Interview: Katie Hall, Chairman of The National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Katie Hall has been a member of Young Farmers since she was 11, and now she is one of the many wrestling with the problems facing the agricultural industry. She takes time out to tell us about her Cotswold Life
‘Young Farmers’ is written into Katie Hall’s DNA. A member since the age of 11, she’s national vice chairman of this rural youth organisation, and is now standing for position of overall chair. Her mum, Brigette, is president of Gloucestershire Young Farmers; and her cousin, Caroline Bennett is county chair.
“It’s a real family affair,” she says.
Yet none of the Hall family comes from a farming background. “You don’t have to be a farmer to be a Young Farmer,” Katie explains. “It’s simply a really good countryside network. We all know that buses to local towns have stopped, which can be very isolating for young people. Young Farmers provides them with a chance to meet up in their local area, to learn a craft, listen to a talk, and to broaden their horizons. We hold competitions such as flower-arranging, cookery, sport and public-speaking. We’ve pretty much a 50 percent girl/boy mix.”
Nevertheless, as part of her national role, Katie and colleagues help inform the farming debate, which is currently wrestling with thorny issues. Two of the biggest involve the shortage of skilled labour on UK farms; and succession-planning.
“It’s a tough period for young people who want to get into agriculture, and one of the problems is succession-planning,” Katie says. “I have friends on dairy and beef farms where dad very much writes the cheques and is still in charge. There needs to be more of a gradual handover – there’s a conversation to be had.
“We’ve a growing world with more mouths than ever to feed. To achieve that, we need to keep looking forward.”
Katie, 30, works as a regional sales manager for livestock feed specialists Bonanza Calf Nutrition.
Where do you live and why?
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I live in Walton Cardiff, Tewkesbury. And the reason? Because I could afford a house there, to be honest! Young people aren’t going to be able to buy in Bourton or Northleach or Stow; so we’re having to expand the Cotswold boundaries. I’m not from a farming background – my parents own RJ Hall Forklift Trucks in Winchcombe - but I had a very rural childhood. I’ve got a little pony, Topic (named after the chocolate bar), at home in Corse Lawn: horses are a massive part of our family. My granddad was a district commissioner of Ledbury Pony Club; my mum and my aunties always rode; and me and my cousins were all in pony club.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
All my life - apart from a year in New Zealand. After my A levels, I happened to see a job – through Young Farmers – on a dairy farm in Dunedin. I emailed mum and said, “What do you think about this?”; she mailed back to say, “We’ll talk about it later!” I don’t think she was keen on the idea of a daughter in New Zealand. That was in the April; I was on a plane in the June. I had no experience of dairy – and the farmer was aware of that – so I went to my friend’s farm and did a couple of milkings with him in his parlour before I left. To begin with, I was a bit like a duck: confident on top, legs madly paddling underneath. But through asking a lot of questions, I learned more and more, and ended up absolutely loving it. I finished the contract, did a bit of travelling in Australia, came back and thought: Now what? So I went to Northampton University to do a foundation degree in mixed agriculture.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
Going racing in Cheltenham with friends. I love everything about it: having a social day out; the atmosphere; and being able to watch the most amazing horses in the whole wide world on your own doorstep. It’s also a bit of fun to have a bet. One time, towards the end of the day, we all put tenners on My Tent Or Yours, and it came in… Let’s just say we had a lovely time afterwards!
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I’d buy myself a farm. It would have to be diversified, with lots of different elements, because I’m a true believer that farming isn’t a one-trick pony anymore. You can make a very good living but you have to be creative. So I’d have a wedding venue; and, even though my heart is in dairy, I’d have beef cattle: Herefords, Beef Shorthorn, and Belted Galloways. They’re so beautiful. I’d love my farm to be similar to Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park, to be able to educate the public on what farming is: the ‘field to fork’ notion. There is a lack of proper understanding about farmers. They look after their stock like they look after their children.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Probably Stow-on-the-Wold or Kingham. Have you seen the house prices?
Where’s the best pub in the area?
The Hollow Bottom [at Guiting Power] is really good during Cheltenham race week.
And the best place to eat?
The Butchers Arms at Eldersfield - for food, for drinks, for atmosphere. It’s a proper country pub. I look for traceability and food miles, and the Butchers Arms scores on all those things.
What would you do for a special occasion?
A couple of weeks ago, we went for a walk on Bredon Hill and back down for afternoon tea at Dormy House [Hotel, on the Farncombe Estate, Broadway]. It was a friend’s birthday. I’ve got friends from all over: through school, work and Young Farmers. Having a diverse group gives you a glimpse of the issues in the outside world that are affecting other people.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
... and the worst?
The price of houses – it’s as simple as that. Young people are in danger of feeling devalued when, in fact, they should be encouraged to buy houses and become independent. Even dreaming of owning a property is way out of bounds for many. The future of the Cotswolds is being pushed out.
Which shop could you not live without?
I try to use as many farm shops as I can - Coombe Hill [Gloucester] is particularly good – but it’s not easy when you’re working full time. I go to supermarkets for some things, but I aim to buy all my meat and vegetables from farms.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
The ability to wander along footpaths and see an abundance of wildlife. If you take the time to stop, look and listen, you’ll see deer, red kite, hare. It’s so important for people to learn why a particular field looks like it does; why that crop is being grown; what is happening to the farm at this time of year. We need to help people to understand the fantastic produce that comes out of England. ‘Red Tractor’ is a good place to start; buying produce with that logo means traceability and quality.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
You don’t get one type of person – they could be called anything.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
If I was cooking to impress, I’d have asparagus from Evesham; then a really nice sirloin of beef from Coombe Hill, cooked medium rare, with dauphinois potatoes (my favourite) and green veg. Pudding would be strawberry, raspberry and white chocolate roulade.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
That’s a tough one, but I think it would be Young Farmers achieving something within their community, such as clearing rubbish from ditches; or preparing hampers for the elderly, as Newent Young Farmers do. We lead such busy lives nowadays; seeing young people do something selfless for others is so precious.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
I really like Kingham. (I hate it for being expensive, but I do love it!) I love the openness in the middle, with houses either side, and the little stream running through. Yet it still has connections to the outside world, such as the train station to London.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…
Gloucestershire Young Farmers;
Gloucestershire ‘old’ farmers, too! They’ve done an incredible amount for the Cotswolds, including keeping traditions alive;
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
Cheltenham Town Hall. It’s grand, yet very likeable. Such a lot comes into the Cotswolds in terms of entertainment at venues like that: the festivals, cricket, racing.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I’d never not talk. Mental health is a massive thing at the moment: isolation, depression. There are charities out there that will help, but I think one of the most important things is to understand that it’s OK not to be OK. I’ve got two mobile phones and I spend far too much time on both, for work and personal. Instead, we should talk properly and check on each other: ‘Are you OK? Is your farm OK?’ We had such a hard spring and such a hard summer that there is a real forage shortage out there. We need to pull together; we are all going through the same issues.
It’s a really difficult one because farmers have this ‘macho’ thing – they have to be seen to be tough. So to be able to say ‘I’ve got a problem’ is huge. But it’s something to be really proud of. The more people we can get talking, the more we can get rid of the stigma.
Starter homes or executive properties?
Starter homes, obviously. We don’t want all our fields covered in housing, but we have to prepare for the future. Our population is growing very quickly, and we need the Cotswolds to have young people in them.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
Moreton-in-the-Marsh Young Farmers; South Beaufort Young Farmers; Tewkesbury Young Farmers; Olveston Young Farmers.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
When I lived in New Zealand, I took Marks & Spencer Percy Pigs with me. Every three months, mum would send an SOS package containing extra supplies.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Join Young Farmers, if you’re of an age. You don’t have to be one to be one!
And which book should they read?
Molly Watson’s novel – In the Pink: A Rural Odyssey – which is all about hunting with the Ledbury. I used to ride Molly’s horse when I rode hunters. I love hunting; it’s a day out, with your friends, in the countryside, talking. (I also love talking!)
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
The Cotswold Way. It’s my aim to do it all but it’s very time-consuming. So far, I’ve done round Winchcombe.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I would slip into some of the executive properties to see how the other half lives. Alex James’s would be good because he’s a real foodie.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To all the farmers. We don’t give them enough credit. Some of the better-known ‘posh’ Cotswold outlets just don’t represent the grassroots of farming.
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
Moreton Show is a really good example of how to balance the two. They hold the traditional competitions with the stock; but they also include all the newer elements of diversification.
Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
Laid-back but driven. You’ve got to be driven to get what you want in the Cotswolds; but you’ve got to be laid-back because that’s the way of life.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
I met Princess Anne last week and she was really interesting and had such a handle on agriculture. It was at the Royal Three Counties Agricultural Show’s 60th anniversary afternoon tea and she asked me some excellent questions. About labour and the lack of it. About robotic milking: Did I think it was the future? I’d also like to borrow the ear of the Prime Minister. Where does Theresa May think we’re going within agriculture? What does she think of Michael Gove’s ideas? He’s very environmentally-minded; does she think that by saving the environment we’ll save agriculture?
There are around 25,000 members of Young Farmers’ Clubs throughout England and Wales, catering for young people aged from 10 to 26. To become a member, visit the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs at nfyfc.org.uk; or gloucestershireyfc.co.uk for the Gloucestershire federation.
Since the time of writing, Katie Hall has been elected as the Chairman of The National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC).