Celebrating International Women’s Day, by Debs Roberts SOPA Policy Manager

It’s International Women’s Day and at risk of being overly sentimental I’ve been giving some thought to the women I work with, and why they are important people in my professional life.

On a daily basis I relish the relationships I have my colleagues, both male and female. But as today is International Women’s Day it is timely to reflect on the women who give me inspiration because they are leaders in their field.

Firstly I relish my closest SOPA colleague Joanna Sinclair who I first met more than a decade ago as a young woman straight out of university. She has worked with dedication and great attention to detail on SOPA’s organic standards and helping SOPA members. Joanna is thorough and has an excellent memory, so she helps me every day by keeping me straight and focussed on the jobs to do. Joanna is obliging, intelligent and has a wealth of farming experience and together I think we make a great team. We have had many laughs but never cross words.

I first met Jane Ellis in 2002 at Craibstone when we studied the SAC Post Graduate Degree in Organic Farming. I am saddened that  Jane and I no longer work together as we have recently moved onto pastures new; I miss working with her as she was pivotal in the development and management of SOPA for more than 15 years. Jane was part of the interview team when I first went for the SOPA job of Development Officer in 2007, and we instantly hit it off and made a great SOPA team. One would underestimate Jane at your peril because she is a powerful in-the-background type manager who brings out the best in her staff. Her gentle management style is inspirational and I have learnt a lot about people by observing Jane. Again, we have never had cross words.

Another great woman in my professional life is Maggie Magee who I also first met as a fellow student on the SAC Post Graduate Degree in Organic Farming. Maggie and I then went on to work together in FWAG Scotland and then also ended up working together at SOPA when Maggie qualified as an organic inspector. Maggie’s wealth of knowledge about woodland, biodiversity and wool is incredible and I regularly turn to her for her specialist knowledge on a great number of subjects. Maggie’s enthusiasm is renowned and she is wonderful company and a dear friend.

Another key woman in my life, and sadly I don’t see enough of in recent times, is Julie Duncan of Balkemback Farm near Dundee. Julie is a powerhouse of common sense and has been a highly valued sounding board to me over the years. I first met Julie when she joined SOPA as a member and started organic conversion on her farm. Julie then went on to become a SOPA director and then the first ever female Chair. A fellow Rural Leader, Julie was instrumental in helping me instigating change in my work-life balance.

Slightly further afield I take a great deal of inspiration from Jill Clark at Connage Highland Dairy. Jill and I co-incidentally share very similar backgrounds as we both hail from isolated rural communities in Western Australia, we went to neighbouring senior schools in Perth (Western Australia), and we have both settled on the other side of the world in Scotland – also both of us working in the organic sector! I first met Jill in the late 2000’s and even today the similariites in our life stories brings a shiver down my spine. Jill is refreshingly down to earth, funny and driven. I am so proud of what she has achieved at Connage and even though we rarely speak I love to follow her successes on social media and in the press.

Another organic woman who sits very fondly in my heart is Margaret Thomson of Ospisdale organic farm near Dornoch. Margaret is well into her eighties but sounds and acts decades younger. She is so deeply embedded in the principles of organic farming, there is no other I know of to hold a candle to her. She is kind, unassuming and so down to earth – I remember when I first visited Ospisdale she made us all laugh at the fact that her dogs take up so much room on the bed that Margaret has to sleep on the floor! No other woman I know is so devoted to animal welfare. Ospisdale cows have names, not numbers and I can clearly remember the day I had to explain to a livestock procurement agent that the abattoir line would have to be translated into the cow names so that Margaret would know which animal was which. That’s quirky and funny, and I love it. My world is a better place for having Margaret Thomson in it.

And travelling to the other end of the country to the Scottish Borders and I think of Sharon Baker. Sharon is as thin as a whip and works as hard as husband Ted and their three boys. Sharon is the back bone of their family farm and I admire her tenacity, work ethic and patience. Sharon is the lodestone of their business, keeping everything right in the wake of Ted and the boys. Dependable, sensible and entirely patient, Sharon is truly admirable and a fine example of the farmer’s wife who is “more farmer than wife”.

Of course there are many more women on my list and to those who I haven’t the space to mention I thank for your support, the example you set me and the laughs we share. I am not a sentimental person so this has been an interesting article to write because it has made me examine the pieces of my heart and mind I usually take for granted. A bit like all of the amazing women in our lives. So don’t let this International Women’s Day slip past without permitting yourself a sentimental moment or two, to think about and celebrate the women in your life. Don’t take them for granted. Treasure your women.


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