I could not be more delighted to give my support to this National Rural Women’s Conference. I only wish that I could be with you in person for a discussion which is clearly enormously timely. Everyone involved in agriculture and our rural communities is facing a somewhat bewildering new world and events such as this can do much to inspire and enthuse, and to instil some much-needed confidence.
We may not as yet be certain of exactly what the future holds, but I think that we can be confident that it will have at its heart a more sustainable approach to food and farming, and a strong presumption in favour of the environment. As all of you know better than I do, if farmers are to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the Mid-Term Review, then they need to be prepared to change the way they have done things and learn new skills so that they can add value to their produce whenever possible. As I travel around the country, I have often found that it is farmers’ wives who seem better able to grasp that new opportunities are opening up to them and that an understanding of the vital importance of marketing is a crucial element in the process of adapting to changing circumstances.
Of course, beyond ensuring that our farming families have a secure economic future, an important element of rural regeneration is the development of new and diverse businesses. The latest Countryside Agency ‘State of the Countryside Report’ indicated that businesses in the countryside are dynamic and growing fast. Studies estimate that rural firms represent nearly one-third do all registered businesses in England and we know that rural businesses employ over 5.35 million people across the country in areas beyond the traditional farming and tourism sector. There is clearly an enterprising spirit abroad and we should do what we can to encourage and nurture it so that the rural economy is regenerated and sustained. And I happen to think that one of the best ways to do this is to focus some attention on encouraging women to start up businesses in rural areas. We already know that, frequently in farming families, they are behind so much of the diversification into other enterprises, from bed and breakfast, to farm shops, to Internet companies. Increasingly, rural women are starting their own businesses – for example, according to Business Link in Cumbria, women owned 34 per cent of start-up businesses in the county in 2003/4. These are remarkable figures and demonstrate the capacity and determination of women to make an economic difference to their families and communities.
Starting a business, however, is difficult at the best of times, particularly in rural areas where the lack of infrastructure can affect access to markets and labour, and new technology such as Broadband may not be available. That is why through Business in the Community, of which I am President, “Women in Rural Enterprise” has been supported and expanded, with the help of Lloyds TSB. And organisations such as the Rural Women’s Network play a crucial role in helping women in the countryside to overcome the unique barriers they face when trying to start up businesses.
There are countless women throughout the country who have shown just what is possible and I have been privileged to meet many of them. It was particularly exciting that the winner of the NFU’s Rural Business of the Year 2004 was Tina Strong, who runs The Wedding Barn, in Cumbria. She, and so many others, are providing excellent role models for other rural women.
I have also noticed that it is often women who are involved in so many community organisations, be they parish or district councils, parochial church councils, school governing councils and national bodies too. This could not be more important, particularly as women are playing a growing part in the economic well-being of their communities. Their voices need to be heard in the decision-making structures.
This conference aims to explore and address many of the difficulties and constraints women face in playing an active role within rural communities and economies with a view to developing strategies and solutions that will help to transform this. We live in a fast-changing world, and we must make sure that we take advantage of all the skills and knowledge available to us. Above all, we must do all that we can to keep Britain farming and especially to protect and maintain our family farmers.