Women in Agriculture: Michelle’s Double Life

Michelle Stephen BSc (Hons) balances her career as a Assistant Land Agent at Bell Ingram’s Aberdeen office with her responsibilities as a Shepherdess on her 86-acre farm in rural Aberdeenshire. She says: “When clients realise you’re a farmer yourself, they trust you to carry out the work.”

Michelle and Floss.

My route into farming

My only farming experience was rearing my neighbours’ orphan lambs, but two years ago my partner and I bought an 86-acre farm with a farmhouse in Udny. This might sound like a huge investment but it has helped strengthen MY business plan as my partner has a separate sheep enterprise. I now have 400 breeding ewes, seven tups and a Kelpie/Collie cross called Flossie.

My qualifications

Having studied for a Diploma in Agriculture, a BSc Hons in Rural Resource Management and a PgDip in Rural Estate and Land Management, I’m now currently working towards becoming a qualified RICS chartered surveyor based In Bell Ingram’s Aberdeen office.

Juggling two jobs

My boss [James Petty] once told a client that when I wasn’t working at Bell Ingram you’d find me chasing sheep and jumping fences … and he’s not far wrong there! Luckily, he has a farming background himself and is very understanding when I text to say I might be late in as 400 ewes and their lambs have escaped onto the disused railway line near us and I’ll be in once they’re back in the field. He also wrote the supporting letters for my grant scheme application and without this support it would be impossible to run the sheep and my full-time job together. My holidays are used for lambing, shearing, scanning and buying in store lambs. In fact, my last “proper” holiday was a sheep dog training course in the Borders where I met Julie Hill who is a huge inspiration both as a fantastic shepherdess and sheepdog trainer. Through working at Bell Ingram I have found that understanding what your clients do and taking an interest in their business is a huge asset. Once they realise you are a farmer yourself and are familiar with the industry, they trust you to carry out the work.

Barriers to new farmers

The main obstacles I found while trying to get into the agricultural industry were: funding, time, access to equipment, land at a reasonable price, and good markets for selling livestock. Land can be very expensive where I stay and trying to make ends meet can be quite challenging while ensuring you’re saving money to buy somewhere yourself. We found the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (AMC) were great to deal with to secure funding to buy the farm, they were much more approachable than ordinary banks.

Grant funding boost

I was one of the few successful applicants to receive a Young Farmers Start Up Grant of €70,000 which allowed me to buy a new handling system, trailer, weigh crate, electric fencing equipment, stock recorder, polytunnel and ewes. These will improve my operation’s efficiency as I’ve been lugging heavy gates into a neighbour’s borrowed trailer, setting up the sheep handling system before packing up and heading to the next location, and recording births and deaths on paper before submitting onto a spreadsheet. It was quite a stressful process gathering all the evidence together for the grant scheme, so I employed an agricultural consultant who had much more experience with the correct wording for these applications and between us we submitted the huge document. The Department took months to make their decision, and this can be quite challenging for new entrants’ businesses as they require you to have a Short Limited Duration Tenancy (SLDT) without any certainty that the application will be successful. There were also times when I saw offers on machinery but was unable to buy in case I jeopardised the grant (I wasn’t allowed to buy the equipment detailed in the grant until I had the funding approved). There is an expectation that you either have savings to pay for the tenancy or an overdraft, but these are quite big risks for a new entrant and their business. I was very fortunate to have the support of my full-time job to see me through these hard months until the grant scheme had been approved.

Taskforce tactics

I think the Women in Agriculture movement is playing an important role by highlighting the farming talents of women in the sector. It demonstrates that women have always been there helping/supporting/leading the agricultural industry. It’s certainly given us more of a voice. I have first-hand experience of the challenges faced by women in the agriculture sector, and many of the Taskforce’s early findings struck a chord, particularly the challenge of juggling my career as an assistant land agent at Bell Ingram with my work as a shepherdess. Often at the mart or local NFU meetings, I can be the youngest or maybe the lone female, but this doesn’t deter me much as I have a keen interest in agriculture and know where I want my business to go and enjoy hearing about other people’s experiences to maybe put into practice at home.

Grab every opportunity

If you are keen enough to enter the agricultural industry you need to be determined to make it work. There are plenty of opportunities out there if you look in the right way. My friend (a contract shepherdess) and I successfully applied to the Gregor Trust Award to be sponsored to attend the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year as fully funded scholars. The OFC was a fantastic experience, extremely informative and helped me understand where agriculture is going to be heading in the next few years and the options available to all sectors. It’s a great networking opportunity and is very inspiring.

*Michelle is based in Bell Ingram’s Aberdeen office. Contact her on 01224 621 300 or email michelle.stephen@bellingram.co.uk

Published on 9th August 2019