For more than 100 years, the infamous Women’s Institute has been championing the rights of farmers and also continues to remain a practical and social hub in rural communities.
Emily Ashworth talks to sheep farmer and vice-chair of the organisation about the federation’s rural roots.
Its vitality has been there from the start; their presence a force to be reckoned with.
With campaigns such as SOS for Honeybees and a Fair Deal For Dairy Farmers, the Women’s Institute has fought tirelessly and supported our industry through dire times, championing the work of British farmers and ensuring rural communities are kept alive.
And at the forefront of its collective efforts and helping to lead the institute into the future is Ann Jones, vice-chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, her own connection stemming from a lifetime in farming.
At the foothills of the Welsh Cambrian Mountains, she and her husband, Evan, run 800 ewes across 323 hectares (800 acres) having moved to Foelallt Farm after marrying into the family.
Soon after her journey within the Llanddewi Brefi WI began more than 33 years ago.
“My mother-in-law was a WI member and I went along with her,” says Ann.
“Having moved to a different area I didn’t know anybody but with the WI, I settled straight away. It was honestly the best thing I have ever done.
“I’ve made lifelong friends and from the start, I felt integrated and part of something.”
Initially, the organisation was established in World War One to bring rural women together and encourage them to grow and preserve food for a war-torn nation.
Although there are now numerous WI’s established in major UK cities too, Ann, 57, is defiant in her belief at how important the institute is in sustaining rural vitality, with farming communities benefiting hugely from the WI’s presence.
“WI numbers did start to fall but in the past 15 years, those have started to flourish again.
“People are realising the need for community; the need to learn new skills and socialise, and we as a WI group, can use our voice to make a difference to rural life.”
It takes Ann six hours to get to WI headquarters in London, her location vast and somewhat lonely.
But it is for that very reason she believes her WI is indispensable; a focal gathering point within the farming area and something that anyone, from any background, can attend.
“Our WI is the beating heart of our village and even though we are all rural, not everybody is a farmer,” says Ann.
“We have teachers, businesswomen and people who have retired, but what all WI groups have is the means to help alleviate loneliness and frankly, you can be as lonely in a city surrounded by people as you are on top of a hill.”
Ann is passionate about farmers and their well-being, knowing first-hand how difficult this year has been, working through a difficult winter and then through the drought.
At a recent supper hosted by her WI, she expressed her sincere relief at witnessing discussions between local farmers who found solace in each other’s words, comforted in knowing they were not alone in their hardships.
It is proof the need for such federations in rural areas is still paramount, regardless of the WI’s growing presence in urban areas.
But, says Ann, rural- and city-based WIs can learn from each other and even merge to conquer issues that affect both lifestyles, such as mental health and isolation.
A part of the institute for most of her life, Ann is more than proud at the achievements made by the enduring group.
For more than 100 years, women have stood side by side to support a variety of causes, changing the face of women’s history and fighting farming’s corner numerous times.
In 2014, they helped to implement the national pollinator strategy in association with Defra, after urging the Government to increase research into bee health and the declining species.
In 2016 the WI also campaigned on behalf of our British dairy farmers, jostling the country to get behind the industry and even took the fight to Tony Blair, calling on him to be an advocate for dairy and educate the public on how they could help.
Who will forget the extraordinary moment the former Prime Minister was booed and clapped down by 10,000 members after trying to use their national conference in 2000 as a platform to reposition Labour as a party of traditional values in a changing world.
Speaking at the time the institute’s spokeswoman, Sangeeta Haindl, said the chair did warn if Mr Blair tried to make it political ’he would get short shrift’.
Instigators in national change since the early 1900s, its timeline of crusades is certainly impressive.
But even its own members are also in awe of its longevity, acknowledging how since its humble beginnings it has developed to fit women through different eras.
“I can’t help but be amazed when I look back at our history,” says Ann.
“If you look at the needs of the nation in 1915 they are different to now, however, the WI has still managed to evolve alongside to fit the women of the time.
“What we have achieved is a change of mindset.
“Look at the country of origin campaign, where we campaigned for clearer labelling for food sold under the pretence it originated from the UK but was only packaged here. We were successful in that.
“Coming from farming and as a producer, I know it should be labelled accordingly.”
About to start planning celebrations in honour of 100 years since its first campaign in 1918, you could be forgiven for assuming the WI’s place within rural areas is not as strong as it once was, but as vice-chair of such a huge and relevant organisation, Ann knows where the WI’s strength lies, and believes its roots can never be taken away from them.
She says: “I cannot see the WI not ever wanting to be involved in rural issues.
“Looking at mandates from as early as 1929 surrounding homegrown food for example, we still feel the need now to re-educate people on food and the environment.
“We will always look at different things affecting both rural and urban communities, but in terms of challenges facing farming, like the need for better broadband and road links, I’m confident farmers and people who live rurally can adapt to meet an ever-changing society and we can help with that.”
The organisation has become so much more than just a Government-sponsored initiative, snowballing to become a beacon of inspiration to rural women across the country.
“I am entering my third year as NFWI vice-chair and, as someone from a rural background, I have had the chance to mix with people from all over the country.
“I’ve met MPs and industry leaders, all through becoming a member,” says Ann.
And it would seem that that old-fashioned sense of working together is why the WI is only gaining momentum.
“There are many rural communities that still have togetherness and work as one, but we as a country don’t value that enough.
“The general feel is that people do want to be involved and feel part of something.
“The WI will always have a place within rural lives, we’re like the backbone and it is through prosperous rural communities that England and Wales will thrive.”