Gillian van der Meer, the first woman to chair the East Sussex National Farmers' Union

PUBLISHED: 01:16 28 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:16 20 February 2013

Gillian van der Meer, the first woman to chair the East Sussex National Farmers' Union

Gillian van der Meer, the first woman to chair the East Sussex National Farmers' Union

Gillian believes in educating people about the origins of their food. Here she takes time out from her busy day to talk to us

You are the first woman to chair the East Sussex branch of the NFU. Why do you think it took so long?
Historically the husband joined as the NFU member rather than his wife. It was the men who attended meetings and made decisions. Women were seen as the silent partner. Today women may be an equal partner in a business, or even farm in their own right. So if they become a NFU member, there is the opportunity to represent farmers at many levels.

How did you come to farming, were you born into it?
I am London born, Croydon-raised and my first real understanding of the countryside came from reading Jill has Two Ponies. The family connection to East Sussex goes back to the 1930s when my spinster great aunt would motor down to the Sussex coast from Croydon to spend weekends in her charming cottage in Pevensey Bay.
I can still recall being a very young urban child in the 60s awakening to the fascinating sound of a cockerel crowing in the lane outside.
As various relatives retired to the area, I lived for and spent most weekends and holidays in a caravan overlooking the Pevensey marsh. I realised there was this wonderful alternative to an urban existence. Various career paths followed but that initial passion I felt for the East Sussex countryside never left me.

What kind of farm do you have?
We are predominately dairy producing approximately a million litres of milk a year for a supermarket chain. We also have a small beef herd and sheep.
We grow grass for silage and hay, plus oats and maize, all for feeding livestock. I also grow plants and crops for shows and educational purposes.

Why do you think farming is important?
Farmers should wear a T-shirt with the slogan I farm you eat. I dont farm you dont eat. It is as simple as that. Without us the world starves. Alongside that, we manage and maintain the beautiful countryside through farming. If no-one farmed, the land would return to scrub and wilderness pretty quickly.

What would you say to a young person who was considering a career in agriculture?
Go for it. You dont have to be born in to farming to have a career. UK agriculture needs 60,000 new entrants over the next decade. Find a land-based college such as Plumpton and enrol on a course. Farming may be a hard life, but it is a good life.

What is special about farming in Sussex?
Just about everything. The spectacular views of the countryside, the high and low Weald, the marshes and coastline, the South Downs. The climate is very generous, with different soils supporting livestock, arable, orchards, vineyards, horticulture and forestry. I dont want to be anywhere else.

Do you have any favourite places or things to do when you are not farming or on NFU business?
I still have affection for London but I love growing and gardening for business and home which tends to cross over on most days. Plant care and watering is a seven day a week job from spring to late summer.
My performance art background keeps me involved in our village pantomime, I am up to my eyes in scriptwriting and arranging songs at this moment.
I also sit on the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution charity East Sussex committee. My ideal world would have me taking a few days off to Europe every now and again. And my one vice EastEnders.

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