IF you’re involved in Scottish agriculture, you would have probably had to have been living under a rock never to have heard of the Farmers and Farmers Wives Choirs.

Originally set up to be a one-off event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the SAYFC, the group are now a regular feature of events up and down the country and at charity events far and wide.

As they are gearing up once again to head to the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston to take part in several performances, we caught up with long-term choir member (and founders’ daughter), Jennifer Picken, at home at Milton, near Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway.

Having milked that morning, she told us how she combines full-time farming with her busy musical ‘career’, and about how when it came to the crunch, being a farmer won out over being a full-time performer.

Did you always want to work at home full-time?

I maybe didn’t always realise it, but yes!

I came home full-time seven years ago now, but before that I was always involved – right from

when I was very small and the biggest help I could be was opening the gates!

I think I did always know that I would work at home. I came home after school for a year because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and I ended up at the Academy of Contemporary Music down in Guildford after that, but I was really homesick so I came back home again and at that point was working with the sheep side of things for a year.

My best friend Emma was at Auchincruive so I ended up there as well, doing agricultural science.

When I graduated, I went to work with Keenan for three and a half years as a nutritionist.

I really enjoyed my time working with them but at that point, seven years ago, things were at the point of expanding at home, so it was the right time for me to come back and focus here.

We reduced the suckler cattle herd numbers and we were expanding the dairy side of things, so there was more work being created.

What’s the set up at home?

We now have 430 dairy cows and 1600 cross sheep, we don’t have any suckler cattle now.

We fatten all our black and white bullocks on-farm and we use a third of the calves out the dairy cows for sale as replacement, or we fatten them.

About eight months ago we started using Holstein or Aberdeen-Angus sexed semen and that will hopefully mean that the we can start to rear more of our own heifers rather than fattening things. We’d like to be able to focus more on one element and do it well.

Are the rest of the family involved?

I farm with my brother, James and we’re lucky that we get on well. He’s the main machinery man and I deal more with the cattle side of things so that works out well for us – we play to our strengths. I’m the first to admit that I have no idea about fixing things, so James often comes to the rescue in that respect.

I’ve never thought of my brother and I having different roles because I’m female. Women have

been involved in farming for a long, long time and there are so many ladies involved in the

industry now.

Just at home, we have Claire who milks for us and my cousin Linsey works with us now as well,

rearing the calves, among other things. A third of our workforce is female and we’re all as

capable as each other.

Our younger sister, Rachel, is out in Abu Dhabi just now teaching for a couple of years but before she left to do that, she was at home milking for 14 months, so it’s a real family affair in a lot of ways.

What is your role in the business?

I’m involved in all aspects of the farm. I probably milk four times a week. There are always three of us at a milking. I milk every second weekend and feed cattle on the other weekend so that the tractor-man can have a weekend off.

We have eight staff on-board, including family members, and everyone works alongside each other to make sure everything is done and covered.

We rent a lot of ground and all in we farm about 1700 acres across a couple of businesses.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been treated differently as a female in the industry?

I’ve never felt discriminated as a female a home, but I maybe did at times in my old job, but I think that was also a combination of being female and being young.

It never really bothered me.

I’ve always worked at home and girls have always been involved, so me coming back fulltime was nothing ground-breaking.

I’m so passionate about farming, as well, so that probably means I never question it. Before I came home there maybe wasn’t the same number of females full-time farming, but I feel in the last few years, certainly locally, more and more women have been getting more and more involved.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never felt like ‘a women in agriculture’, I just feel like part of the team!

How did you get so involved in music and performing?

My mum Kate is the musical side of things. She’s now semi-retired but she taught music for 35 years, so she always encouraged us to have music in our lives, from a very young age.

She was the one that started the Farmers and Farmers Wives Choirs. It was initially supposed to only be to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Young Farmers, but it grew arms and legs!

She loves the choir – we all do – and she dedicates a lot of time and effort to it.

Mum just bought some home recording equipment so that’s her new thing, alongside still working three days a week.

What is the schedule for the choir?

The choir practices near Lanark, on a Sunday. We don’t go every week, but we do in the run up to planned events. We have to fit it around the seasons, as so many of our members are still actively working in the industry.

Not everyone can make every practice, but we always get a good turnout. It’s sometimes a bit of a thought to make that journey up to Lanark but it’s always worth it when you get there.

We have about 30 men involved and about 60 or 70 ladies and its great fun. I’ve made great friends and had great experiences from it.

Is music a big part of your life overall?

I’ve always loved singing, ever since I was young, and I was always encouraged to play the piano and the flute.

Two or three times a week, mum and I sing and practice choir songs together and I’ll perform at some weddings or the church, now and again, for family or friends.

I’m also in a group called Taste of Country, and I’ve done that since I was 16. My mum started Taste of Country a long time ago. We do a charity event each year, often at the Fullerton Theatre in Castle Douglas and we perform at rurals and its great fun.

I’ve always been very involved in music, but ultimately, farming won! Music is a great hobby and I have so many great friends from that side of my life.

I’m quite a home bird so it’s good to have something like that that gets me out and about. There’s a great social aspect to it.

You clearly have a hectic schedule, but do you have any other hobbies?

I also have my horse, Xander. I don’t compete with her as much as I would like to, but I try and get out on her about five days a week. It’s good for us both! I make time to do it because it’s a great way of clearing my head.

We bought her mum back in 2001 but when I started at Keenan we had to (very reluctantly) sell her because I just didn’t have the time.

Sadly, when she had Xander she ended up passing away, so Xander was hand reared until a surrogate mare could be found, so she was quite humanised from a young age. I jumped at the chance to buy her when the chance came up when she was three, and I had more time.

It worked out great from my point of view.

How do you think the current political climate is going to affect the industry?

I don’t really follow politics, I must admit, so I don’t have many strong opinions on it.

I do think though, that in agriculture, in general, we should just try and stay as positive as we possibly can.

Politics will affect us, but I don’t think it needs to be that dramatically, and at the end of the day I think we’re a very resilient industry.

Look at how we survived the milk price crisis a few years ago! We, as an industry, always get thrown challenges and obstacles to overcome and we tend to just get out heads down and get on with it.

What are your plans for the future?

As far as the future is concerned, I want to plough on with the plans to be rearing more heifers so that will probably mean that we will also be milking slightly more cows.

We bought a new far a few years ago – which is actually where I stay – and we’re been getting the ground there more up to the standard we want it so it’s getting to the time now that we want to start addressing the steading side of things.

The next big plan would be to build a shed for the young stock. Like everything though, these things don’t happen overnight, but we’ll get there.

The most immediate plan on the to do list, though, is singing at the Highland Show!

• Head to the West Band Stage and the Main Ring on the Saturday of the Royal Highland Show to see the Farmers Choir in action.