On the morning of my 24th birthday I put on a pair of old walking boots. They were the sturdy kind, the right level of ugly and perfectly durable. I had worn them every week throughout the summer; it had become a kind of ritual. I would wake up early and catch a train going south, while the rest of the house lay silent, the sun slowly rising over London in milky hues.
There are few things that could inspire me out of my slumber and into a day most likely spent on my hands and knees, ripping weeds from the corners of a poly tunnel, surrounded by frogs and spiders. I have always had an adventurous spirit, a desire for open spaces and moss-filled forests, yet I never saw myself wanting to become a farmer.
I can remember the first time I fell in love, and it wasn’t with a human being. It was early September, the sky was in the grip of a mood swing; the deep purple clouds hung low while the sun clung to their edges. I walked along a path that took me to where the squash had been growing all summer long, an array of shapes and textures. I began picking them, only able to carry two or three at once. Searching beneath the plants leaves to find squash of varying shapes, sizes and colours; the satisfying action of pulling them from their stems, watching the wheelbarrows fill up and up and up.
I felt strong. My tanned legs squatted to collect each squash, unperturbed by the scratches that they would receive, as I grazed the spiky edges of courgette leaves along the way. I felt alive, not because of the imminent rain or my rising heart rate, but because I felt empowered as a woman. No longer believing that I wasn’t strong enough, that the dirt beneath my fingernails signified anything but the work I had achieved. I had fallen in love with this feeling, this action of growing food and the empowerment it offered me. No longer believing that being a farmer had anything to do with my gender.
When I was a child I was not aware that growing food could be a career choice, or that female farmers even existed. My mother was the only example I had of a woman who was unafraid of getting dirty, who never questioned her own strength. I saw women on TV with slender figures in tight dresses, standing back as their men spoke for them. Any woman I saw growing food in the media was wearing a sun hat and doing the ‘light jobs’. No one ever seemed to question the fact that farming was seen as a ‘man’s role’, too hard and heavy for a woman.
Thankfully, for women growing up in 2018 strong female role models are in no short supply. Women who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, who are marching out on to centre stage and offering no apology for being strong and sweating over what they love. Farming taught me how to be one of those women, to take ownership of the space I take up in this world and the dreams I have to change it.
As women from all walks of life claim the equal space in society that we have been owed for centuries, it is time for us, both men and women, to let go of old ideals. We can be dirty, we can be strong, we can get stuck in and pull our weight. We do not need permission to take up space in hobbies or professions that we feel passionate about. There is no job that is only fit for a man, a truth that many women are proving time and time again.