Friends Lizzie McLaughlin and Becca Wilson could not have had more different upbringings, but their love of agriculture brought them together. Now they are on a mission to share their passion for farming. Emily Ashworth speaks to them both about their new podcast.
When the world shut down in 2020, many found themselves filling their spare time with new hobbies or using it to set up small businesses from home. But farming found itself in the spotlight too, with many farm shops and online farm retailers inundated with sales, and we saw a shift in interest for our industry.
For friends Lizzie McLaughlin and Becca Wilson, lockdown gave them the opportunity to explore a shared passion for educating the public about farming, and so their podcast, Boots and Heels, was created.
The pair met in 2019 while working for the same poultry company, Vencomatic – Lizzie as head of marketing and Becca as a project manager.
Although both have carved out agricultural careers for themselves, their backgrounds could not be more different – hence the name of the podcast.
Becca is the fifth generation to help run the 243-hectare (600-acre) family business at Hundayfield Farm, North Yorkshire, and has recently left her job to go home to farm.
But for Lizzie, who grew up in Teeside, a job in the agricultural industry was never the plan.
She says: “I was taught nothing about farming in school. I did my BA in English language and media and then an MA in design and advertising. I went on to join Vencomatic and I just fell in love with it,” she says.
“It wasn’t an industry I’d considered because there was such a stereotype. When I got into it, and met the likes of Becca and learnt more about welfare, women in agriculture and education, I became passionate about getting more involved and being more of a voice for people who haven’t come from a farming background because it is such a diverse industry. I’ve recently been voted onto the Women in Agriculture Scotland committee, so I really feel like for someone who hasn’t grown up in the industry, I’m still managing to make a difference.”
Becca also did a BA in human, social and political sciences at Cambridge University, plus an MSc in rural estate management at the Royal Agricultural University and it is conversations about her farm upbringing which sparked the idea for the podcast.
Becca says: “It’s easy to ask a friend because they’ll never think a question is stupid, but there is that wider thinking of, I don’t want to ask where my food comes from or how it’s produced.
“We thought can we do something online and remotely but where people can still get their information? During the pandemic, what is the one thing you had to go out and buy? It’s food; the idea of provenance and eating local and there’s slightly more connection now between farming and the public and if you don’t capitalise on a time like now, it would be wasted.”
Boots and Heels released its first podcast on February 26, 2021 and have since released one a week, featuring some well-loved farming influencers such as Zoe Colville, AKA, The Chief Shepherdess who has almost 27,000 followers on Instagram.
And their aim? To enable respectful conversation and debates about farming, given the amount of criticism and backlash the industry faces from those questioning farming practices.
In episode seven, called ‘In their eyes’, Becca and Lizzie welcome discussion between a poultry manager and a vegetarian, which turned out to be surprisingly constructive.
Lizzie says: “It was so nice and refreshing to not have extremes or be pitting people against each other.
“Everybody is entitled to a choice and everybody is entitled to an opinion, whether you eat meat, or you don’t, the point is that you listen to each other and respect that.
“The only way things will ever change is if we do listen and honestly, we only had a lot of positive feedback on how nice it was to not have that argumentative state.”
If you look at the content Boots and Heels offer, it is clear this is not just something to simply fill a void – both want to be part of making farming more appealing to the masses. They have spoken to a whole host of people to try and showcase what opportunities there really are in agriculture, from the likes of farming podcaster and British Farming Awards Digital Innovator winner Will Evans and students from Hartpury college, to countryside blogger Jazmine Nottley about sustainable fashion.
Lizzie says: “We both love the industry but from different perspectives and I think it’s important to show it’s not just one narrow tunnel.
“I never considered a career in agriculture because it wasn’t talked about. When you had career events at school, farming was never an option and when I first started, I didn’t know where it would take me, but I’ve learnt so much. One of the things we’re keen to look at is education – if we can educate people from the start it becomes less difficult later.”
But, as Becca points out, farming is not always made to seem like a viable or accessible career option.
She says: “From the marketing side, farming has some of the biggest and most recognisable brands in the world, how is that something which is not recognised? Same for technology and engineering brands, but unless you know someone in farming or at agricultural college, it’s not an opportunity which seems open to you."
Series one has come to an end and was received with much positivity. Series two is on the horizon looking at busting industry myths and exploring topics such as environmental issues.
But both are well aware of what a double-edged sword social media is, and the vulnerability of opening yourselves up through something like a podcast.
Becca says: “The positives of social media outweigh the negatives. We have had a couple of comments where we’ve thought well, that was unnecessary but it’s a learning curve and a way of almost looking back at yourself and saying we are doing a good thing here.
“One troll or ten trolls, it’s a really important thing to learn that you’re not [other] people’s view of you.
“This comes full circle though, as a lot of that stems from education, especially when you talk about food production and agriculture.
“A lot of people will say to the British farmer, why do you do that, it’s so cruel? But they’ve only seen images of some intense farming in a different country with much lower welfare standards.
“As a British farmer about to go back to the family farm, we probably need to be more transparent about things as well.”
They have certainly started with a bang and have not been afraid to tackle key issues either such as mental health.
Becca says: “We didn’t know whether to put it out so early but with the potential that lockdown was easing, we wanted to get it out as soon as possible.
“One of the lines that came out of the [episode] was ’every farmer knows a farmer who has committed suicide’, and I thought what are we doing wrong?
“We had two really young guests who spoke extremely well – James Hosking, a Yellow Wellies ambassador, and Hannah Rees, who included us as part as one of her studies into mental health.”
Both have many an idea, hinting at numerous up and coming podcasts which is exactly the sort of enthusiasm the industry needs.
For Lizzie, she wants her story to encourage others and help people to understand ‘that there are so many different paths and career options.’
And for Becca, who knows all too well how farming ‘becomes a way of life’, she wants people to simply be able to enjoy being a part of the industry.
She says: “I think you can probably get more invested than any other career. I think that’s an amazing feeling to be so invested in your job.”
But the ultimate question is, who would be their ideal guests to feature next?
Lizzie says: “I would love to speak to Minette Batters as she is the first female president of the NFU. And I think it would be interesting to speak to Jeremy Clarkson too. As a high-profile person who comes from outside of the industry it would be good to get his perspective.”