Rural businesses can take great confidence for the future from a growing appreciation of nature and the countryside, an audience of rural women heard.
Restrictions on everyday life this year, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, starkly show the value of the great outdoors as well as the genuine sense of community that can often be found in countryside communities.
A wide range of timely messages of encouragement and empowerment, as well as powerful testimonies of overcoming adversity, were shared during an Autumn Gathering of the Women In Farming Network. The group, established by registered charity the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, provides support for, and seeks to inspire rural women across the county.
Convened online, the Autumn Gathering brought together a panel of respected rural figures, while Judith Wood, Barclays Agricultural Manager chaired the event.
Sponsored by Savills and The Prince’s Countryside Fund, with support from Barclays Agriculture, the hour-long Autumn Gathering addressed the theme of ‘A Momentous Year’.
Despite current challenges, panellist Susan Briggs, Director of The Tourism Network said rural businesses can take encouragement for the future.
Susan, who works with hundreds of small rural businesses across North Yorkshire said:
Thanks to lockdown and all the enforced changes, many people now understand some of the things that we as rural inhabitants have recognised for a long time. Top of this has got to be nature and an appreciation of the countryside, and at some point in the future, I believe we can find ways to get them to pay for more rural experiences.
Many visitors want to spend time in places that feel more real and caring and they increasingly want to understand what it means to live in a genuine community.
Diversifications such as farm tours and authentic, rustic venues for family gatherings and weddings now present huge opportunities for rural businesses, she said.
Farmer Rachel Hallos explained how she has overcome tough times – both financially and mentally. Rachel farms with her husband in the hills above Ripponden and when they initially took on the farm tenancy, they had to dramatically remodel the business to stave off the threat of bankruptcy. Dairying gave way for a suckler beef herd and a sheep flock which are run on a low input system that delivers environmental benefits.
Rachel has also risen through the ranks of the National Farmers Union, becoming North East regional chair and a member of the national audit board. Despite this, she said she has suffered from “imposter syndrome” – something she now wants to help other women overcome.
This is about empowering other women to have the confidence to knock their own little imposter syndrome off their shoulders and start taking charge of their own destiny.
The Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley explained that building resilience can help individuals and communities overcome difficult circumstances. Dr Helen-Ann said she had seen the power of resilience first-hand when witnessing the incredible community response in the Yorkshire Dales to overcome devastating flooding in Reeth last July.
Dr Helen-Ann said:
An understanding of building resilience is very much about focussing on yourself but also about figuring out where your trusted support networks are and how to nurture those networks. We need to celebrate the small things that can happen, the kind gestures that we can share with one another.
It has been a momentous year for farm retailers who have shown incredible resilience by quickly adapting to ensure they continue to serve communities with fresh, high quality local produce.
Olivia Spilman of Spilman Farming in Sessay told of how her family farm and farm shop had weathered the initial challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and that the public’s response had been overwhelmingly positive.
The farm’s reliance on foreign workers to help with the asparagus harvest was undone by lockdown but more than 1,000 applications were received for 40 vacancies following a local recruitment drive. Spilmans’ asparagus harvest was saved and some of the produce was donated to NHS workers, schools and childcare providers.
A drive thru farm shop and a takeaway kiosk have also proved big successes, while a new online booking system means allowed Spilmans to safely welcome visitors for their pick-your-own strawberries season and now its pumpkin season.
Clearly there’s still a lot of uncertainty and it’s affecting different people in different ways. For us, it has been a real journey. It has been overwhelmingly positive being back with customers who we hope will continue to support our family farm and business.
Dr Caroline Knott, Consultant Psychologist at Tees, Esk & Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust shared advice on managing mental health. She said farming families are often in high stress environments because they live and work together around the clock and rarely take holidays.
They face various stress factors such as concerns over Brexit impacts, extreme weather, crop and livestock disease, and succession as roles within families change. Farming women also tend to take the lead in looking after their children, whilst also contributing to the family business.
Simple techniques can help manage stress, she said, explaining:
Get a planner and start to look at tasks that are absolutely vital now – include the family in this. If you can start to share the load, it will help your executive functioning. More importantly, get yourself some downtime so you can sleep. If you are overwhelmed and overtired, everything is more difficult.
Kate Dale, Co-ordinator of the Women In Farming Network said:
Hopefully these messages offer welcome encouragement and a sense of togetherness. Wherever there are challenges, there are opportunities, and while everyday stresses can mount up and cloud our perspectives, there are ways we can all look after both our own and our family and friends’ wellbeing by making small changes.
The Women In Farming Network seeks to inspire and support rural women across Yorkshire, and it will continue to do so as we look to the future with a renewed hope.
The Autumn Gathering was held on Tuesday 13th October and can be viewed at www.yas.co.uk/women-in-farming-autumn-gathering