farm blooms from February to November as one harvest rolls into the other, the only food crop being 2,000 tonnes of potatoes – the Plain Jane on his business plan.
Matt is a character. In some ways he’s your quintessential Barbour-wearing, Discovery-driving, well-to-do, landowning country gent with 700 acres who spends a lot of his time mixing with the farming top brass at well-heeled industry events, like the Nuffield Farming Conference. He’s also a socialist (admittedly a champagne one), a Green Party voter, social justice campaigner, founder of the rural LGBTQ+ network AgRespect, and a gay man.
“I’m gammon with a twist,” he says, making me snort with laughter.
When I tell Matt about my tweed coat, he laughs with the heartiness of someone who gets it:
“Can you imagine if a farmer wore a bright red ski jacket, the kind of coat John Craven wears on Countryfile? They’d be utterly lambasted! They wouldn’t be taken seriously, would they? They’re not a farmer because they’re wearing a colourful coat. To be a farmer you’ve got to wear a sombre-looking coat. I notice it too and I don’t know who’s behind it. It’s like a conspiracy, like the patriarchy are quietly saying, ‘You’re not welcome here in our world because the rules of engagement are thus.”
It hadn’t crossed my mind that there could be undercurrents of sexism. Matt gives me a literal example:
“Have you been to Agritechnica – the big German agricultural machinery trade show?”
“OK, so if somebody said, ‘I like Top Gear but it’s just not blokey enough. I need it to be more macho,’ then that would be Agritechnica. When I went they were selling those pens where you turn them upside down and the woman’s clothes fall off, and they have women in swimming costumes and sashes giving out leaflets about tractors. It’s just people wanting to rev engines and burn diesel and that is so embedded in the farming culture: ‘OK girls, you’re allowed to bottle feed a lamb – you can do the mothering stuff – but leave us to burn the fossil fuels and really churn this soil up’. It’s just everywhere. Even you and I think it’s normal. We should be observing it for the nonsense it is – that a farmer in a green Landrover being all ‘farmer-ish’ is the same comedy character as a nasty traffic warden or a slimy estate agent. It’s like some badly written sitcom character.”
I get the blokey farmer-ish thing. Even I try to act blokey in the livestock markets. I adopt a peculiar wide-legged stance, hands stuffed in my pockets. If my legs were long enough, I’d sit on a sheep pen and rest my foot on the opposite gate blocking an alley. I’d only move, languidly like a bored cowboy, if someone needed to squeeze past. I lean on gates with men to say, ‘I’m comfortable here too’. I’ve been gender-bending at the auction mart all my life.
The male-dominated culture is gradually changing though. Female farmers, though still a minority (17%), are less frequently exoticized as rare and special creatures swimming determinedly against a tide of men in wellies. 25,000 women in the UK are farming in their own right and feel increasingly confident about being whoever they want to be.
My Irish friend Maeve, a dairy farmer in County Cork, wholeheartedly rejects the tom-boy expectation. If she’s going out for cocktails with the girls, she’ll wear a shower cap to do the evening milking, so she doesn’t get cow poo in her hair.
There’s still a long way to go though. Rural sexism clings on, stubbornly refusing to shut up – quite literally sometimes. Even our postman is part of the patriarchy. A few years ago, he asked Mum if Dad was disappointed when my youngest sister, Nicola, was born. Their third daughter.
“No, not at all,” replied Mum.
“Oh, come on, he must have been,” insisted the postman. “You need a son when you’re farming.”
“No, honestly, he wasn’t disappointed.”
“I bet he was.”
This went back and forth for a shockingly long time.
“I like to think I had the last word,” says Mum, “but he’s a tough nut to crack. Very old fashioned.”
I know dozens of people with similar stories. Warwickshire farmer Arron Kennedy, a proud dad of two boys and a girl, bristles when nosy outsiders, just like our postman, ask if his sons will follow him into farming (it doesn’t cross their mind that his daughter might.) Samantha Kenyon, a sheep farmer in North Wales, has endured sexual harassment in the livestock market; sleazeball farmers making disgusting sexual noises while her lambs are being auctioned, and her friend has been groped and rubbed up against.
And Katy Lowe, a 30-year-old dairy farmer from Cheshire, tells me how salesmen still ask for her husband or father on the phone:
“I showed some people around the farm when we were building some new sheds and installing the milking robots and one asked, ‘So, when will the boss be here?”
Blatant sexism wasn’t the only sting in that question. Katy returned to her family’s 250-acre organic farm in 2014, to learn the ropes from her father, David, on managing a herd of 130 cows. Before that she was living in London, working for Barclays bank. Tragically, within a month of coming home, David died suddenly, leaving Katy, who was just 23, in charge of the running of the business:
“Luckily, I had worked very closely with Dad throughout most of my school and university holidays and regularly helped out at weekends, so I was able to muddle through. Hopefully, I’m making him proud with the improvements I am making to the farm.”
Katy has no regrets about her decision to leave London and farm full-time – her passion for the industry is obvious – but she misses the inclusive urban work culture, where people see your job title, not your gender.
“I never encountered any sexism in the city,” she says. “Not once.”
Now she mentions it, neither have I. In all my years working for the BBC in Birmingham, Manchester, and Bristol, I have never once felt reminded of my gender, or minoritized in any way. I was just another member of staff and these days, I’m just another freelancer. I’ve had fantastic male and female bosses.
I’d made it to my mid-30s before I became aware of my gender in a professional context: it was at that 2015 Nuffield Farming Conference in Belfast.
I beheld a sea of white men in suits. I’d never seen so many crammed into one room before. I was one of only three women out of 18 newly awarded Scholars – Becky, Debbie and I stand out against rows of navy suits in the official photograph taken that year. It was a stark contrast to the gender-balanced urban media world I was used to. The farming patriarchy was alive and kicking, but in my beautiful tweed coat, I could hold my own. I wore a tweed skirt too for maximum country woollen impact.
Seven years on, I don’t feel the need to prove anything. I’m pleased to report there were considerably more female Scholars at the 2021 Nuffield Conference, and I can’t even remember what I wore (which is how it should be).
These days, I wear my beautiful tweed coat with rainforest-patterned yoga pants and silver lace-up boots.
I took the tweed skirt to a charity shop.