Barry Alston meets up with the latest winner of the award that celebrates women in farming.
Ceri Ratcliffe trains sheepdogs, while also running her family farm
When Ceri Ratcliffe received a phone call telling her she had been shortlisted for the prestigious NFU Cymru and Principality Building Society award, she couldn’t help but reply with, ‘Welsh Woman Farmer of the Year? Who me?’
Certainly not one for the limelight, her shock turned into disbelief when, after nervously meeting the judging panel, she heard her name announced as the winner.
It was a particularly noteworthy outcome, considering she had had no farming experience whatsoever until she reached her 20s.
But add on a few years and these days she is running a highly productive beef and sheep holding on 89 hectares (220 acres) of rented ground not far from Flintshire’s Connah’s Quay giant power station – as well as looking after her husband and two young children.
Ceri says: “Even the nomination came out of the blue, but then actually winning the award was a total shock. I am just an ordinary mum who happens to farm.
“It is a great honour, but there are hundreds of women in the same position as me who do not get the recognition for what they do day in, day out.
“Women in farming are still the hidden heroines of the industry.
“Few want to claim the limelight, preferring instead to contribute behind the scenes, but without them many of today’s farms would not be the success they are.”
"Women in farming are still the hidden heroines of the industry"
Her initial interest in livestock was with horses, working at a hunting yard in Warrington while keeping her own horse at a farm where she met husband-to-be Andy, who was working for his uncle at the time.
They married in 1995, rented a few acres and bought 18 Welsh Mules, gradually building up ewe numbers to 700, while also rearing 100 beef cattle a year selling them on a 40-50 batch basis at about two years old.
Andy works off-farm, running his own plant hire business, although he helps out whenever he can, especially with tractor work, such as muck spreading and fertilising. However, 90 per cent of the day-to-day running of the farm is Ceri’s responsibility.
Today’s flock of Texel Mules and pure Beltex ewes go to either Beltex, Texel or Charollais tups and lamb indoors from early March onwards, with grass-finished lambs being sold live from June onwards, either through Mold or St Asaph livestock markets.
The cattle, an allsorts mixture, are bought as three-week-old dairy cross-bred calves, either in the markets or direct from farms. They are also sold live, at Mold or privately as stores, or at finished weights depending on market demand.
“I prefer the live markets. You know what you are getting paid and you can say yes or no to the price,” says Ceri.
Over the years she has earned the respect of many other sellers in the markets by topping the trade and taking first prize cards with lambs at the Christmas fatstock fixtures.
“From such small beginnings, the business just grew to the point where one of us needed to give up work to run the farm full-time.
“Andy was the main earner, so I gave up my job.”
Two decades on, she enjoys farming just as much today as she did back then, especially the new challenges each day brings.
But it is just not looking after the livestock which takes up the time. Her two children, Iwan, 11; and five-year-old Aled, are at an age when they need taking to football games, swimming lessons and other activities.
“They came with me to the farm as babies in their prams and just love being there.
“The experience is great for them and they even muck in – until they get bored and switch to playing football in the field,” says Ceri.
“A great deal of my life involves ferrying them around.
“But while I am busy for 95 per cent of my time, it is flexible.
“The two roles dovetail together quite nicely, allowing me to slot my farmwork in around the boys – I just never seem to have the time to watch any television.”
There are occasions though when her day job and home life can collide, such as the time when she pulled up outside the playgroup still towing a livestock trailer. It had to be emptied only minutes earlier at Mold market.
A fluent Welsh speaker, she is hopeful both boys also take up the language so, in addition to attending Welsh medium schools, they go for weekly Welsh reading lessons.
Her busy week does not end either on the farm or at home.
As well as taking care of the mountain of farm forms she is also a stockist for a dog food company, selling and delivering products to private customers and training sheepdogs in her ‘spare time’.
There is no farmhouse linked to the two batches of tenanted land and the family lives in a residential area, complete with a garden, half a mile from the farm buildings.
“We have been lucky enough to secure rented land close to where we were born and, although it is on the urban fringe, we have experienced few problems,” says Ceri.
“A few things have gone missing over the years; maybe we have been fortunate in that respect.
“Sheep worrying and roadside rubbish dumping have not been problems either.
“Looking to the future, it would be nice to have land of our own nearby, but we like it here and the children are settled in the area. We can dream, but for now we are happy to rent.”
It was Ann, her mother-in-law, who nominated her for the award and Ceri did not know anything about it until NFU Cymru contacted her to say she had been short-listed.
“I was fuming with her at the time because I am not one to make a fuss.
“In fact, I do not think I spoke to her for several days. But she thought the whole thing was hilarious.
“Andy and the boys were really excited while I was chilled out as I had convinced myself I would not win. I was in complete shock when my name was read out. I nearly passed out,” says Ceri.
She is proud to work in farming and, despite her initial reluctance, she values her time as an ambassador for women in the industry.
“I look upon myself as a farmer, not a farmer’s wife, and I thoroughly enjoy my way of life.
“I most certainly do not have any regrets over not pursuing any other career.”
Over the years she has taken in agricultural and veterinary students, mostly from over the border in England and many with non-farming backgrounds, and willingly given them a taste of life as a livestock farmer, whether it be at lambing or shearing times.
While they can be male and female, last year’s intake involved two female first year students from Bedfordshire and the hope is they will go on to find full-time careers in the industry, farming in their own right.
“When I was taking lambs to market 20 years ago there were few women there. But that’s not the case today,” she says.
“As a woman, you do not get treated any differently, and that’s the way it should be.