Caroline Knox insists she is not a farmer, and openly admits: “I wouldn’t have a clue where to start.”
But as the daughter of Tom Smith, who farms more than 1,200 acres on the Island, she engages herself in a lot of background work to ensure as smooth an operation as possible from the farm’s headquarters at Merstone.
Even so, Caroline claims she could never have envisaged being cajoled into the role she now takes very seriously – that of chair person of the Isle of Wight branch of the National Farmers’ Union – known as the NFU. She has successfully held the position for the past two years, and has recently agreed to stay on for a further two, making her the first Island chair to serve successive terms.
After being approached several times to take on the demanding role, Caroline revealed she finally agreed after attending the funeral of her grandmother. She explained: “I delivered a eulogy at gran’s funeral in Scotland. I felt afterwards that if I became chair she would be pleased and proud of me. She always told me ‘you can do whatever you want, Caroline, no trouble to you’.”So after a year as vice chair she became IW chair in February, 2011.
The NFU is recognised as the ‘voice for farmers’. Founded in 1908, it is financed by members’ subscriptions, and is not affiliated to any political party. There are 124 members on the Island, and nationwide the NFU represents some 34 per cent of farmers. Caroline smiled: “Not knowing about farming doesn’t matter as the NFU chairperson. I only get caught out when I go off to an NFU Council meeting and sit in a room with mostly men who want to discuss prices, input costs and all that sort of stuff. That is when you can be a little bit exposed.“
I went to meetings in London and didn’t have a clue about some subjects, so I would excuse myself saying I was nipping to the toilet, but instead would be on the phone to my dad. Then I got wise and would go with the information because I hated being caught out. It is all right being stupid, but you don’t want everyone to know!
“The first time I attended the NFU Conference in Birmingham I didn’t know a single person; I was totally traumatised by the experience. But now I go to it and I know people who I would never have met if I had just sat on the Island and not got involved. It has broadened my horizons, and that has been my enjoyment and pleasure from it. It is all about learning, but I don’t pretend to be something I am not. I just know what I know, but I do like a challenge!”
She has seen major changes in farming over the years, and admits it is a far cry from the days when she used to ‘chase sheep’ on her father’s farm when they lived in Biggar, Lanarkshire.
The family moved to the Island 30 years ago as dairy farmers. They then switched to growing vegetables, during which time Caroline decided she didn’t like ‘chasing sheep or grading potatoes’ any more, so she returned to Scotland to study for a degree in applied chemistry.
After a short spell back on the Island, she became an auditor in Scotland and subsequently got a job as a technical manager for a potato pack house, which supplied potatoes to a major supermarket chain.
Eventually she came back, and now reflects: “In the years we have been here, the biggest change on the Island has come in the dairy industry, which has gone from around 250 dairy farmers to just 17. That is a big concern. But there are a lot more energy crops grown on the Island now, because people are looking at energy for the grid as something to farm, including solar and biomass.”
Caroline is always looking to educate people – both young and not so young – on the importance of farming. She explained: “The NFU educate people really well. There is a road show called ‘Let’s Talk Farming’ which goes around all the County Shows and talks farming to children. Some 500,000 children have seen it so far, so it does play a massive role in education. I like the whole education thing.
“If people know what we are doing and why we are doing it, then hopefully they will listen more. That message is being carried into schools so the ‘next generation’ understands farming is more about just driving a tractor or mucking out pigs – there are huge skill factors involved.
“There are people who are passionate about the farming industry, but don’t know how to apply that passion. They might be very clever but worry about how they present themselves. At the recent AGM of the Island NFU a ‘next generation’ promotion attracted some 70 people in their teens and 20s, underlining there are people out there who care about farming and want to be involved.”
Caroline feels it is imperative the NFU keeps its IW branch, fearing that if it merged with Hampshire it would fall by the wayside. “That is why I passionately believe we must keep our branch active, and that doesn’t just mean having lots of meetings. By being active members and being involved we can grab the ideas that work best for the Island,” she said.
Caroline will serve for another two years before she hands over to another female chair person, Louise Hart. She added: “Louise will do an excellent job, but I would like to stay involved at some level.”