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A farmer’s life for me: meet the incredible women who produce our food

Eating & Drinking
Photo story

Georgina Wilson-Powell

7 March 2018

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day with a photojournalism feature, in collaboration with photographer Miles Willis, who has spent 2018 dodging snow and rain to capture some of the most exciting and passionate female farmers in the UK. Each of the women has an amazing story to tell and Miles is continuing to document these passionate people producing our food.

Old MacDonald might have had a farm but but farmers today look nothing like Old MacDonald.

From medicinal herbs grown in East London to micro-dairies, our farms are where bio-tech and innovation meets a respect for the land and our wildlife. It’s not enough to love animals or be passionate about nature, these farming women are experts in everything from marketing, finance and Big Data to supply chains and social media.

To live in a more sustainable world, we have to have a more indepth appreciation of how our food grows and its impact on our landscape and climate. We have to understand how our supermarket shopping choices affect the farming chain and impact global ecology; and how if we’re committed to living more lightly on the planet, we need to support and respect the farmers who have moved away from industrial scale productions. It’s not enough to all become vegan, or cut out gluten or grow our own veg. 

We need diversity; in the food we eat, in the food we grow and in the wildlife around us. These women know that...as do many others. pebble and Miles Willis thought we'd help give them a voice.

Want to be inspired...read on.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Fiona Provan

Fiona Provan, Calf at Foot Dairy

What do you do?

I run a micro dairy on the Somerleyton estate in North Suffolk. The whole point of setting up the dairy was to allow the cows to keep their calfs and give people an alternative to drinking milk from a conventional dairy.

How did you end up running a micro-dairy?

I was brought up in Hertfordshire my father was a veterinary surgeon specialising in cattle. It was a family business, we all had to help out, so I had an in built love for nature from an early age. I wasn’t allowed to go into farming, I was sent to catering college where became a chef, which I hated.

After having kids I ran a small organic food van selling milkshakes using local, organic milk. They used to sell out and if dawned on me that people really like milk. So I acquired a few Jersey cows and started selling the milk locally. I sold the van and sold high welfare milk from my grass fed Jersey herd. At the time I was campaigning against mega dairies so I decided to call mine a micro dairy, I think at that time the term hadn’t been used before.

After moving all over Suffolk and getting my certificate to sell raw milk, I finally settled here in 2012 and set up the Calf at Foot Dairy.

In the beginning I used to sell at farmers markets and then we had a local dairy pick up our milk to sell. Now we mostly sell online to all over the country, from the Isle of Skye, to London and Wales, as well as having a farm shop here.

What do you wish more people realised about farming?

I realise that some people think it’s an oxymoron to keep and ultimately kill animals humanely but if we accept that death is a part of life we’re just trying to do things properly and certainly insofar as taking the milk there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way that we do that and it produces an incredibly nutritional food. I question it all the time and have a deep conscience but I just do it as near I can to not exploit the animals. Of course we are still farming them but doing it this way I can sleep at night.

I just hope factory farming is stopped for good and people realise there is another way to farm but we have to pay what it’s worth, we have to give the farmers what it costs to produce that milk. We sell ours at £3 a litre and that barely covers it.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Abi Aspen

Abby Aspen Glencross, Sustainable Food Story

What do you do?

I’m a farmer/cook/scientist and I live between London and a farm in Weston Park Farm near Stevenage. I concentrate on old varieties, and genetically diverse, grains and how we grow them, mill them and bake with them. I also co-run a pop up supperclub called the Sustainable Food Story.

What are you growing?

My farm is a no till farm growing wheat, oats, rye but I’m introducing older varieties of grain like Einkorn, Emmer and Kamut. We started off running a project called #OurField and wanted to grow a whole field of these varieties but couldn't get the volume; we needed a couple of tonnes and it just wasn’t available. That's why myself and a small team of amazing grain-obseesed people set up the Heritage Grain Alliance because we need to be planting more diverse crops and teach more people how to cook with them.

What gets you up in the morning?

I’m obsessed with grains and I want to move us away from monocultures. The majority of the grains we grow in the UK are fed to animals. So much wheat is not nourishing for the environment; it takes a lot, it’s a very hungry plant and very difficult to grow organically. Plus growing it in such vast quantities is basically a monoculture, which means no birds, no bees. It’s about how we change the landscape and introduce diverse varieties which naturally keep pests at bay, have deeper roots so have less need for fertiliser and have more flavour.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Abby Rose

Abby Rose, Vidacycle tech

What do you do?

I’m a co-founder of Vidacycle tech, a company that produces app based technology for the farming sector, plus I run Farmerama Radio and I’m involved in #OurField which is a co-op grains movement. I live in the UK but my family's farm is in Chile and is called Vidacycle. We make natural wine which my sister and I sell in the UK.

Can you explain a little more?

My family farms 8,000 olive trees and 2.5 hectares of vines and we’re an organic farm. We kept getting frost damage on a few hundred trees and we couldn't figure out if it was the same few hundred each year so I developed an app called Sector Mentor that allows us to track what happened with each tree. Now we have over two years of data and we’re able make decisions on a tree by tree basis.

We've created a version for soils called Sectormentor For Soils, so any farmer can go out and soil test themselves.

Farmerama is a monthly podcast that shares the stories of small scale farmers.

Who inspires you in farming?

I’m part of a group called The Point People, I'm always inspired their systems design and systems thinking. There's some great scientists and soils advisors Iike Christine Jones and a lady called Sarah Singla, she's farming her grandfather's farm in France and she's brilliant. Another person who inspires me is Kimberly Bell at Small Food Bakery, she creates breads that taste radically different and really connects the farm to the end result.

What do you wish people knew about farming?

What I realised about being part of the farming sector is that anyone who's interested in the environment, food, fuel, technology and science would enjoy it because farming is essentially the root of everything we do as humankind.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Lizzie Dyer

Lizzie Dyer, Cotswold Kid Meat

What do you do?
We rear free range kid meat and we also produce kid skins alongside. We've been going since 2013 and we take dairy billys direct from one dairy and we rear them in a free-range environment to produce a sustainable red meat.

How has your business changed since you started?

We started with 20 billy kids and we we have more than 400 a year so obviously we have grown. We try and let it evolve quite naturally as demand increases and try to sustain that demand without outstripping it.

As we direct sell everything we have to keep looking at what the consumers want, and come up with cuts based on how people are cooking our meat, to match our products to what people want. 

(Read about Gourmet Goat who are using rose veal to win street food awards).

How do you farm sustainably?

The unique thing about this is we’re taking a by-product that's already born (billy calves are considered a by-product of the dairy industry) so we're trying to rear them in a very sustainable way.

We harvest all our rainwater, our fences run off solar power and we try and rear using grass because it's something a business we can control but also it is a more sustainable way of rearing meat. I think sustainability should always be part of the ideal way to produce but when you start analysing your business you realise that a lot of sustainable practices make better business sense as well.

What’s an ongoing challenge for you?
If people want to eat meat and eat good quality meat that has been raised to the best of everyone’s ability then consumers have to support the farmers that are working in the right way.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Dee Woods Of Granville Community Kitchen

Dee Woods, Granville Community Kitchen

What do you do?

I work primarily at the Granville Community Kitchen in London and we serve our local community in terms of training and education and in providing accessible good food. Our growing programme teaches people skills around organic food growing, biodiversity, seed saving and composting.

Did you think you’d end up farming?
I grew up in Trinidad & Tobago and my dad is a farmer so I've grown up with soil and planting and caring after animals, we kept goats in our backyard. I've grown up being connected to the land and learning from different cultures like East Indian, AmerIndian and African. That's one of the things I like to pass on to younger generations and share with others. 

I never expected to end up in farming, my career before was in community and youth education and at one point I was heavily into design and fashion so farming was the last place I expected to be.

What are you growing?
Our crops at Granville this year will include chayote (a gourd), herbs, carrots, potatoes, broad beans and nuts. We’re starting edible hedgerows to reintroduce traditional English crops as well as newer ones and we also have yacón, electric daisies and cucamelon. I have some wheat that I got from a farmer in Wales so we're going do a grow your own loaf.

How does your environment shape your farm?

We are in a really culturally diverse area so we draw on the knowledge and skills from around the world. We're trying not to impact the environment; we use no chemicals; we use some permaculture techniques to feed the soil and make sure the trees and plants are healthy.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Annie Landless

Annie Landless, Food Assembly

What do you do?

I’m a farmer’s daughter involved in several food and farming projects, mainly The Food Assembly. It's a network of click and collect farmers markets run by local organisers who connect communities with the very best produce from nearby farmers and foodmakers.

Did you always expect to be a farmer?

My parents have a small mixed arable and livestock farm where I grew up, I knew one day I wanted to take it on, but this urge only caught up with me a couple of years ago. In the interim I studied History of Art at university, worked in communications for six years, spending some time in Berlin as a community manager for an online mentoring learning platform, before moving to London to work as a network coordinator for The Food Assembly.

How has your work changed since you started?

Since working for The Food Assembly I’ve become a lot more connected with the agricultural world, getting to know farmers, food activists, organisations and networks I didn’t know existed before. I’ve started to truly understand what it means to support good farming, why farmers need to get paid fairly and how hard it can be to get products to market. I’ve realised it’s a struggle, but there’s nothing more worthwhile than contributing to the kind of food system I want to see.

Are you involved in any new products or processes in farming?
Aside from The Food Assembly, I’m involved with a few other projects. #OurField is a cooperative grain growing movement bringing together 43 co-investors, who make decisions on how a field of spelt is grown in Hertfordshire. The aim is to share the financial risk with the farmer and the collective vote on what to grow, whether to spray, how to sell. This allows for more experimentation and putting more heads together to see what’s possible.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Kate Yells

Kate Yells, Abbey Home Farm

What do you do?

I’m the lead stock person at Abbey Home Farm in Gloucestershire. It’s a 1,600 acre organic, mixed farm and we have beef and dairy cows, pigs, laying hens, chickens and sheep as well as arable lands and woodland.

What are your hopes for your farm in the near future?

Change will depend on how the subsidy structure pans out after Brexit. If we lose our subsidies then we'll have to rejig the different enterprises that are going on here. Currently not all the enterprises make money but overall we make a profit. If we continue to get subsidies then I guess we'll carry on as we are. We have got plans to increase the dairy herd but only to a certain capacity because we've limited by space and the amount of milk we can hold on the farm.

How important is it that what you do is sustainable?

We take great care of our soil. Soil is the most important thing, if you don't look after your soil anything that you produce is going to struggle. We produce most of our food for our farm - and having been brought up on an organic farm and now working on one too means that what others would think as ethical or sustainable, I see as the most obvious thing to do. We look after our animals, we want to do what is best for the animals and do it an environmentally friendly way.

What's the biggest pressure or challenge for you in 2018?

There are lots of challenges. Definitely the weather as not one week is the same, not one month is the same, not one year is the same.

Then there is the challenge of meeting the demands of your customer. It doesn't ever seem straightforward; one moment the shop is selling loads of beef the next month they're not selling any at all and how you meet that fluctuation is a real challenge.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Hackney Herbal

Nat Mady, Hackney Herbal

What do you do?

I grow a mixture of culinary, medicinal and wild herbs at Hackney Herbal. The majority are sold as herbal tea blends and the rest are used in workshops and events that we run. I'm also growing some herbs for pollinators and wildlife and I’m always on the lookout for unusual and rare varieties, I have a growing collection of different types of mints!

Did you always expect to be a farmer?

My background is actually in structural engineering so I started out designing buildings. I always had a passion for ecological design but that didn't really happen and at the same time I became really interested in gardening and growing through volunteering in community gardens. At university, I got became interested in the politics of our food systems and sustainable approaches to agriculture. I came across the principles of permaculture whilst I was studying engineering and saw it in action whilst WOOFing in South America. After taking two weeks off work to go and do a permaculture PDC, I was inspired and motivated to quit my job and follow my new passions, it was the gentle nudge I had been looking for!

Who inspires you in farming?

I've been really inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and philosopher who was one of the pioneers of natural farming, who observed nature's patterns and reflected these in his methods. I read his book One Straw Revolution whilst staying on a farm and its key messages have stayed with me.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis Laura Brady

Laura Brady, Wonky Parsnip

What do you do?

Wonky Parsnip is a small farm in Chartham, Canterbury that specialises in growing weird and wonderful fruit and veg that is rare or new to the UK. I run it on part of a traditional arable farm and in two acres we have over 100 different things growing at once, from yellow marrows, tomatillos, Inca berries, salsify, yellow peas to Mizuna greens supplying to many local restaurants, farm shops, bistros and artisan producers.

What do you wish people knew about farming?

I think a lot of people see farming as just like sitting in a tractor but actually you need to be able to market your vegetables; you need to look at the stock market to see what the prices are, be able to read the weather, keep up to date with trends and new varieties of crop, seeds, new chemicals; know about law, politics, what’s happening in Europe, you really need to know really quite a lot!

Are you introducing any new products?

This year we will try and introduce about 50 new products. One is an exploding cucumber. It’s originally from Peru and in the shape of a spiky ball like a pufferfish. If they overripe they explode so you have to pick them before that happens.

Women Of Farming Miles Willis

Alice Holden, Growing Communities Dagenham Farm

What do you do?

I’m the head grower here at this peri-urban farm set up by Growing Communities in 2012. The organisations’ idea is to create a trade model that supports sustainable farmers and provides good quality food for our urban populations.

We grow lots of leafy greens and things like tomatoes, French beans, cucumbers and peppers - things that don’t take up too much room or take too long. We provide a box scheme in Hackney with lots of veggies and we also supply restaurants in north London and we have a market stall.

How do you farm sustainably?

We really value organic matter and we recycle everything apart from the crops that we take, which creates a more bio-diverse ecosystem within the soil and that creates a bio-diverse food system from the ground up. Since we've been here every year you can tell the place is becoming a richer habitat through the insects and birdlife we have here. This does bring in pests but our aim is to get our system in sync and have the predators balancing out the pests to create a balanced habitat.

What do you wish people knew about farming?

That it is actually a cerebral job. You have to be a master of lots of trades and that makes it really interesting, It’s diverse in skills and urban farming also brings an additional social aspect. We have lots of people visiting the farm.This place feeds me and hopefully I feed people from it.

What's the biggest challenge for you in 2018?

Every year one of my main challenges is to produce enough produce to pay the growers’ wages and keep the whole thing going. This year, there's an additional level of complexity because I'm having a baby in July which is the beginning of the main harvest season, so there's a layer of planning involved which means dividing up the tasks and preparation for that.

This isn’t the end...if you want to see more brilliant women farmers head over to Miles' website to view the full set of images.

About this project

This photo project is a collaboration between pebble and photographer Miles Willis, who is documenting the passionate people producing our food. This first collection was put together in just over a month, and while it shows a range of farmers, it’s by no means an extensive one. Time, weather and geography limited us to the south of the country - we want to look further afield in time.

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