Pippa Woods is a name widely recognised within the farming industry, and, on meeting at her home in Osborne Newton, Aveton Gifford, it is clear to see why. She tells Lauren Dean just exactly why small family farmers must remain the heart of the industry.
Most notably recognised for her blunt and feisty tongue, the dulcet tones of Pippa Woods’ relaxed chuckles over the kitchen table.
settle the mood into one which more appropriately resembles a catch up with an old pal.
She is far from your typical 92-year-old, but the twinkle in her eye suggests she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Probably one of her most obvious and outgoing traits through the years has been her ability to say it as it is. And not much has changed.
“I do not know if the farming world gives two hoots for me,” she says, sat snugly in her office desk chair at her home in Aveton Gifford, Devon. “You will have to ask other people why they are interested. I don’t know what tickles them.”
The founder and long-standing chairman of the Family Farmers’ Association’s laid-back approach is something she has always been proud of, with her self-confessed straightforward approach a fondly looked upon attribute.
And although she isn’t keen on the limelight, being awarded a CBE in June 2016 for her contribution to farming and the community in Devon and Cornwall was just the cherry on top.
“I am not particularly keen on being special,” she says. “I would rather just go along quietly.”
Happy to simply go with the flow, it was young love that helped accelerate her ambition to be a farmer.
Although having always lived in the countryside, the on-site farm at Dartington School, Totnes, when she was about 13, was the first step to Pippa’s farming career.
But fast forward through time spent in Boston, America, during the Second World War aged 18, and then 10 years with her husband in southern Sudan, Pippa says it was his ambition to farm which prompted their lifelong adventure.
“My husband was from a Yorkshire farming family and it was his ambition to be a farmer,” she says.
“I was more than happy to have the same ambition, so we started saving for a farm.”
Savings from the 10 years spent in Sudan helped the couple conjure up a lump sum which ended up being enough to buy a farm back on home ground.
“We had £10,000 in the bank and we bought 102 acres,” Pippa says. “That was right here in 1954.”
The farm now sits at just more than 81 hectares (200 acres), running about 50 suckler cows with the help of her son, David.
It has seen a raft of systems, from dairying right in the 1950s to now predominantly beef production with Simmental crosses, heifers crossed with Angus bulls and another one or two crossed with Herefords. The farm is virtually all subsidised through conservation schemes.
Reflecting on the time her husband passed away, she says: “That was a big change. I didn’t like it at all.
“I had to do it all on my own and I had to be the boss. There was always someone I would meet and they’d ask me where the boss was. I told them they were looking at her.”
And while David takes on most of the physical work on the farm, Pippa doesn’t miss a trick.
As she clomps her boots to bum-shuffle the computer chair she’s sat so comfortably on over to a kitchen drawer to replace the failing
battery in her hearing aid, she says: “I pay the bills so I have a pretty good idea of what is going on.
“We have to get somebody in to help when we are TB testing, and again there has to be somebody who will look after the farm when David goes on holiday. So it’s casual labour we need.”
For Pippa, it all began during a time the Dartmoor woods was set to be replaced with conifers.
Not one to rest on her laurels, an argument to discourage a planting of conifers quickly turned into an interest in how the area was farmed and from there, how all farming worked hand-in-hand.
“I thought farming has got to be worthwhile, and something do-able, if it is going to survive,” Pippa says.
“And the survival of farming is what the countryside depends upon. I was hooked on the countryside, but to have the countryside we have to have farmers.
“It was no good if all of the farmers were going to go bust. So it was interesting to see how farmers could make a living by doing it for myself.”
Family farmers are something Pippa has long continued to champion throughout her whole career, with food production on a big scale something she is still very keen to dumb down.
It’s about setting the bar straight on small farmers and their contribution to food production, she says.
“Why did it become family farmers rather than just any old farmers? I don’t know,” Pippa laughs. “You got me there.
“I think because I was interested in the landscape I felt it was important to have family-sized farms which were right for the landscape.
“There has always been government policy about food and they used to have it to be seen to quite like the big farmers producing food on a big scale, but I thought that was wrong. If there was ever any government consultation I would always join in and do anything I could to oppose enlargement of farms and encourage the government to think well of small farmers and that they are worthwhile.”
Looking back on her 92 years, one of the most notable differences within the industry is an expectance to have a higher standard of living. That, and the increase in size of machinery.
In the old days a farmer didn’t expect to be rich, and, if one was a farmer, he lived very modestly, Pippa says.
She smiles as she remembers a time on the farm she would sit on the back of a tractor driven hoe and hoe rows of kale.
“Now farmers want to have the same amount of luxuries and equipment as anybody else. Why shouldn’t they?” she says.
“But that puts the pressure on to farm a bit more seriously and work harder to produce more. I think a lot of these up and coming farmers are working terribly hard.”
And looking forward to what farming may look like in the future, things are hazy.
“As far as I can make out, they are very keen to keep it going,”
Pippa says. “But we are on a world stage now and I really don’t know what will happen.
“I imagine this business of specialising in one crop will be worldwide. The beef will all be produced in South America and you won’t be able to produce beef to compete with it financially – and milk will be produced in India, or New Zealand maybe.
“The milk will have areas where it is produced in quantity. And so it will lead the world market because it is imminently saleable.”
Huge farms will be out of the door and, instead, small family farms will have to produce more location protected specialised produce like Cornish clotted cream and Cheddar cheese, Pippa argues.
“I don’t think we are going to get much option,” she says. “I don’t see how we are going to be able to compete by doing things on a big scale.
“It won’t go so well here because the land is so expensive. So we will have to specialise in something of quality, because we are never going to make a living by producing vast quantities.
“Whatever we produce has got to be top quality because we cannot produce it more cheaply.
That’s my feeling.”