There are few jobs that allow you to see the fruits of your labours, season after season. Minette Batters has one of them. She has been producing beef, lamb and crops on 150 hectares (370 acres) in south Wiltshire for almost a quarter of a century – the place where she grew up and which was farmed for decades by her parents.
“The fences weren’t here. The barn didn’t have a roof, it was derelict,” says Batters, recalling the state of the farm when she began running it in 1998.
It wasn’t a given that she would take over the tenancy from her parents. She convinced the landlords to give her a chance by promising to renovate two dilapidated 17th-century farm cottages, in exchange for taking on the land and buildings.
In the years since, she has restored the cottages, turned the once-roofless building into a chic wedding venue, and increased her herd from 15 suckler cows to 100. “It was a pretty challenging business starting off,” Batters says, as her 10-year-old dog, Basil, scampers alongside. “It’s been a life’s work. People ask, ‘Why would you do all this when you don’t own it?’”
Family Divorced, 17-year-old twins.
Education A-Levels at Wiltshire Technical College. Trained as a chef in London, completing a Cordon Bleu diploma. Ran her own catering business for weddings and large parties across the south of England for 25 years, in parallel with farming, until becoming NFU president.
Pay Undisclosed, but it allows to keep her farm running in her absence. She says: “We are a not-for-profit organisation. I’m not there to make money out of the NFU.”
Last holiday Woolacombe in Devon last summer.
Best advice she’s been given
“The adage which has had more influence on my life is, ‘You make your own luck.’ I keep saying to my kids: ‘there is no shortcut in life, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.’”
Biggest career mistake “I think I’ve made lots of mistakes in my life. And all I’d say is I’ve probably learned more from the mistakes than the successes.”
Word she overuses “Extraordinary.”
While her business has grown in size and scope in size and scope, more recently she has had her sights fixed on the Palace of Westminster, a world away from this patch of land close to the New Forest.
Since 2018 she has represented the interests of 55,000 farmers in England and Wales through arguably the industry’s biggest upheaval in living memory, as president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
During that time, the nation’s food producers have had to contend with huge changes to agriculture policy following Brexit, including the end of the EU subsidy scheme, coupled with discussions about land use and environmental standards in the face of the climate crisis. To top it all, a pandemic disrupted domestic and international supply chains and made people think twice about where their food comes from.
“This is the biggest change since 1947. What is decided now will dictate our levels of self-sufficiency. Don’t forget, in 1947 we were only 30% self-sufficient.”
In recent years, UK domestic production has met about 60% of its food needs. But farmers are struggling with a string of problems, including the post-Brexit and post-pandemic labour shortage – which has already resulted in unpicked fruit rotting in fields, and a cull of healthy pigs on farms. All this before British agriculture has felt the impact of freshly minted trade deals with the major food-producing nations Australia and New Zealand.
“My greatest fear was that we would be used as a pawn in trade deals, and effectively that has been what’s happened,” she says.
“These are really bad trade deals for the UK as there are no checks and balances,” she adds, pointing out that the Tories’ 2019 manifesto promised “they would never undermine farmers in their trade deals”. Batters believes this promise has been resoundingly broken.
She, and her members, are most concerned by the removal of all tariffs and quotas on imports of Australian beef and lamb after the initial phase-in period. Batters says UK farmers were always told any deal would contain lasting safeguards to protect domestic food producers, in what she calls “the most prized food market in the world”, and she does not believe that has happened.
She is exasperated by what she calls the government’s “adversarial” approach, lamenting the lack of “partnership” between the industry and ministers, which she says is evident in other places, including the Antipodes, where farmers are invited on trade missions.
Sitting in her farmhouse kitchen, Batters never sounds more passionate, or indeed more frustrated, than when she is discussing whether the current crop of politicians understand the importance of agriculture – not just for domestic food supply, but for rural communities across the UK, located far from the capital.
She doesn’t think this is grasped by ministers, despite the government’s levelling-up ambitions.
“I feel now that politicians are very, very removed from food systems and food production,” she says.
“Agriculture underpins the entire rural economy. In some very fragile parts of the country, if you didn’t have agriculture, the village schools, the local community, the allied trades, the local veterinary practice, the auction market, are all put at risk.”
Batters speaks with conviction of her “deep connection” to the land she farms. During her childhood in Wiltshire, rearing calves on the farm, she only considered careers involving animals, or produce. Dissuaded by her father from pursuing point-to-point horse racing, she went to London to train to be a chef and completed a Cordon Bleu diploma, before setting up her own catering business, which she ran alongside the farm until becoming head of the union.
Batters’s father didn’t live to see her elected the NFU’s first female president, but thinks it would have left him “flabbergasted”, having worked in an era when farming required more physical labour and was considered a male job.
Dressed in a pale-blue jumper and jeans, she is far from the stereotype of a tweed-wearing, middle-aged male farmer. However, she was frustrated that reports of her election as the NFU’s first female president, 110 years after the organisation was founded, focused on her gender rather than suitability for the role.
Despite this, Batters acknowledges she is often approached by women who thank her for inspiring them to get involved in the sector. More women than ever are pursuing careers in agriculture: they outnumber men on higher education agriculture courses by two to one, while a third of all workers in the sector are women, according to figures from NatWest bank.
Batters’s 17-year-old twins, who are studying for their A-levels, haven’t decided if they will take over running the farm, but it remains a family business. Her son and daughter help out at weekends, and her mother, who is in her 80s, lives in one of the farm cottages Batters renovated at the start of her tenancy.
In February, she is standing for re-election for the third time at the NFU’s annual conference, where she will need 75% of the vote. “I feel it’s unfinished business,” she says.
Batters believes UK food producers should concentrate on growing more of what they can – including apples, pears, berries and field vegetables – in part to take the pressure off countries suffering from water scarcity. However, retailers and ministers will also need to get on board.
“This is a really exciting place to be,” she says. “We can lead the world in climate-smart agriculture and it’s getting politicians to alight on the huge possibilities that there are. Farmers are up for that challenge.”