Minette Batters is up at 5.30am with her terrier, driving her tractor round her farm in Wiltshire, reversing horse boxes, manoeuvring diggers and enticing her favourite cow, Blackie, out of the barn before a coffee and the school run. Having been warned by her father as a teenager that farming wasn’t for girls, the slender, blonde 46-year-old single mother has just been voted the first woman deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union in 105 years. “Traditionally women didn’t farm but the more I was told I couldn’t do something, the more I wanted it. I grew up on this farm and was in love with it but my father, who was a tenant farmer, was very resistant about me taking over. He really struggled, he thought women should be in the kitchen. But my brother didn’t want to farm so I was determined to get the tenancy back.” Now there are 23,000 women in farming. “A lot of daughters are really keen.
This place was run-down when I took over in 1998. There wasn’t a fence. It was very fragile. There were only 30 acres so I had to diversify. I now have a 100-strong suckler herd, but I also trained in catering so I run a wedding business in our barn and we have a horse livery business and look after polo ponies in the winter.” Farmers, she thinks, have to embrace the global market. “There is a huge demand for British produce. If 2 per cent of China is prepared to pay more for our product n we must go there.” The British still spend less of their income on food than any other European nation, preferring cheap cuts of beef, cut-price burgers and bargain sliced bread to more expensive produce.
“We do live in a cheap food society but we also love animals so we need to convince people that they want their cows and sheep raised well and that costs money.” It has worked in the poultry industry, she says. “People want free-range and corn-fed now, they like to know that the animals have had a bit of a life; they have a naive image that the chickens are all running around in orchards but they do get to scratch in the dirt and fresh air. It’s harder with cattle: people don’t want to know the connection with their sausages and burgers.” Farmers seem to garner little sympathy even when their fields flood or their herds become infected with TB, unlike in France where they are seen as national treasures. “It’s much better now than it was,” Ms Batters says. “Programmes like Countryfile have made a massive difference.”
Her greatest frustration now is that the farmer’s role as custodian of the countryside is being taken away. “I farm on the Avon valley, which is an SSSI [Site of Special Scientific Interest]. This environment was created by farmers who care about the environment. The knowledge base we have on waders and the biodiversity of the river is incredible and yet now you have outfits like Natural England who make up their own policies and don’t look to the local farmers for their expertise.” The recent flooding on the Somerset Levels and around Salisbury, including on her farm, has been exacerbated by certain quangos’ obsessions, she believes. “You have this desire now from Natural England for water courses to return to their natural state. I think the thing to go back to is that the water courseways in this country are artificial.
The water meadows by my farm were built by the Dutch in the 17th century, the river was always cleared, we had the weed cut. Then the Environment Agency took over from the local river board who dug out the ditches . . . and Natural England said they want a lot of rewilding and rewetting.” The result, she says, is that many farmers have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds that they spent last year reseeding their flooded meadows, only to see them under water again. “I am not saying the Levels wouldn’t have flooded, but not to the extent they did. It was a massive cost-cutting measure to do nothing. They just thought, ‘let it go’. It’s very narrow-minded.” It amazes her that while the Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] budget decreases daily, the Environme nt Agency is now the second largest in the world. “Their budget is vast. Yet their view is, ‘Let’s allow the countryside to return to its natural state. Let’s ignore it and it will go away — it’s too difficult.’ Natural England is frustrating too. It hasn’t got enough farmer involvement. They are both unaccountable and they hide behind the European Habitats Directive yet Holland, which is absolutely manicured, is totally compliant with the directive. We all want the countryside to flourish but their policies are actually detrimental to the environment.”
The idea that areas of Britain could be abandoned to the elements horrifies her. “The Dutch are living below sea levels. We need land in Britain, we are a little island and here we are saying, ‘Oh, let’s just let some of it go, be submerged.’ It is disgraceful and short-sighted. If we could do it 300 years ago we can make it work now. People have been living in these places for generations. To say ‘just move’ is extraordinary.” Maintaining this countryside isn’t just for the benefit of people, she says. “There isn’t a bird who can nest anywhere on the Somerset Levels now. The animals, the water voles have drowned, their habitats have all been swamped.” The badger population, on the other hand, she believes has got out of control. “Cattle give TB to cattle, badgers give it to cattle and cattle give it to badgers. Yet we are culling all the cattle and we are not doing anything with the badgers. Look worldwide at TB and the only way anyone has ever got to the bottom of it is to address both sides . . .
If we wait for a vaccination, the wildlife will become riddled with TB for ever. To have poor calves orphaned is appalling.” Her own herd has always been TB-free. “But there is a terrible suicide rate among farmers and I think TB has driven people to the edge. They love their herds and the worst thing with TB is that when you get it, you can’t do anything about it. It’s devastating knowing that your life’s work is done for.” She worries just how far TB could spread if it becomes out of control. “I wonder how far off we are off a public health risk, a human health risk from TB. The student I had working for me last year, she hadn’t had a BCG jab.
TB is an airborne disease. That’s how badgers give it to cattle. It’s a virus. It’s crossing species — you’re now seeing it getting into goats, we’ve had it in pigs, it is a virus that’s mutated.” Foxes also need to be kept under control, she insists. “The hunting controversy was a strange one — it wasn’t really about the fox, it was a class war, it was about people on horses careering around the countryside enjoying themselves and actually how the fox died was secondary.” Women, she thinks, add a different slant to farming. “They are more aware of the consumer. People see a man running a farm and they think of it more as a business, but consumers relate more to women . . . they assume women will understand their concerns about food.” The new deputy president wants her children to have every opportunity to farm. “Holly wants to be like Mummy, George is less keen. I asked him if he would like to go into farming. He’s nine. He said: ‘Why would I do it, Mummy? You work really long hours and you quite often don’t smell very nice when we get home from school.’ He loves my new job at the NFU because I come in looking smart after my meeting days and I’m not covered in muck.”
Curriculum vitae Born May 28, 1967 Educated Godolphin School, Salisbury, and catering college in London Career She took over the tenancy of her farm in 1998 and became county NFU chairman for Wiltshire in 2008; elected NFU deputy president this year Family Nine-year-old twins Quick fire Wind farm or fracking? Both have to be considered The Archers or Farming Today? Farming Today Moors or mountains? Moors, I’m frightened of heights Riding or fishing? Riding Organic or GM? Both where appropriate Tesco or farmers’ market? We need both Animal Farm or My Family and Other Animals? My Family and Other Animals Hunters or Crocs? I wear wellies