“Positive Change in Rural Industries”: 2018 AgriFutures Rural Woman's Award (SA) Alex Thomas reflects on empowering women and “planting a seed for safety”

By Elizabeth Graham with Alex Thomas

 

Alex Thomas, winner of the 2018 South Australian AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award, 2018. Image: Jackie Cooper,  Jack of Hearts Studio

Alex Thomas, winner of the 2018 South Australian AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award, 2018. Image: Jackie Cooper, Jack of Hearts Studio

Elizabeth Graham is a student at Deakin University currently volunteering with the Invisible Farmer Project at Museums Victoria. In this guest blog post Elizabeth interviews 2018 winner of the South Australian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, Alex Thomas.

Alex Thomas grew up on Parnaroo Station, a pastoral property in the north-east of South Australia. She owns her own work health and safety consulting business and plans to use the AgriFutures Award to promote her ‘#PlantASeedForSafety’ campaign, spreading awareness on the importance of work health and safety in rural industries and celebrating the important role rural women play in influencing positive change.

In this Q & A Alex talks about the inspiration for her campaign, her connection with the land and agriculture, and the importance of recognising women within the industry.

Tell us about your connection to agriculture?

Growing up on a remote sheep station, some of my fondest memories are of lying under a Mallee tree - in the dirt - far enough away from the homestead that I couldn’t hear the sound of people, but close enough that Mum wasn’t having a coronary.

I was a School of the Air kid, and I did the majority of my early education from home via HF radio. Mum was my governess, my best friend was the cat and most days I’d 'knocked-off’ from school by around 1pm. Afternoons were for being Dad’s shadow, building cubbies out of stumps and corrugated iron and anything and everything to do with our horses.

Alex in her favourite spot (Porcupine Range, Parnaroo Station, SA. 2008). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex in her favourite spot (Porcupine Range, Parnaroo Station, SA. 2008). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Those years on the Station were idyllic and I literally couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. We didn’t have mains power so obviously went without air conditioning, and time spent in front of the TV was strictly limited to days when it was too hot, too cold or there were too many snakes around to warrant playing outside. Trips in ‘to town’ were a novelty, the prospect of rain was an event, our neighbours were (still are!) our best friends, and at that point in time the only worries I had in life were whether the pet joey would survive the night, or whether I’d finish school in time to go out with Dad.

Alex (sitting next to her teacher, Ron Dare), with her School of the Air class (Port Augusta School of the Air, 1995). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex (sitting next to her teacher, Ron Dare), with her School of the Air class (Port Augusta School of the Air, 1995). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

At 12 years old I was plucked from an incredibly comfortable sense of security and thrust into the world of an all-girls boarding school. Life in Adelaide was completely foreign, which isn’t surprising given how little time I’d spent away from the comfort of the Station. At 13, I remember returning home for an exeat [permission for a temporary absence] to learn that – to my horror – the Station was to be subdivided and sold, and at 15 to hear of my parent’s divorce.

The drought of ’82, the drought of the ‘90’s, spectacularly shitful wool prices and absurd interest rates had had a profound and irreparable impact on my everything - our family, my father’s health, the business, the landscape and of course our stock. I was becoming acutely aware that life on the Station was rapidly slipping from between my fingers and that things would never be the same again.

Year 11 and 12 exams were a haze of uncertainty and confusion, a means to an end before bolting back to the north-east to pursue a job as station hand… which in hindsight, was merely a desperate attempt to rediscover what it meant to ‘go home’. Returning to the north-east (albeit only for a couple of years) was the perfect antidote for a broken heart.

I chased rodeos, I drank rum and I literally fell in love with the cowboy next door. While that relationship wasn’t meant to be, that period in my life reaffirmed my identity, my connection with the land and an unconscious and unyielding desire to eventually ‘give back’.

Alex and her horse (Roxby Downs Pony Club. SA, 2010) Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex and her horse (Roxby Downs Pony Club. SA, 2010) Image supplied: Alex Thomas

The collective impact of drought, Q Fever (as a result of Dad’s work with feral goats), Ross River Virus, diabetes, divorce, heart failure and kidney failure rendered Dad permanently disabled from the age of 56. As the next woman in line after Mum left and his mother passed away, I’ve been caring for Dad in varying capacities since I was around 15 years old.

Sure, there have been some super tough times along the way, but for me – my connection to the land and to agriculture is in the blood. I don’t get to wear jeans and boots every day and I don’t have my Station to go home to, but I still remember how to strain up a fence, how to muster stock and how the land sings after even the tiniest trickle of rain. I’m eternally grateful for the sheer tenacity of my parents in providing my siblings and I with such a sublime start to life, and while Dad’s illness really, really sucks; its equipped me with an innate sense of purpose – to engage and empower rural women – and to improve the health and safety of those in rural industries.

How did you come to apply for the Rural Women’s Award?

I remember sitting in the Hilux with Dad – somewhere between Whyalla and Port Augusta – talking about the wild contrast between the culture of work health and safety in mining, versus that of rural industries. Given the decline of Dad’s health due to his work in agriculture, the impact it had had on my family and the need for a different approach (i.e. less emphasis on box ticking); we both agreed that while rural men spend the majority of their time up to their necks in grain and sheep shit, it was (is!) rural women who are the backbone of rural industries and therefore in a fabulous position to influence change. This prompted some excitable Googling before landing on what was then the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation’s website in hot pursuit of applying for the 2015 Rural Women’s Award (and later the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award).

Alex and her dad at her 30th birthday (2017). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex and her dad at her 30th birthday (2017). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

My initial project – given that I was then based in Port Lincoln, looking after Dad and working with various fisheries – was to travel to Norway to:

a) get some street credibility amongst fishers,

b) understand ‘what good safety looks like’ in the context of fishing,

c) cross-pollinate ideas between South Australia and Norway, and

d) facilitate a discussion with key stakeholders from the fishing industry (with emphasis on the inclusion of women in fishing).

I didn’t win the Award that year, however I was fortunate enough to be named a State Finalist and despite the outcome thought ‘bugger it’ – and travelled to Norway anyway.

“Bloody Big Boat in Norway” (The Fjords, near Ålesund, Norway, 2015). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

“Bloody Big Boat in Norway” (The Fjords, near Ålesund, Norway, 2015). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Claire Webber, a prominent woman in fishing. (Port Lincoln Marina. SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Claire Webber, a prominent woman in fishing. (Port Lincoln Marina. SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Some years (blood, sweat and tears) later, a sociologist by the name of Dr Kate Brooks picked up my very anecdotal research report and offered me a contract to work for her, and in turn the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. Through this work I learnt an enormous amount about the socio-ecologicial influencers of culture, and how these affect a fisher’s attitudes and beliefs towards work health and safety. I had always known there was a much, much bigger picture beyond what I’d been taught throughout my career in work health and safety, and thus emerged the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign and my second attempt at applying for the Rural Women’s Award!

Alex and Dr Kate Brooks in Carnarvon, WA, 2018. Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex and Dr Kate Brooks in Carnarvon, WA, 2018. Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Do you know any of the past winners of the Award or is there someone in particular who inspired you to apply for the Award?

Whilst I’ve been very fortunate to have known many, many awe-inspiring rural women, I owe my inspiration to my Mum and Dad.

Mum for her tenacity, resilience and vivaciousness whilst wearing a million-and-one different ‘hats’ during our time on the Station; and Dad for his relentless strength, kindness and support, particularly enduring what has at times seemed like an unscrupulous amount of adversity.

Having won the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award (SA), your goal is to establishe the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign using the bursary from the Award. How do you envision implementing this campaign will begin to overcome some of the issues rural men and women face within the industry?

At the moment, most of the chatter about work health and safety in rural industries is dominated by the voice of the Regulator, and is largely focused on fatalities, penalties, paperwork and ‘compliance’. Unfortunately, this approach hasn’t achieved much in the way of actually reducing the number of people hurt, nor does it send a compelling message to those actually doing the work to change ‘the way things have always been done’.

By contrast, most of the time – in any business – things go right (!!!) and people don’t get hurt at work. For example farmers and fishers are innate engineers, which means they’re particularly good at designing out risk. In addition, farmers and fishers really, really care about their people; which often means they’ve got a greater sense of accountability for their wellbeing. Technology means that equipment is increasingly safer and people really are making good decisions about how to manage risk –  they’re just not that great at talking about it! Or at sharing those invaluable, life-saving learnings with the broader industry.

I believe social media (being the effective communication tool that it is) provides rural industries with an opportunity to find its voice and to amplify the positive, rather than being disempowered by the negative. The success of the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign will be based on how much interaction and reach it attracts. Likes. Shares. Comments. Tagging other rural men and women in posts. More talk about industry specific solutions. Less about ‘box-ticking’. The opportunities are endless!

Aside from the social media project, what do you hope winning this Award will achieve?

In addition to the #PlantASeedForSafety social media campaign and by virtue of the Award, I have committed to the following objectives:

  • increasing the confidence and the self-esteem of rural women, particularly in ‘taking the lead’ and influencing positive change;

  • providing an online platform for rural women to support one another and to share ideas on what ‘good work health and safety’ looks like in the context of rural industries;

  • shifting the focus of work health and safety in rural industries away from disempowering, compliance-driven safety information and towards industry-driven, practical solutions (that actually have the capacity to save lives!);

  • supporting more rural women to take on leadership roles in rural industries, and ultimately;

  • preventing people from getting hurt at work in rural industries.

(Dream big, right?!)

Alex facilitating a workshop for Spencer Gulf & West Coast Prawn Fisherman’s Association. (Port Lincoln. SA. 2016). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex facilitating a workshop for Spencer Gulf & West Coast Prawn Fisherman’s Association. (Port Lincoln. SA. 2016). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

How will the physical program or safety tools work in conjunction with the social media campaign?

Given the current emphasis on producing safety paperwork in order to be ‘compliant’ (I mean let’s be honest, how often does a piece of paper ever prevent someone from getting stuck in a piece of machinery?!) – the focus of the resources I develop will be on empowering farmers and fishers with practical, common sense guidance on how to improve the way they manage life-threatening risks in their businesses.

For example:

  • Speed humps down a drive way: waaaaay more effective at slowing someone down than putting up a speed limit sign.

  • Putting a guard around an auger: far more likely to prevent someone from becoming entangled than giving someone once off pep talk on how to use it.

  • Putting a hard cover over a well: will almost certainly prevent someone from falling in it, and;

  • Fencing around a homestead will absolutely reduce the chance of children getting in the way of heavy machinery.

(It’s not rocket science is it?! )

The link between the resources and the social media campaign will come in the form of regular posts that communicate some of the key solutions to those who follow the campaign.

You focus on the physicality of changing and improving compliance with work health and safety regulations, about these being active processes rather than solely bureaucratic ones. Does your own experience working on a farm as well as your father’s injuries influence this?

Absolutely! In addition to Dad’s injuries, when I myself went to work on a station after finishing boarding school, I took short cuts. I rode motorbikes without a helmet on. I took guards off equipment ‘just to make life easier’ and I shimmied up and down windmills without using a harness. Was it dangerous? Yes. Am I human? Yes. Do I think now, that I could have done things better? Absolutely!!! Nobody ever wants another person to get hurt (or equally themselves), but an improvement in work health and safety in rural industries requires a change in the way we think about risk. Thirty years ago, nobody wore seatbelts … and today? We do it without even thinking about it. It all takes time… but if we focus on starting good conversations, supporting each other and fixing the big stuff (i.e. guards on augers) then I think we’re headed in the right direction.

What were the major motivating factors that inspired you to become involved in the industry?

It really depends on which industry you’re referring to!

My profession is in work health and safety, my roots are in pastoralism, my focus is on rural industries and my work spans across all of the above, plus many others.  

I’ve often asked myself why it is that I’ve chosen possibly one of the hardest combinations of work possible (talking ‘safety’ to farmers and fishers can be like trying to sell ice to Eskimos!), and I think it comes down to three distinct factors:

  1. Watching my Dad’s health deteriorate and the impact that it’s had on my family (and wanting to prevent like-scenarios);

  2. A big piece of my heart is, and always will be, on the station (hence I want to remain connected to the industry), and;

  3. I’m infatuated with improvement.

You have your own business that focuses on safety and sustainability, are you still involved in the farming industry in a more traditional sense or more as a consultant to improve work health and safety standards within the industry as a whole?

As I’m sure you can probably imagine, based on the current stigma around work health and safety in rural industries (i.e. penalties, paperwork and ‘box-ticking’), engaging a work health and safety consultant is not usually at the top of a farmer or a fisher’s list of priorities.

Alex with Greg Palmer, a prawn fisher, (On board the Millennium III. Port Lincoln (SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex with Greg Palmer, a prawn fisher, (On board the Millennium III. Port Lincoln (SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

With the exception of a few (wonderful) paid clients here and there, my involvement with rural industries is nearly all donated. I love working one-on-one with farmers and fishers, however I feel as though as a consultant I’m more able to add value on a larger scale by facilitating groups, presenting at industry forums and influencing at a strategic level. I am absolutely playing the long game here, which is why it’s fortunate that I have consulting work in other industries.  

(I often spend my afternoons in front of my 17,125 screens with phone calls coming out my ears wishing I was still in working in ag in a more traditional sense, however I’m a firm believer that this is exactly where I am meant to be and what I’m meant to be doing!)

How important are connections with your local community and the wider world?

My connection with my former local, rural communities is such an enormous part of my identity that I simply wouldn’t – and couldn’t – be who I am, or set out to achieve what I want to achieve, without it.

It’s been over fifteen years since we sold the Station and even now I find it really challenging to know and feel ‘where home is’. Metropolitan life just doesn’t have the same sense of community that living in a rural area does, but I’m hoping a compromise, shifting to the Adelaide Hills, will be just the ticket!

Dad has always taught us to ‘never forget who you are and where you came from’ and I think my work with rural industries reflects that. That, in addition to the fact that my house is FULL of station-related paraphernalia and a somewhat unhealthy number of photos that feature horses…

Alex with her horse. Image: Amy Rowsell from  Amy Rowsell Photography

Alex with her horse. Image: Amy Rowsell from Amy Rowsell Photography

You have a wide range of experience in diverse facets of the agriculture, do you feel that having this range of experience can be used to overcome the issues facing men and women in agriculture?

I think diversity – in any situation – is the single most important ingredient for combating a myriad of different issues. ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, right?! It may seem like a buzz phrase, but it’s a bloody important one! Diversity challenges our unconscious biases, our fixation on remaining comfortable and educates and influences us about how to evolve and be innovative. It’s challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

How have you overcome the issues that working within such a male-dominated space creates?

It really depends on context.

I’ve had some fabulous experiences working alongside men, and yet like many women, I’ve had some very, very ordinary ones too. One experience in particular landed me in some seriously hot water, ‘victim of the boys club’ style. Key learnings from that magnificent catastrophe were a) never to work with a business whose values weren’t truly aligned with my own, and b) to always consider whether walking away or laughing something off is actually condoning poor behaviour, rather than preventing it. Early intervention is key. Sometimes as women we really do need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to speak up, and to allow people and process to support us… rather than trying to deal with it all on our own.

All of that said, I’m a much better, smarter operator now because of that experience, so I’m thankful. (They can’t allllll be good, now can they!)

How does being a woman play into the outcomes you hope to achieve and the desire for this project to be female-centric?

The number of work-related fatalities occurring in agriculture, fisheries and forestry is around eight times higher than any other industry Australia-wide, and 93% of those fatalities are men (Traumatic Injury Fatalities (TIF) Dataset – Safe Work Australia, 2016).

In my experience, the clear advantages rural women have in helping to lower these statistics include the following:

  • Rural women are often – literally – the closest other person to the work being done, and therefore are in the best position to initiate a conversation about work health and safety.

  • Rural women know their businesses, their partners and the workplace better than anyone else does, and are informed (or if not, are in a fabulous position to be informed!) on what could be improved, and how.

  • Rural women are often the ‘new kid on the block’ in family businesses; offering a set of eyes and some much-needed diversity, particularly to those who have been owned and operated by generations of men before them (and have been ‘doing it this way for years’).

  • Rural women often bring experience and knowledge from other industries and workplaces (that perhaps haven’t been ‘doing it this way for years’).

  • Rural women are instinctively more risk averse and therefore more inclined to highlight the dangers and seek to do things in a safer way.

  • Rural women are at times (not always!) less able to do physically demanding work, and therefore are more likely to suggest an alternative (safer, less physically demanding) method.

  • Rural women are innate carers and in my experience are more often inclined to consider work health and safety.

  • Rural women are often more vulnerable and more likely to be ‘left carrying the load’ should their partner be seriously injured or killed at work, which incentivises their involvement.

  • Rural women are often responsible for most of the administrative functions in a family business – which is not to suggest that work health and safety in its most effective form is administrative – but that rural women are more likely to have contemplated the notion of improving work health and safety (even if it is in the form of policy, procedures and paperwork). 

  • Rural women are connected to the communities around them. They listen to what their neighbours are doing, the grower group’s position on work health and safety and how ‘Trevor shouldn’t be reaping in the heat’. They’re ‘in the know’ and they’re fabulous communicators, and therefore in a great position to start a conversation about work health and safety.

  • Rural women are resilient, brave and intuitive. They wear many hats and are the cornerstones of rural communities … they’re just amazing!

Is there any particular message you would like to pass on to other women within the agricultural industry?

1. Understand your power. YOU are the expert on your partner, your business, your community and your industry. Change is already happening. Be curious, connected and confident in your role to lead change.

2. Focus on fixing the big stuff! Don’t waste your time and money creating mountains of paperwork that doesn’t necessarily add any value. You know what it is that doesn’t feel right about the way the work is done, and I know you’re already well aware that some things could be done better… safer. Take action on things that might actually save a life.

3. #PlantASeedForSafety! Talk to your husband/partner/family about what needs to be done to save lives. Your workers. Your neighbour. Your kids. The tall poppy in the district. The industry association. Start a conversation that will eventually make it ‘not cool’ to be unsafe, or to take short cuts.

Thirty years ago, nobody wore seatbelts … and today? We do it without even thinking about it. Start a conversation about What’s working well, what’s not working well, and what could be done better … safer. #PlantASeedForSafety (And blokes? #SaveALifeListenToYourWife!)

 Want to know more?

The Best of Both Worlds, Mostly: Queer Women Farmers on Land and in Community

By Jaclyn Wypler

Jaclyn Wypler (wypler@wisc.edu) is a PhD student in the departments of Sociology and Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (United States), where she is currently researching LGBT+ farmers. Earlier in 2018 Jaclyn wrote a guest blog post for the Invisible Farmer Project where she reflected on the lives and experiences of queer American women farmers. In this follow-up blog post, Jaclyn shares her experience of travelling to Australia and spending six months in New South Wales and Victoria, where she interviewed queer women farmers about their experiences of farming and community life. She uncovers the stories of Ann-Marie, Carla, Em and Dianne, and profiles how these women have fulfilled their dreams to farm and build strong support systems in the process.

Jaclyn Wypler during a farm visit in Australia, image supplied.

Jaclyn Wypler during a farm visit in Australia, image supplied.

Jaclyn Wypler wearing a 'Farmer' T-shirt during her travels in Australia, image supplied.

Jaclyn Wypler wearing a 'Farmer' T-shirt during her travels in Australia, image supplied.

Under the shelter of trees during a rainstorm, Bella told me about her recent decision to leave farming in rural New South Wales. Bella felt isolated and lonely as “one of the only queers in the village” where 47% of voters deemed her love unworthy of marriage. “My bloodline is seriously agriculture and farming,” Bella said, “and obviously it’s tricky because I don’t have an audience out there that’s like-minded.” Whereas she previously lived among like-minded people in Sydney—earning a degree in agricultural sciences and running an organic food company—her days on the farm consisted of working alongside her father and declining dates from men, childhood friends thoroughly aware of her sexuality. “My passion is in farming. I absolutely love it. If I could move that farm to the Blue Mountains and be close to Sydney, I would love that. I’d have the best of both worlds,” she told me. Unable to relocate the farm though, Bella made the challenging decision to leave farming and move to an urban area to live alongside more like-minded people.

The farm life in rural NSW that Bella left behind image supplied by Bella.

The farm life in rural NSW that Bella left behind image supplied by Bella.

The farm life in rural NSW that Bella left behind image supplied by Bella.

The farm life in rural NSW that Bella left behind image supplied by Bella.

As I spent six months interviewing farmers in New South Wales and Victoria and I wondered: is it possible for queer farmers to have the best of both worlds, to fulfil their farm dreams and have a like-minded community? If so, how do farmers establish strong social supports as farmers and as queer women?

In my research, I met several thriving farmers surrounded by supportive community. I visited Ann-Marie and Carla – goat farmers and cheese makers – who trained other women and earned the respect of farming families in their rural Victorian community. I spent a morning with Em at Joe’s Garden in Coburg, Victoria, who personally connected with neighbours and established a queer inclusive space on the farm. I spoke to Dianne – a cattle farmer in rural New South Wales – about transitioning in her 60s and creating a gender diverse support group. Though each farmer made it work, their efforts were intentional and involved some concessions. In a moment when it is vital to support those passionate about farming, I hope that the stories of Ann-Marie, Carla, Em, and Dianne provide blueprints for other LGBT+ people to enter and remain in agriculture.

 

Ann-Marie & Carla: Sutton Grange Organic Farm, makers of Holy Goat Cheese
 

As Ann-Marie and I drove to her farm near Castlemaine in Victoria, we compared Saturn Returns – an astrological period in your late 20s associated with pivotal life changes. Whereas I was in my Saturn Return, marked by living across the world for six months, Ann-Marie reported, “I became a lesbian.” She met Carla during this period, and the two began their journey as life and farm partners. Although they had been living in a tight-knit Western Australian lesbian community, they prioritised farming and moved to Victoria in 1999 to be near better soils. At the time, they perceived the area to be “hostile territory,” but were determined to make it work.

Ann-Marie and Carla with their goats at Holy Goat Farm, Castlemaine, 2014, image courtesy  Holy Goat

Ann-Marie and Carla with their goats at Holy Goat Farm, Castlemaine, 2014, image courtesy Holy Goat

Ann-Marie in Holy Goat cheeseroom, 2013, image courtesy  Holy Goat .

Ann-Marie in Holy Goat cheeseroom, 2013, image courtesy Holy Goat.

Ann-Marie and Carla created a place for themselves in the community in three ways. First, they demonstrated their commitment to their neighbours by joining the Country Fire Authority. Second, they brought pride to the area by producing quality cheeses. When Ann-Marie and Carla won their first cheese award, the three longest time farmers in the area called to say that the couple was an asset to the community. “We are surrounded by bloke farmers and they think we’re okay,” Ann-Marie told me. Though respected by their immediate neighbours, they differ in farming practices; Ann-Marie and Carla therefore tend to socialise more with farmers who live further away but share their organic methods. Finally, Ann-Marie and Carla surrounded themselves with other women dedicated to agriculture. When I visited, I worked alongside a woman employee in her 20s and met two former employees—women—who each went on to launch farming businesses. Ann-Maria declared, “We are a real women’s farm and I think it’s brilliant.”

 

Ann-Marie working at Holy Goat Farm, Castlemaine, image taken by Jaclyn during her farm visit in 2018.

Ann-Marie working at Holy Goat Farm, Castlemaine, image taken by Jaclyn during her farm visit in 2018.

‘Staff meeting’ at Holy Goat Farm, Castlemaine, 2013, image courtesy  Holy Goat

‘Staff meeting’ at Holy Goat Farm, Castlemaine, 2013, image courtesy Holy Goat


Em: an urban farming community at Joe's Market Garden


Located in Coburg (Melbourne), 2kms north of CERES Community Environment Park along the Merri Creek bike path, Joe's Market Garden is a two acre plot that has been farmed continuously by Chinese and Italian gardeners for over 150 years. Em is the resident farmer at Joe's, and she regularly runs tours, workshops and information sessions on the farm. I joined Em on a tour of the farm, where she began by detailing the land’s agricultural roots from Wurundjeri cultivators and trappers, to Chinese market gardeners in the 1800s, to the Italian family who bought land in 1945. This family mentored Em, teaching her not only how to farm, but also the importance of community.

Em on tour at Joe's Market Garden, photo taken by Jaclyn Wypler, 2018.

Em on tour at Joe's Market Garden, photo taken by Jaclyn Wypler, 2018.

Joe's Market Garden, photo taken by Jaclyn Wypler, 2018.

Joe's Market Garden, photo taken by Jaclyn Wypler, 2018.

Em knows the farm’s urban neighbours by name and invites them to farm events, such as “weed dating.” At this event, Em began by asking people to share their pronouns, explaining to the largely straight neighbours that stating pronouns is a way to signal safety and inclusion to queer and trans* people. “It was a good space to have that conversation because they’re open to me in a different way,” Em explained, “[I’m] not just that weird gay girl.” In situations like weed dating, Em does discuss queerness on the farm, yet she intentionally does not centre it every day. Rather, she chooses to make environmental sustainability the farm’s main focus. Nevertheless, Em estimated that many of the roughly 23 lesbians who live within a three-kilometre radius of the farm attend the Saturday market. “They’ve been drawn here,” Em told me by her queerness and the several other queer people who contribute labour to the farm. Though “very closeted” when she started working at Joe’s Garden, Em now proclaimed, “This is the queer farm of my dreams!”

Interview with Em courtesy Moreland Sessions: https://anotherwisequietroom.com.au/tag/emma-connors/

 

Dianne: farming 300 acres and supporting gender diversity

At the peak of her career, Dianne oversaw 3000 acres in rural New South Wales, earned all of her money from the farm, and mentored other farmers. Though worried about sounding conceited, Dianne eventually conceded, “I was a pretty darn good farmer.” Today, Dianne farms cattle, hay, and wheat on 300 acres. She lost much of her land to divorce; when she came out as a transwoman three years ago at 60, her then-wife left her.

Australian_Farmer_Dianne_1.JPG

 

Despite losing land and love, Dianne found acceptance in her local community. People at cattle sales greet her by name and when she attempted to resign from associations and boards—worried that others would quit because of her involvement—other members refused. “You can be you as long as you’re not in people’s faces,” she shared. In addition to ally support, Dianne created a gender diversity group that holds monthly dinners. Roughly 15 LGBT+ people travel upwards of 100 to 220km in order to attend. Though not optimistic about dating prospects in her community, Dianne is the happiest she’s ever been and remains committed to her land: “I’ll die on the place if I can.” Friends applauded her bravery, but she doesn’t think she’s brave; Dianne is finally just being herself.

 

Mostly the Best

Queer women farmers can achieve farming dreams and like-minded community, mostly, in their NSW and Victorian communities. Ann-Marie, Carla, Em, and Dianne all personally engaged and invested in their local communities, earning neighbors’ trust and respect. They also created safe spaces in their communities for like-minded people: women in agriculture, queer urban residents, and gender diverse people in the country. Though they have land and community, the farmers have made some concessions: living alongside neighbors with different environmental views, decentering queerness for the sake of a larger environmental mission, and foregoing dating prospects by remaining in a small community. Other LGBT+ may find guidance in these stories, pathways for them to farm and have supportive communities.

A final note: when I last spoke to Bella, she had returned to rural NSW to continue farming and to begin a business selling coffee from a renovated horse trailer. I wish Bella luck and hope she finds like-minded community through the coffee cart, achieving the best of both worlds. 

Bella at her coffee cart, image supplied.

Bella at her coffee cart, image supplied.

 

‘Definitely a Farmer’: Sally Hall, trout farming and how ‘the land owns you’

By Catherine Forge (Curator & Photographer, Invisible Farmer Project) with Sally Hall (Farmer, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville, Victoria)

***

This blog post is based on an interview that was conducted in 2017 between curator Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria) and trout farmer Sally Hall for the Invisible Farmer Project. Using excerpts from this interview, Catherine reflects on meeting Sally and provides an overview of Sally’s journey into farming, her connection to the outdoors and her experiences of being a farmer.

Sally Hall holding a trout on her farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall holding a trout on her farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Meeting Sally Hall

In May 2017 I packed my camera and audio recording equipment into the car and travelled from Melbourne to the small Alpine township of Harrietville, Victoria, to interview trout farmer Sally Hall. Sally’s family farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, is located in a scenic part of the world – right at the foot of Mount Hotham and Mount Feathertop, with fresh water streams and abundant greenery. As I pulled into the driveway I was immediately struck by the farm’s natural beauty; autumn leaves radiated bright red and orange, water gently trickled in the nearby streams and Sally emerged from her landscaped garden to greet me with a welcoming smile.

Sally Hall standing at the entrance to Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria. Sally informed me that the sculptured fish in the backdrop was previously used in the 2006 Commonwealth Games to represent the country of Cyprus.

Sally Hall standing at the entrance to Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria. Sally informed me that the sculptured fish in the backdrop was previously used in the 2006 Commonwealth Games to represent the country of Cyprus.

Being the first aquaculture farmer I’d interviewed for this project I was excited to meet Sally Hall and hear more about her journey into farming. Women contribute greatly to Australia’s seafood and aquaculture industries, yet their stories have tended to go unrecognised, undocumented and hidden to the public eye. Sally’s own story as a trout farmer had not yet been recorded, and there was nothing available about her farming career on the public record or online. In fact, in preparing for the interview I had only managed to find one reference to Sally on Google – a news article in the Weekly Times  that had mostly focused on Sally’s husband Peter and son David and only mentioned Sally’s name in passing. This absence of information about Sally’s farm life had sparked my initial curiosity in her story and led me to pick up the phone in search of further information: ‘Hi, I’m wondering if there are any women working on your trout farm and if they would be interested in speaking to me about their farm experiences?’, I had asked. ‘Yeap, that’s my Mum Sally and she does everything around here’, responded Sally’s son David, ‘she’s the one that you need to speak to.’ 

Sally Hall holding a trout on her farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall holding a trout on her farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Pouring me a cup of tea as we prepared to start the interview, Sally confessed to feeling a tad nervous about sharing her story, mainly because she didn’t think she deserved the attention. ‘My story isn’t that interesting or important’, Sally informed me, and admitted to being a bit confused as to why I would want to interview her. This a common scenario when interviewing women who farm; many women tell me that they share a similar fear about being interviewed, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard phrases such as, ‘I don’t feel my story is important’, ‘maybe you should speak to my husband/partner instead’ or ‘I don’t know why you’d want to interview me.’ And yet, every woman that we have interviewed for the Invisible Farmer Project has had an incredible story to share, and I firmly believe that all of these stories are of great significance. After all, women contribute half the world’s food and fibre and play a vital role on farms across Australia. Their stories, and Sally’s story, deserve to be told.

Sally Hall holding a trout on her farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall holding a trout on her farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

‘I wasn’t always a trout farmer and I wasn’t born into farming.’

Sally Hall [nee Baldwin] was born in 1958 in Watford, London, and immigrated to Australia as a “Ten Pound Pom” with her parents when she was just four years old. The family lived in Perth, Western Australia, until Sally was fourteen, and then relocated to a 2 ½ acre block outside of Perth in the suburb of Wattleup. It is here surrounded by a neighbourhood of market gardens that Sally was given her first horse, and subsequently developed a strong interest in the outdoors:

“Once I got my first horse I immediately became an outdoor kid. If Mum couldn’t see me it meant that I was outside playing with a horse. I think this passion for the outdoors has lived with me ever since.”

Sally’s love for the outdoors began young, but her life as a farmer didn’t come into full swing until she married her husband Peter Hall in 1980. ‘He was a farmer’, recalls Sally, ‘so I automatically went into farming, and I guess that’s when I became a farmer too.’

Sally and her husband Peter Hall on their wedding day, 1980, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Sally and her husband Peter Hall on their wedding day, 1980, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Sally Hall with her husband Peter Hall on their trout farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), Spring 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Sally Hall with her husband Peter Hall on their trout farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), Spring 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Sally and Peter’s first farm was located in Wialki in remote Western Australia and consisted of 18,000 acres of dry cropping and sheep. Situated on the eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia, Wialki’s landscape is dry and arid with extremely hot summers. It was a tough introduction to farming, but Sally remembers throwing herself into farming and working as hard as she could:

We ended up doing seven years of farming there, through lots of droughts and the arrival of two children at the time. I mostly tried to be a good wife and a good mother to our two young children, as well as looking after the staff. I did as much farm work as possible. It was a more male-orientated job back then, but I did whatever was needed of me: fencing, truck driving, sheep work, grain carting and whatever came my way.

There were parts of this life that I loved. I loved the great expanse of the remote outdoors, the sense of community, the church and its’ people and the physical work. But droughts were at times severe. We were in marginal country, right near the emu-proof fence, where you would be lucky to get a few bags an acre. And then the interest rates went to 22 per cent and that was the end of us farming in Wialki.

Sally’s husband Peter, daughter Kathy and son David on their farm in Wialki (Western Australia) in 1987. I had asked Sally for some photos of herself during these years, but she wrote on the back of the photo: ‘no photos of me as I was always the camera man.’ Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Sally’s husband Peter, daughter Kathy and son David on their farm in Wialki (Western Australia) in 1987. I had asked Sally for some photos of herself during these years, but she wrote on the back of the photo: ‘no photos of me as I was always the camera man.’ Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

After seven years of farming in the marginal country of Western Australia, Sally and her family made the decision in 1987 to relocate to Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, and try their hand at opal mining. Lightning Ridge is a small outback town in north-western New South Wales, famous for Black Opal, a rare and highly sought after gemstone unique to the region. It is here with Peter working in the opal mines that Sally developed a newfound interest in opal cutting and jewellery making:

I found that I was drawn to opals and jewellery making, and that I really enjoyed working on new jewellery creations. It was a completely different world to the remote farming world that we’d previously inhabited. Rather than being outdoors on the land, I was working in an office all the time making jewellery and cutting opal.

Sally Hall, Peter Hall and a friend with a piece of mining equipment, Lightning Ridge (New South Wales), 2002, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Sally Hall, Peter Hall and a friend with a piece of mining equipment, Lightning Ridge (New South Wales), 2002, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Much to Sally’s surprise, her jewellery-making hobby soon became a full-time job. She not only found herself opening up a retail store in Lightning Ridge, but also travelling all around Australia to meet with clients and sell her products:

Opals ended up becoming a really big part of my life. I opened a retail outlet under the name “Everything Opal” and had five staff and then travelled around Australia six or seven times a year, for ten days at a time wholesaling. When I reflect on my opal life and my farming life, I feel like there’s two different versions of me. But even though I’m a farmer right now, I still love opals and continue to occasionally make jewellery.

The shopfront window of Sally’s jewellery outlet, “Everything Opal”, Lightning Ridge, 1998, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

The shopfront window of Sally’s jewellery outlet, “Everything Opal”, Lightning Ridge, 1998, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Sally and her family ended up staying in the opal mining business in Lightning Ridge for 18 years (1987-2005). During this time, Sally reflects that ‘farming was still always in our blood’ and it wasn’t uncommon for dinner table conversations to turn to the topic of farming, and how to get back into it. In the end it was the additional income provided by Sally’s jewellery-making business that helped make it financially viable for the family to re-enter farming. A decision was made to purchase 4,000 acres of farm land around Narromine and Trangie, New South Wales, and Sally soon found herself balancing two different jobs – making opal jewellery and farming Angus beef and mixed crop varieties.

Sally holding one of her opal necklaces, 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Sally holding one of her opal necklaces, 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

For the first five years, Sally and Peter travelled the long four-hour drive from Lighting Ridge to manage the Narromine and Trangie farm sites over weekends while they continued to mine, cut opals and sell jewellery during the week. Eventually, however, they decided to discontinue with the opal mining completely and transition back into full-time farming. Relocating to live permanently in the dry and remote landscape of Narromine and Trangie, Sally dedicated herself once again to farm life. During this period Sally and Peter diversified the farm by planting 1,200 olive trees. They also started to produce their own olive oil.

Workers hard at work on the olive groves, 2018, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Workers hard at work on the olive groves, 2018, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Due to the remoteness of the Narromine and Trangie farm sites, Sally’s two children David and Kathy left home to attend boarding school and with no children at home to care for, Sally spent more of her time outdoors. Although this work was tough at times, Sally recalls feeling ‘most at home’ when working in the outdoors:

My indoor duties were less intensive without the children home, so I spent a lot of time doing outdoor work in those years – anything from fencing to tractor driving to looking after the Angus mothers and their variously aged baby calves. I suppose it wasn’t what you would describe as an easy life. The work was ongoing and there were always things that needed to be done. But I really liked the outdoor work and the physical work.

For Sally, working outdoors was one of the real joys of farm life – a joy that she still continues to cherish:

There’s something about being outdoors working the land that I can’t describe. It gets under your skin, and it’s where I feel I belong. It’s so beautiful being outdoors too. Sometimes at night time in Narromine and Trangie you could look up into the sky and see hundreds of stars shining. And at daytime the sun would belt down on your back, and the sky would be the most brilliant shade of blue. Yes, the outdoors is where I like to be – under the open skies, on the land.

‘When I first saw this trout farm, it was the lush green landscape that pulled me in.’

Sally Hall feeding trout, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145578:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241621] .

Sally Hall feeding trout, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145578: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241621].

Listening to Sally talk about farming in Western Australia and New South Wales, she described the colours of the Outback to me – the orange earth, the dry dust and the long empty roads that stretched out to the horizon. It all seemed so different, and so far away, from the lush, green and mountainous region that Sally now inhabits. ‘How did you make such a big transition – from farming cattle and crops in the Outback, to farming trout and salmon by ponds and waterways?’, I asked.

Sally responded with a smile:

We were down here at Mount Hotham on a family skiing holiday actually. And then we spotted this trout farm as we drove along the Great Alpine tourist road and saw the “For Sale” sign. It was love at first sight, and at the time we agreed – my husband, my son and my son’s wife – that this would be such a lovely place to come to. So we sold everything from Lightning Ridge, Narromine and Trangie and came here, and we’ve been here for eight years now.

Sally Hall with her dogs and chooks, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall with her dogs and chooks, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Purchasing the trout farm was a quick decision, however it was one that made sense for the family and seemed like the right step to take. Sally’s son David had been in Tasmania studying aquaculture at Launceston University, and he was keen to bring his training and studies into practice. Sally recalls that there was also a big allure in the natural beauty and greenery surrounding the farm:

I think the reason that we loved it when we came here was that it was green, and there was water everywhere and rivers and freshwater as opposed to Western Australia where it was salty water. It was such a beautiful, beautiful green place, and all the autumn leaves too. Yeah, it was just a completely different climate to our previous farms in Western Australia and New South Wales.

Sally Hall fishing for trout with a bamboo fishing rod, Mountain View Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145580:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241623 ].

Sally Hall fishing for trout with a bamboo fishing rod, Mountain View Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145580: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241623].

After her experience of farming through dust and drought, Sally relished the water that flowed from the snow-capped mountains in Spring, and the abundant greenery that turned into bright orange and red in the Autumn:

We have here 20 acres of beautiful, beautiful country with probably forty ponds on it, and sheds with ponds. Stony Creek comes into our place at the top corner and it gravity feeds right through our farm, putting water through all the fish ponds. And then after it’s settled for a while it goes back into the Ovens River out the front. It couldn’t be more beautiful here, especially the fact that it stays so green over summer too. I’d have to say that green is now my favourite colour! I just love it. I love the water and the freshness.

Sally Hall catching a trout, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall catching a trout, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm was first established in 1971 and when Sally and her family took ownership of the property, there was a lot of work to do in order to bring the farm back from a state of disrepair. Although Sally and her husband Peter hadn’t had any experience in fish farming, Sally believes that her son’s education –  coupled with the family’s prior farm experience – came in handy:

With David doing the Uni degree in aquaculture there was the technical side already there. But I think because we’ve been farmers on and off all our life, it’s still animal husbandry and a lot of that is just born into a farmer really. You just learn it as you go. You see what needs doing.

Sally Hall with her dog feeding salmon, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall with her dog feeding salmon, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Over the past 8-9 years, Sally and her family have increased the productivity of their farm by investing in new infrastructure, technologies and machinery, planting up gardens and introducing new fish farming methods and techniques:

We’re growing about six or seven different varieties of fish now – rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout, Atlantic salmon, cheetahs, tigers and golden trout. We have worked to make the gardens beautiful for the tourists that come here to fish, and we have invested in new equipment. On top of this we have grown our market and client-base and we are selling to a wide range of customers including other fish farmers, the Government, chefs and local restaurants. It’s been a lot of work to get the farm to where it is now, but it’s been worth it.

‘I can’t quite put my finger on my role here on the farm – I’m sort of in all the jobs.’

Sally has been involved in all aspects of the fish farm since moving there in 2009, however when I asked her ‘what kind of farmer are you?’, she responded that it wasn’t easy to define her work:

What sort of farmer am I? That’s a really hard one! I’m just the back-up person really… I don’t think of myself as just being a ‘fish farmer’, like the men would, because I feel that I do all sorts of general things as well. Whatever needs doing in that particular month, I’m just there doing it.

Sally Hall with her dog on a John Deere utility vehicle, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145577:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241617 ].

Sally Hall with her dog on a John Deere utility vehicle, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145577: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241617].

For Sally, the difficulty in defining her role is due to the fact that she has so many diverse roles, and that they change every day:

I mean, I am a fish farmer, but I also worry about the garden, and do the paperwork and money things. I package fish, I make pâté, I mow grass, I do orders for restaurants and butchers and I sell fish weekly at various farmer’s markets. Yeah, I guess I’m a fish farmer, but it’s hard to define. It’s anything from chopping wood to moving the tractor to cleaning the shed to feeding the workers. I can’t quite put my finger on my role here on the farm – I’m sort of in all the jobs, where I’m needed.

Talking to Sally about the multitude of diverse daily tasks that she performs on the farm, it is clear that her life’s work is dedicated to her farm and family, and that she plays a pivotal role in keeping the farm running. Yet by initially describing herself as ‘just a back-up person’, I couldn’t help but feel that Sally was inadvertently under-valuing her importance and her role on the farm. Sally is not the first woman that I’ve interviewed who has referred to herself as the “back-up person”, “helping hand” or the “just the Farmer’s Wife.” While these are commonly heard terms, I worry that by using them to describe their role on the farm, these women are accidentally sending a message that their work is somehow less important or less worthy than the work of their male counterparts, which clearly isn’t the case!

Sally Hall with a juvenile fish, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145582:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241626 ].

Sally Hall with a juvenile fish, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145582: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241626].

Sally Hall feeding chooks on her farm, Harrietville (Victoria), Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145576:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241610 ].

Sally Hall feeding chooks on her farm, Harrietville (Victoria), Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria [MM 145576: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241610].

In reality, women like Sally play an essential role on the farm, not only in balancing a multitude of different kinds of farm work, but also in keeping their families, farm workers and communities together. Sally believes that women often find themselves performing an additional farm role as communicators and providers, and she refers to this additional role as the “mothering role”:   

I think for women there is more than just the manual and physical work. There is a mothering role that continues on forever when you’re farming. I think farm women do both. They are quite capable of chainsawing and wheelbarrowing and doing all the physical work that is required, but they are also often called upon to do emotional and communication work, which is a different role altogether. I think with the men, there’s a lot of things that they can say to a woman that they won’t say to a man, so being the only woman on a team of men, I’ll often find myself in that mothering role too.

Sally Hall with her son David and fish tanks in the background, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall with her son David and fish tanks in the background, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

For Sally, this mothering role doesn't only involve emotional support; it also involves a daily focus on ensuring that the workers are fed and well cared for:

I’m a farmer, but I’m definitely also a mother on the farm. For a lot of farm women like me, there is always a lot of food involved. You do end up taking on that kind of nurturing role with all the staff that you work with – you make sure that they’ve been fed, and that they’ve got a cup of tea. You know, you make sure that they are okay and looked after.

This process of feeding the staff might involve a lot of hard work, but Sally relishes the opportunity that it provides to sit down with her staff and exchange stories:

We eat together, always. So half a dozen of us will sit together. It’s always under the trees around tables, and that’s where we talk, where we plan what’s next, where we laugh, where we tell stories. It’s often around food that we have a chance to communicate. And these are my favourite times really.

‘There’s tourists every day, so it’s always about sharing the farm.’

Sally doesn’t only share stories with the other workers on the farm; she also enjoys the opportunity to interact on a very personal level with her customers. Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm offers farm gate sales and is open to the public five days per week. Visitors to the farm can learn to fish with bamboo fishing rods, catch fish, tour the gardens and then watch the fish be prepared and packaged up to take home. A regular part of Sally’s day-to-day work involves meeting with visitors, showing them around the farm and sharing stories about the life-cycle of the fish. Sally believes that this one-on-one interaction helps to educate consumers and bring them closer to understanding where their food comes from:

The link between producer and consumer is definitely there, especially when people have caught fish for themselves. I mean they catch their own fish, they are excited and then they come to the workbench and have it cleaned. They become a captive audience while I clean their fish, and they usually want to know all about your life and how you clean the fish and how you farm. They want to know all about the farming process, so you interact with the tourist at that level always, every day.

Sally Hall preparing fish in her Farm Gate shop, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall preparing fish in her Farm Gate shop, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall at her Farm Gate shop where she sells produce directly to visitors, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall at her Farm Gate shop where she sells produce directly to visitors, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Just a 20-minute drive from the farm is the bustling tourist town of Bright, and Sally also regularly interacts with consumers locally via the monthly Bright Farmer’s Markets, as well as the neighbouring Myrtleford and Wangaratta Farmer’s Markets. ‘Our Alpine Shire is very proactive, so there’s always tourists’, reflects Sally: ‘so the other way I interact with consumers is most definitely at these farmer’s markets, where there is a lot of talking on a very personal one-on-one level.’

Sally Hall selling fish at the Bright Farmer’s Market (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall selling fish at the Bright Farmer’s Market (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Beyond her local farmer’s markets Sally also travels into the city to Melbourne once a month to sell fish at the Slow Food Farmer’s Market in Abbotsford. ‘I think a lot of people do worry about fresh food and where it’s grown and that kind of thing’, reflects Sally, ‘and I love being able to tell people in the city about our farm, how green it is and to ease some of their concerns about what they are feeding their families.’ Another benefit of selling at farmer’s markets is that it provides an opportunity to reach a wide consumer-base:

There’s money that comes from the farmer’s markets, but there’s also a lot of restaurant owners and butchers and various people wandering around fresh food markets looking for new ideas, or the next thing they’re going to put on the plate. So we do definitely pick up bigger customers by being out there and being seen. It’s great tapping into the city market, and also the local market. All the local restaurants use our fish. Their menus change all the time, but all the local people use it – the pubs and the butchers all round the region really.

Produce from Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, including the pâté that Sally makes with her mother, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Produce from Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, including the pâté that Sally makes with her mother, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Sally Hall and her mother Rita Baldwin serving customers at the Bright Farmer’s Market (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall and her mother Rita Baldwin serving customers at the Bright Farmer’s Market (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

After touring Sally’s farm, I had the opportunity to attend the Bright Farmer’s Market and visit Sally at her market stall. I arrived to find her standing alongside her mother Rita Baldwin and the two worked in unison as a mother-daughter team interacting with customers and selling their fish and homemade caviar pâté. I asked Sally about her relationship with her mother and she informed me that their bond is strong, and that she has relished the opportunity to work together in more recent years:

Mum moved to Bright 10 years ago, when we came here. She helps me make pâté (38,000 so far) and she comes to all the fresh food markets with me. She will pop into the farm any day and bring food and anything from town. She’s 86, so there’s obvious limitations, but she has always been there to mother me, even though I’m now 60. She gives plenty of love, comfort and care. Really our parents are our best advocates and I hope I can be that for my kids.

Sally Hall and her mother Rita Baldwin at the Bright Farmer’s Market (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally Hall and her mother Rita Baldwin at the Bright Farmer’s Market (Victoria), 2017, Photographer: Catherine Forge, Source: Museums Victoria.

Sally spending some time with family - her mother Rita Baldwin, daughter Kathy and granddaughter Ella-Rose - at the Bright Lolly Shop, 2018, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

Sally spending some time with family - her mother Rita Baldwin, daughter Kathy and granddaughter Ella-Rose - at the Bright Lolly Shop, 2018, Image: supplied by Sally Hall.

When ‘the land owns you’

 ‘I don’t feel that we own this place – I feel that it owns us’, said Sally when reflecting on her connection to the farm and landscape:

We are here to care for the land really. I feel like I look outside and I know what to do because it’s telling me all the time – you know, fix this, garden that, tend to that. I feel like when you’re a farmer the land owns you, if that makes sense. You can’t just walk away and take a week off or a month off.

Being owned by the land has a romantic appeal, but it is not without its’ challenges. For Sally and her family, one of these challenges revolves around the water and power supply:

Water is always a problem. For us when the creek gets low we have to pump water from the Ovens River, so water is always a concern. Power is our next concern because we’ve got to run generators the whole time to pump water, so power is really expensive at the moment. Sometimes I feel we’re doing all our work just to pay the power bills.

Another challenge is the fact that the farm requires maintenance and ongoing care on a 24/7 basis, which ties Sally to the land and makes it difficult to take time off or go away for holidays:

It’s an every day, all hours of the day job. I mean in summer we’re still checking fish of a night. It’s probably emotionally harder than it looks form the outside, in that you have to commit yourself to being here all the time. You’re definitely owned by the land in that way too.

‘I don’t think farming is a career where it’s easy to make money - you have to love the life’ ~ handwritten reflections on farming by Sally Hall, 2018.

‘I don’t think farming is a career where it’s easy to make money - you have to love the life’ ~ handwritten reflections on farming by Sally Hall, 2018.

In 2018, over a year after my first interview with Sally, I paid another visit to the farm, this time accompanied by my mother Fiona McLennan. I was excited to see Sally again, and to hear what she had been up to in the past twelve months. ‘Well, we haven’t had any major holidays except for a family wedding recently’, she informed me, ‘and that wasn’t really a proper holiday, just a weekend away really, so in many ways nothing has changed – the land still owns us!’

Flowers in bloom, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Flowers in bloom, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Sally and Peter gave my mother and I a tour of the farm gardens, which were flourishing with a wide variety of beautiful new Spring flowers in bloom. As we chatted and looked at the flowers, I soon came to learn that it hadn’t been an easy year on the farm; the previous summer heat had caused many fish to become ill, leading to significant stock losses. Sally walked us down to the outdoor workstations where new antibiotics were being trialled to prepare for the coming summer. ‘It’s a full-time job and you always have to be prepared for the next thing’, Sally explained, ‘we are always at work here, there’s always something to do!’

Sally and her son working with fish, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Sally and her son working with fish, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Despite the significant challenges associated with the daily realities of farming, however, Sally believes that two things have helped her to stay motivated. The first of these is her faith:

Probably the only thing that has kept me together and continuing on when there’s been droughts and hard times and living in a caravan park for a year in Lightning Ridge with no money, I think being Christian has probably held me together, held my marriage together, helped grow my children into lovely kids.

The second thing that has kept Sally passionate about farming is the connection to the outdoors, and the joy that she gets from being able to produce a fresh, high-quality product.

I think being outside and the fresh air and a love for the land and animals.. and no traffic, no people, no rushing. It’s a very healthy lifestyle I feel. If I have to be inside and do bookwork for an hour I can’t wait to go outside and just do whatever’s out there, whether it’s the garden of the grounds.

I also love that since we’ve been here the produce is a premium now. When we first came it was relatively run down and the fish were hungry and not in the greatest condition. But they are now all being bred by us, fed by us and couldn’t be in any better condition really, so people are getting really good quality produce, and I couldn’t feel more proud to feed it to them.

Sally holding a trout, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Sally holding a trout, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Sally and her son working with fish, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Sally and her son working with fish, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

‘The men couldn’t do it without us.’

Not only has Sally been a farmer over her career, but she has also managed and operated a small jewellery business, and through this work with opals she was able to provide the family with an additional off-farm income that helped facilitate their re-entry back into farming. When I first visited Sally in 2017, we spoke about her passion for jewellery-making and how her opal business had been a big part of her life, but Sally confessed that she wasn’t sure if her previous career as a jewellery maker was relevant to her story as a farmer. ‘They both feel like two different worlds’, she had told me.

Sally Hall reuniting with Catherine Forge in 2018, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Sally Hall reuniting with Catherine Forge in 2018, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

When I visited Sally again in 2018, however, things had changed. Sally invited my mother and I into the Farm Gate shop and explained to us that she had just started to sell her opals alongside the fish products. As she showed us her beautiful opal jewellery and her homemade caviar pâté, there was something quite lovely about seeing these two worlds – her farming world and her jewellery-making world – come closer together.

Sally Hall showing Catherine Forge her jewellery creations, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Sally Hall showing Catherine Forge her jewellery creations, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Women contribute to farms in so many diverse ways – they farm outdoors, indoors and in many cases they work off-farm to provide additional income that helps to sustain the farm. It is important to recognise and celebrate all of this work, because all kinds of farm work – from driving tractors to balancing accounting books to providing off-farm income – is work that contributes to the overall productivity and success of Australian agriculture.

Sally Hall in her Farm Gate store with opals and fish in the background, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Sally Hall in her Farm Gate store with opals and fish in the background, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Catherine Forge.

Towards the end of our visit, Sally generously packed up some trout for my mother and I to take home. We said our goodbyes and as we drove out the driveway my mother turned to me and said, ‘wow, what a remarkable woman.’ Having met Sally a few times now, I have to agree that she is a remarkable woman, and yet I doubt that Sally would openly call herself “remarkable”, or expect to have her work publicly recognised. On the contrary, as we said our goodbyes, Sally confessed that it was unusual for herself to talk about herself, and that she had never really been in the limelight or shared her story with anyone beyond her immediate family.

I believe that Sally’s story deserves to be told though, and that her ongoing dedication to her farm, her family and her community should be celebrated. For Sally is not just a “helper” on the farm – she is a vital part of it, and she has every reason to feel proud of what she has achieved:

Yeah, when I think about the journey so far I’m definitely a farmer. When I look back at my career over the years I can now see that I can drive the tractor, I can drive the truck, I can do anything that men can do, except for the heavy lifting. Physically we’re not made the same really, but there’s mostly nothing that women can’t do. I think we’re essential. The men couldn’t do it without us.

Sally Hall sitting behind her Farm Gate counter, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

Sally Hall sitting behind her Farm Gate counter, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville (Victoria), 2018, Photographer: Fiona McLennan.

 Acknowledgements:

I wish to sincerely thank Sally for sharing her story with us, and for the delicious fish and homemade pâté that she generously provided on both visits. I’d also like to thank her husband Peter, son David, mother Rita and farm worker Jessie for welcoming us to the farm and showing us around. Finally, I want to thank my mother Fiona McLennan for volunteering her photographic skills to the project.

Further Info:

'Getting My Hands Dirty': USA Harvard student Rory Sullivan travels to Australia to immerse herself in farming

Originally from a small town in rural Maine, Rory Sullivan recently graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Biology. Ultimately, she plans to go to medical school to become an oncologist. But first, she will be travelling around Australia for a year, working on farms owned or run by women. She hopes to learn about what it means to be a woman farmer by working on farms, becoming a part of communities of women farmers, and hearing their stories.

Rory graduating from Harvard University with a degree that inspired her to learn more about women in farming and agriculture. 

Rory graduating from Harvard University with a degree that inspired her to learn more about women in farming and agriculture. 

Having just graduated from college with a degree in biology, most of my time for the past four years has been spent on my laptop, pouring through books, or conducting science experiments in the sterile environment of a lab. Yet I have been longing to spend more time outside, working with my hands, connecting with nature. I grew up in a small town in rural Maine, and much of my childhood was spend outdoors, kayaking, biking, picking blueberries, and examining the natural world around me. I understood connection to the land because I lived it through my rural upbringing, but it wasn’t until I began farming that I experienced the more profound connection to the land that comes from agriculture. A summer urban farming internship midway through college awakened a passion for sustainable agriculture in me that I could not deny.

Rory picking blueberries in her hometown near Maine, USA.

Rory picking blueberries in her hometown near Maine, USA.

As an aspiring doctor, I realised that food is fundamental to human health, yet can be overlooked as a contributing factor to illness. I learned that reforming food systems to improve the health of humans and the environment requires changes to all steps of the process, from farming to shipping. I came to believe in a holistic vision of health, of which food is a vital element. I hoped to learn more about the ways that food and farming impact people’s lives. At the same time, throughout college I was fascinated by questions about women and their experiences. I took classes about the history of women in science and medicine, women who pursued careers that were traditionally perceived as masculine. Dipping my toes into farming caused me to realise that agriculture is another field traditionally perceived as masculine. I wondered what that meant for women farmers, how they perceived themselves and related to one another.

Rory at her summer urban farming internship at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, harvesting garlic.

Rory at her summer urban farming internship at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, harvesting garlic.

Rory showing her peers how to pick beans at the Harvard Community Garden.

Rory showing her peers how to pick beans at the Harvard Community Garden.

Full of questions about sustainable agriculture and women in agriculture, I knew that I had to learn more, and that the best way to do so was to get my hands dirty and work on farms myself. While I knew that I wanted to be in rural places, my hunger for exploration and new experiences overcame my homesickness for the rural Maine landscape of my childhood. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to pursue my different interests in a synthetic way by spending a year working on farms owned or run by women in Australia. This trip is one of my first times travelling abroad, and I chose to come to Australia because of its impressive devotion to sustainable agriculture, and because I had come across and admired the work of the Invisible Farmer Project.

Rory with Jersey Cows in Gippsland, Victoria. 

Rory with Jersey Cows in Gippsland, Victoria. 

Reading the Invisible Farmer Project blog showed me that, in Australia, there are communities of agricultural women who care for the environment and build cohesive communities in creative ways. I hope to spend time with these women and groups sharing meals and participating in the day-to-day tasks of running agricultural businesses, such as caring for livestock or harvesting produce. I want to be a part of these kinds of networks not only so that I can learn more about women in agriculture, but also, more personally, because I feel most nurtured when I am surrounded by strong women, working toward a common goal. I hope to experience different types of farming such as growing vegetables and livestock, different approaches to sustainability, and different regions of Australia.

I arrived in Australia in the middle of August and spent a few days exploring Melbourne before moving out to Warragul, Victoria. I will be working with Sallie Jones of Gippsland Jersey for the first portion of my time in Australia. During the spring planting season, I hope to get involved with vegetable farming so that I can experience the seasonal rhythms of farming and connection to the land. I will be guest posting about my experiences on the Invisible Farmer Project blog periodically, as well as on the Instagram account @women_in_gippsland. If you are interested in learning more, feel free to contact me at roryrose3@gmail.com.

Rory starting her journey in Australia working with Sallie Jones of Gippsland Jersey.

Rory starting her journey in Australia working with Sallie Jones of Gippsland Jersey.

jersey truck.jpeg

Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA) Celebrates 25 Years: Reflecting on the Rural Women's Movement in Australia, by PhD Candidate Jessie Matheson

By Jessie Matheson

Jessie Matheson is a PhD candidate with the Invisible Farmer Project based at the University of Melbourne, in partnership with Museums Victoria. She is interested in the cultural history of Australian women, in particular women on the land. She is currently working on her thesis, a history of the Australian Rural Women’s Movement. In this guest blog post Jessie reflects briefly on her experience of attending the 25 Year Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA) Anniversary Conference and shares a copy of the speech that she delivered there on Saturday 18 August.

Longstanding members of Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA) cutting the 25 Year Anniversary cake at the Shepparton Conference Gala Dinner, 18 August 2018. Photo: Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria).

Longstanding members of Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA) cutting the 25 Year Anniversary cake at the Shepparton Conference Gala Dinner, 18 August 2018. Photo: Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria).

The AWiA Conference

The weekend of the 17th to the 19th of August saw the annual Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA) Conference in Shepparton, Victoria. The Conference was also a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the organisation. The AWiA was formed in 1994 and is a non-profit incorporated organisation that is “committed to ensuring that women influence the agriculture agenda” (https://awia.org.au). Over the past 25 years the organisation has had a significant impact in community, industry and government; lifting the profile of Australian women in agriculture.

Inaugural AWiA president Dorothy Dunn launching AWiA at the 1993 Tallangata Women on Farms Gathering. Photo: this photo was displayed in the conference foyer during the AWiA conference weekend, 17-19 August 2018.

Inaugural AWiA president Dorothy Dunn launching AWiA at the 1993 Tallangata Women on Farms Gathering. Photo: this photo was displayed in the conference foyer during the AWiA conference weekend, 17-19 August 2018.

AWiA have represented a community of women who have sought to change the national narratives surrounding rural women. In the story of the Australian Rural Women’s Movement, the AWiA holds a crucial position, connecting rural women with government, globalising the movement, and fostering a community of support amongst its members. The AWiA has always had its eyes set firmly on the future of women in agriculture, however, the 2018 Conference also represented an opportunity to reflect on how far they have come, not just as an organisation, but as a vital part of a globally significant movement. Walking through the historical display of timelines and photos that was afforded pride of place in the foyer was an apt reminder of the strength and value of rural women working together to support one another.

A photo depicting founding AWiA members Lynett Griffith, Dorothy Dunn and Cathy McGowan in 1994. Photo: this photo was displayed in the conference foyer during the AWiA conference weekend, 17-19 August 2018.

A photo depicting founding AWiA members Lynett Griffith, Dorothy Dunn and Cathy McGowan in 1994. Photo: this photo was displayed in the conference foyer during the AWiA conference weekend, 17-19 August 2018.

The 25 Year Anniversary conference was a testament to the importance of women in agriculture working together, and the strength of women on the land. It was also a lot of fun! Some highlights for me included the chance to hear from some of the impressive women who have loomed large throughout my own research including Cathy McGowan, Val Lang and Elaine Paton. Particularly exciting was Margaret Alston’s and Alana Johnson’s inspiring reminder of the founding principles which have informed past battles, and that will be taken by AWiA into the future; ‘recognition, representation and rights’. In an address at the Gala Dinner, Alana Johnson reflected:

I think there’s absolute commitment by both men and women, that involving women in the agricultural sector is a critical part to our future. So I think we can feel really hopeful, that all you young women will take your rightful place there. And we can thank the work of Australian Women in Agriculture for this.
Jessie mingling with conference delegates at the Friday night opening cocktail event held at the Shepparton Motor Museum. Photo (left to right): Jessie Matheson (PhD, Invisible Farmer Project, University of Melbourne), Laura Coady (PhD, Invisible Farmer Project, Monash University), Maria Brown-Shephard (AWiA Board Member) and Alana Johnson (AWiA Founding Member), Photo: Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria).

Jessie mingling with conference delegates at the Friday night opening cocktail event held at the Shepparton Motor Museum. Photo (left to right): Jessie Matheson (PhD, Invisible Farmer Project, University of Melbourne), Laura Coady (PhD, Invisible Farmer Project, Monash University), Maria Brown-Shephard (AWiA Board Member) and Alana Johnson (AWiA Founding Member), Photo: Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria).

It was a real honour to be invited to speak alongside such amazing women at this incredible event, reflecting on the history of Australian rural women, and the ways in which the work of AWiA continues to be of vital significance. Below is an edited copy of the speech I gave on the Saturday morning of the Conference, in a morning session shared with titled, ‘Looking Back at Australian Women in Agriculture?  For a full conference program, click here.

 

‘Domestic Duties’: Why the ways in which women’s work is defined matters

Hello, my name is Jessie Matheson and I am a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, in partnership with Museums Victoria. Firstly, I want to thank you for welcoming me here today, I am in awe of what is achieved at these events and the powerful role you have all played in Australian agriculture. I’m particularly excited to be speaking to you all here, I was born in Shepparton, and I can’t think of a better place to celebrate the achievements of women in Agriculture.

The Shepparton Fruit Preserving Co, circa 1930. Image: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/2317

The Shepparton Fruit Preserving Co, circa 1930. Image: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/2317

My PhD is on the history of the Australian Rural Women’s Movement- a daunting topic considering I am proposing to write a history that you all have, and are, living! For those that might not be familiar with the term “Rural Women’s Movement”, what I’m referring to here is the amazing groundswell of rural women’s activism and activity that began in the 1980s-1990s in Australia, seeking to recognise and encourage the incredible and vital work women are doing, and have been doing on the land for generations.

An image from the Rural Women's Movement: women at a welding workshop during the 1994 Glenormiston Women on Farms Gathering, Victoria, Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/4342

An image from the Rural Women's Movement: women at a welding workshop during the 1994 Glenormiston Women on Farms Gathering, Victoria, Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/4342

Some examples of this include; the vital role women played in the Landcare movement, the formation of the Rural Women’s Network in 1986, the Women on Farms Gatherings which began in Warragul in 1990, and, of course, the formation of Australian Women in Ag, 25 years ago! For the next few years I will be using as well as helping to build archives that document this work. This includes the archives of the Australian Women in Agriculture, and the recording of oral histories, both of which are going to be crucial to constructing a picture of the movement.

A significant publication during the Rural Women's Movement: the Victorian Rural Women's  Network  Magazine, 1989. To read more about the Rural Women's Network, check out this interview with early founders of the Network Anna Lottkowitz and Jenni Mitchell:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/14503

A significant publication during the Rural Women's Movement: the Victorian Rural Women's Network Magazine, 1989. To read more about the Rural Women's Network, check out this interview with early founders of the Network Anna Lottkowitz and Jenni Mitchell: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/14503

I’m so excited to be doing this work. I’m deeply passionate about women’s history, and I truly believe heritage and historical context are crucial when telling any story. The Rural Women’s Movement is a great example of that. It was, and is, incredible because of what it was responding to, and the context within which it emerged. I thought I’d use my time today to offer some stories of women on the land, because I think they make the fact we are here today all the more impressive.

Henry Haylyn Hayter, Census of Victoria, 1891, General Report.

Henry Haylyn Hayter, Census of Victoria, 1891, General Report.

I wonder if any one recognises this (above image)? It may be boring and benign looking, but it is crucial to the history of how rural women have been documented in this country;

 Another important change in the Census tabulation was made in reference to the wives and grown-up daughters of farmers, all of whom at previous Censuses were tabulated as engaged in agricultural pursuits unless some other occupation was entered. Although no doubt the female relatives of farmers, if living on the farm, attend as a rule to the lighter duties of the poultry-yard and dairy, it was felt by the Conference [of statisticians] that the statement that so many females were engaged in agricultural pursuits would create an impression elsewhere that women were in the habit of working in the fields as they were in some of the older countries of the world, but certainly not in Australia. It was therefore decided not to class any women as engaged in agricultural pursuits except those respecting whom words were entered expressing that they were so occupied, the others to be classed in the same way as other women respecting whom no employment was entered - under the head of Domestic Duties.

This mouthful was written by a man named Henry Haylyn Hayter in 1891, justifying the decision not to classify farm work done by women as farm work. Can you imagine, in 1891, all the manual labour that those women did? This quote boggles my mind, because he starts by acknowledging the work women do, in fact, he acknowledges that before now- they were reported as working in agriculture. He then goes on to openly advocate for hiding that work in the statistics, not for the good of the women, not for the good of farms or rural communities, but because of how it would make Australia look. This change was made, women were thrown under the bus, in the name of ‘protecting’ Australia’s reputation.

Eloise Vinen hand milking cows at Channel Farm, Nyah West, near Swan Hill, 1924. Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/773890

Eloise Vinen hand milking cows at Channel Farm, Nyah West, near Swan Hill, 1924. Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/773890

What’s more frustrating, is that he succeeded. The myth that women did not work on the land, that the work they did, did not constitute farming persisted into the twentieth century as policy makers, statisticians, cultural commentators, and historians looked to this census data to find; rural women doing ‘Domestic Duties’, whatever that meant.

Only recently have researchers been challenging this. A few years ago, the historian Kathryn M. Hunter had the idea of looking at the local council rates books to fill in this story of farm women and their supposed domestic duties. She found that between 1880-1930 women rate-payers represented between 5-25% of ratepayers in rural shires. 7% of farms here in Shepparton had their rates paid for by women, those women held an average of 204 acres each.

A single woman driving a horse and cart in an orchard in Merrigum, near Shepparton, circa 1910

A single woman driving a horse and cart in an orchard in Merrigum, near Shepparton, circa 1910

Most importantly, when these women paid their rates they would write their profession, and suddenly ‘domestic duties’ became ‘grazier’ and ‘farmer’ or  ‘dairy maid’, ‘milk woman’, ‘apiarist’ and ‘orchardist’. Hunter also found land-owning women who were butchers, publicans, factory-owners, hotel-keepers, nurses, dressmakers and postmistresses. What a more interesting picture, this paints! When women are given space to define themselves we see the full diversity of rural Australia, and the many fronts on which women contribute to these communities.

Women and children working on irrigation channels near Shepparton in the small town of Merrigum, circa 1910-1920. Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/765157

Women and children working on irrigation channels near Shepparton in the small town of Merrigum, circa 1910-1920. Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/765157

We also see that women have been farming this land as long as we’ve been here, that the labour of these women has always been part of rural culture and the rural economy, yet for generations, when the question of rural women came before policy makers all we saw was ‘domestic duties’. Even in these rate books, the notion that women’s work was not farming spread; the rates of land-owning women did not decrease, however, Hunter found that over time, the numbers of women self-identifying as farmers, did.

Aboriginal Australian women fishing in Lake Tyers, Victoria, ca. 1867 Charles Walter. Source: National Library of Australia .

Aboriginal Australian women fishing in Lake Tyers, Victoria, ca. 1867 Charles Walter. Source: National Library of Australia .

The history of women farming in this country started long before Henry Haylyn Hayter. Indigenous women had been fishing and farming this land for generations, and only recently has the work of Elizabeth MacArthur bringing the wool industry to Australia been properly acknowledged.

Author of this novel Michelle Scott Tucker spoke at the AWiA Conference after Jessie and argued that Elizabeth should be a "household name".

Author of this novel Michelle Scott Tucker spoke at the AWiA Conference after Jessie and argued that Elizabeth should be a "household name".

My early research has uncovered countless women in rural communities and on farms doing incredible work in the most impossible of circumstances, like Ellen Kelly, mother of Ned who relied on her family knowledge of dairying, and a sly grog shop, to get by after being widowed at 34. There are other, less well-known people like Annie Smith, a World War One nurse who took up a solider settlement in Victoria, and would trade nursing advice for free labour. She also helped soldiers who had returned to the community suffering shell shock. Or Vera Adamthwaite, from Kerang who joined the Country Party in 1950 and advocated for more women to join politics for decades.

Mrs Kelly and family group outside the Kelly homestead, ca 1881. Source: State Library of Victoria. 

Mrs Kelly and family group outside the Kelly homestead, ca 1881. Source: State Library of Victoria. 

Even organisations of rural women struggled to achieve national respect and recognition. Consider the Women’s Land Army, who created a community of women working to feed Australia in times of great stress, yet were not permitted to march in the Anzac day parade until 1981, and didn’t receive official medals until 2012.

Australian Women's Land Army, 1942- 1945: Source: Australian War Memorial. 

Australian Women's Land Army, 1942- 1945: Source: Australian War Memorial. 

There are recurring themes in so many of these stories; invariably these women face the judgements and prejudices of the State, or even just from what the ‘national cultural expectations were’, but thanks to their own personal determination, and usually with help from their local communities- these women are nothing if not master networkers- they make prosperous lives for themselves, and go on to feed our nation, not just in the literal sense, but in a cultural sense.

I hope I’ve made clear, all these women were farmers- in a number of different senses- and their communities recognised and valued the work they did- yet on a national level, they weren’t recognised.

Case Study: The Mildura Fruit Picker's Case

There is one case in particular which has fascinated me; The Rural Workers’ Union and South Australian United Labourers’ Union vs Australian Dried Fruits Association and Others case, which today is better known has the Mildura Fruit Pickers Case. In 1912 a group of women, in front of their bosses and an almost entirely male court room argued for higher wages. Women’s wages had been fixed at a permanently lower rate since the Harvester Judgement in 1907, now in front of the same judge, they argued that they deserved more for their work. The Harvester Judgement had decreed that men deserved a higher wage because they were required to financially support their family, this legally positioned women as dependents, not providers. When the Mildura Fruit Pickers and Packers took the witness stand they told the court about the work they did on the land to support their families.

A woman and man sorting and packing fruit in Mildura, circa 1905. Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/771247

A woman and man sorting and packing fruit in Mildura, circa 1905. Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/771247

As with the Rate Books Hunter studied, through this case, we get an insight to the sheer diversity of rural women’s work. The women were all members of the Rural Workers Union. They were all seasonal workers, some were pickers whilst others pitted and packed the fresh and dried fruits. Some came from farm families with their own orchids, and this work was supplementing the family income. Others were supporting whole families on this highly seasonal labour. Some lived in town, others on small properties. Some were married, others widowed, others single and never married. They all earned between three and eight shillings a day, it was standard practice that women would be paid 54% of the male rate.

A woman and man picking and packing fruit in Merrigum near Shepparton, Victoria, circa 1910-1920, Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/765101

A woman and man picking and packing fruit in Merrigum near Shepparton, Victoria, circa 1910-1920, Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/765101

As a historian, the documents from this court case are an exciting resource; women talk frankly about their work on the land and in the factories, the difficulty of working outdoors in the Mildura climate, which is something I’m sure many women here are more than aware of, and the expertise required to do parts of their jobs. They refuted claims from the opposing lawyers that seasonal work was like a ‘holiday’ and a way for them to earn ‘pocket money’. Male and female workers testified that they worked as fast, and often faster than the male pickers. They also talked about their families, many of them worked alongside their teenage daughters and most of them had a family structure which relied on their income, like Rebecca Tizard a 46-year-old widow, living with four of her five children in a three-bedroom house, and totally relied on her picking income and the income of her children.

Men and women working in an apple orchard in Merrigum near Shepparton, circa 1910s. Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/11549

Men and women working in an apple orchard in Merrigum near Shepparton, circa 1910s. Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/11549

Ultimately, Justice Higgins ruled partially in the favour of the women. He decided that the women who were picking were doing “men’s work”, and therefore deserved the male wage, however, he found the work of packers to be more “naturally” women’s work, and therefore did not require equal pay. Historians remember the Mildura Fruit Pickers case as the case which legally justified the myth that there was men’s and women’s work, and that women’s work should be paid less.

But I think that by studying the evidence of these women, we see the way rural women work is uniquely unsuited to this division. For starters, who has just one job? Many of these women were at one time or another both pickers and packers, and most of them were doing untold amounts of unpaid labour as mothers, wives and daughters. When we talk about a history of rural women, it’s not sufficient to look at how they define their employment on the census, or how much they are paid. I don’t need to tell you that the labour of rural women is better characterised as an incalculable number of tasks, requiring varying amounts of mental and physical labour, and that their contribution to a family income would be almost impossible to quantify given the levels of unpaid work that is expected of many, if not most women. The experience of rural women teaches researchers like myself that we cannot define work by a wage, we cannot define a home, or home duties by the exterior walls of a house and that we should never, ever define a woman by the job of her husband or father.

Men, women and children sharing the fruit picking duties, Silvan, Victoria, circa pre-1930s, Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/774208

Men, women and children sharing the fruit picking duties, Silvan, Victoria, circa pre-1930s, Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/774208

By the way, the historian Ruth Ford looked into the background of the women who testified in the Mildura Fruit Pickers Case. Despite describing the back-breaking labour of fruit picking and fruit packing, almost every female member of the Rural Women’s Union described their work as ‘home duties’ on the electoral role. This says two things to me; the first, is that just like in 1891 their work was having a real impact, and was being acknowledged in rural communities, but was not being recognised on a national level. But it says something else too, it says that we need to look at what it means when someone identifies themselves with home duties, or domestic duties, or house wife, or farmer’s wife. Because we are talking about a radically different understanding about what it is to work in and support a home, and what is to be a wife.

The Invisible Farmer 

Let’s fast-forward to 1992, to The Invisible Farmer’s Report, the namesake of our project and a real turning point in terms of how rural women were discussed in government. The report argued that: ‘Once broader social attitudes enable the contribution of farm women to be recognised and visible, then men and women farmers will be able to work together to shape the future of agriculture.’ We could have a whole other conference on the findings of this report; it found what many people had always known to be true, that women play a crucial role on family farms and in rural communities. That this role is often unpaid, often unrecognised and often rendered invisible. It called on governments and policy makers to consider the experience of rural women and the debt Australia owes their labour.

Julie Williams, author of the Invisible Farmer Report in 1992. To read more about this report and it's significant to the Rural Women's Movement, head over to Museums Victoria's collections here:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/14509

Julie Williams, author of the Invisible Farmer Report in 1992. To read more about this report and it's significant to the Rural Women's Movement, head over to Museums Victoria's collections here: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/14509

But I wanted to end with one final thought, or, I guess, a question. What do you think of the title, our name, 'The Invisible Farmer Project'? My first instinct was to react against it, I thought to myself; ‘how silly, women have been on our land forever, women have been sharing their stories and forming communities forever, who are we to call them invisible?’ But then I thought to myself that the term invisible does not suggest that something isn’t there, it suggests that someone is unable or unwilling to see it. My work is about making your work, and the work of the women on the land that came before you easier to see, especially to people who may not want to. Easier to see to all the people that were fooled by Henry Haylyn Hayter’s amendment to the census almost 100 years before the first Australian Women in Agriculture Conference, 99 years before the Invisible Farmer Report. 

A powerful visual demonstration of "invisibility" and what happens if you type the words "Australian Farmer" into Google in 2018 - the majority of images representing men. This slide was taken from a previous presentation by Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria, Invisible Farmer Project).

A powerful visual demonstration of "invisibility" and what happens if you type the words "Australian Farmer" into Google in 2018 - the majority of images representing men. This slide was taken from a previous presentation by Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria, Invisible Farmer Project).

A small sample of stories/images that have been collected thus far by the Invisible Farmer Project, aiming to make women's stories and histories more visible. This slide was taken from a previous presentation by Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria, Invisible Farmer Project).

A small sample of stories/images that have been collected thus far by the Invisible Farmer Project, aiming to make women's stories and histories more visible. This slide was taken from a previous presentation by Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria, Invisible Farmer Project).

I would urge you all to consider the ways in which you define your work, and the work of others, and imagine what it could mean to the future generations of women on the land, and also to the men and women who determine national rural policies. I would urge you all to continue the work you are doing, to force people to recognise the work rural women everywhere are doing to sustain our communities and feed our country.

Women participating in a tour during the 25 Year AWiA Conference, 19 August 2018.

Women participating in a tour during the 25 Year AWiA Conference, 19 August 2018.

I would like to end by asking a favour of all of you; I’ve begun my research by focussing on the context in which the Rural Women’s Movement emerged. My next work will be to collaborate with the women involved to determine the ways in which the Movement was important to them, to you. If you were involved in the Movement, what does it mean to you? What was it that spoke to you, as a woman on the land? Was it the work of the Women on Farms Gatherings and their focus on upskilling, or succession planning? Was it Landcare, and what it expressed about the importance of sustainability or political action? Was it drought policy, which I’m sure is on many of your minds at the moment? Is it something I haven’t even thought of?

Women on a tour at the 1994 Glenormiston Women on Farms Gathering, Source: Museums Victoria. 

Women on a tour at the 1994 Glenormiston Women on Farms Gathering, Source: Museums Victoria. 

I hope I’ve shown today that the stories of rural women are not always in the documents left behind, that the work we are doing on this project is about preserving your stories, and what’s important to you, for future generations.

Finally, I want to congratulate you. I said at the beginning of this presentation that I am in awe of everything the women in this room have achieved and I would like to reiterate that now. The Australian Rural Women’s Movement was unprecedented, and had global implications. This weekend is a celebration of that, and a promise to direct that creative energy towards the next 25 years, and the challenges they will bring, and I am so very grateful for your time.

 

Get in touch

Were you involved with the Rural Women's Movement? Do you have a story that you would like to share with Jessie? If so, please get in touch with her using the below form:

 

Name *
Name
*If you would like to submit your story confidentially, feel free to use a pseudonym

 

Works Cited

 Hayter, Henry Heylyn Census of Victoria, 1891, General Report (Melbourne, 1893)

Williams, Julie ‘The Invisible Farmer- a summary report on Australian farm women’ (Canberra, 1992)

Ford, Ruth. “‘I Am Not Satisfied’: Identity, Unionism and Rural Women’s Labour in 1912 Australia.” History Australia 2, no. 1 (2005): 1–12.

Grimshaw, Patricia, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath, and Marian Quartly. Creating a Nation. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1994.

Hunter, Kathryn M. “The Drover’s Wife and the Drover’s Daughter: Histories of Single Farming Women and Debates in Australian Historiography.” Rural History 12, no. 2 (2001): 179–94.

Lake, Marilyn. “Annie Smith: ‘Soldier Settler.’” In Double Time: Women in Victoria - 150 Years, edited by Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly, 297–305. Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1985.

———. “The Trials of Ellen Kelly.” In Double Time: Women in Victoria - 150 Years, edited by Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly, 86–97. Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1985.

Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu : Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident? Broome: Magabala Books, 2014.

Tucker, Michelle Scott. Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018.

White, Kate. “Vera Adamthwaite: A Countrywoman in Politics.” In Double Time: Women in Victoria - 150 Years, edited by Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly, 431–37. Ringwood, 1985. 

"A Rewarding Career in Ag'": Rayali Banerjee

Rayali Banerjee was born in India and spent her childhood in Malaysia and Singapore before her family moved to Australia in 2003. Rayali became fascinated by farming and agriculture whilst travelling in rural India at the age of 13. She went on to study a double degree in Agricultural Sciences and Business at La Trobe University (Melbourne) and is now pursuing a career in Australian agriculture. She is currently working as a graduate Analyst in the Regional and Agribusiness Banking segment at Commonwealth Bank. In this blog post Rayali reflects on what she learnt during her travels through India, her experiences of studying Ag at University and working in the Ag sector, along with the challenges and highlights of coming from a non-farming background. She also leaves her readers with a call to action and encourages YOU to get in touch if you have further questions about pursuing a career in Ag.

Rayali Banerjee on a farm in Temora, New South Wales.

Rayali Banerjee on a farm in Temora, New South Wales.

Dear readers,

My name is Rayali Banerjee and I have just completed a double degree in Agricultural Sciences and Business at La Trobe University, Bundoora. I was approached by the college of Science, Health and Engineering to share my story regarding my motivations for undertaking a degree in Agriculture (Ag), the challenges I faced not being from a farming background and the opportunities I chased that allowed me to kick-start a rewarding career in Ag.

My Background and Journey into Studying Agriculture

To give you a bit of a background about myself, I was born in India then moved to Malaysia with my family and lived in Kuala Lumpur for 2 years. My family then moved to Singapore and we lived there for 6 years before moving to Melbourne in 2003. Growing up in Singapore and Malaysia I had a childhood that was predominantly "urban" due to the fact that I was surrounded by concrete jungles and high-rise apartments. I certainly did not grow up on a farm, however I was drawn to nature and animals from a young age and remember dragging my parents along to playgrounds and interacting with wildlife at the local zoo or beach. 

Rayali enjoying an outdoor park in Singapore as a toddler.  

Rayali enjoying an outdoor park in Singapore as a toddler.  

Although I didn't grow up on a farm, agriculture and its challenges have been a part of my life from a young age. I was thirteen when my family took me on a trip to visit my grandparents in Kolkata, India. I remember driving through the countryside on a hot summer’s day to visit some temples (places of worship) when my family stopped to visit a farming community on the way. The images of huts made from straw and clay, wooden beds and lack of infrastructure are still vivid in my memory.

A photo taken in Kolkata, India, showing Rayali (left) holding a baby goat. "This is where it all began", recalls Rayali, "I had my first interactions with farmers in this village, and spoke to them about the farming challenges that they faced." 

A photo taken in Kolkata, India, showing Rayali (left) holding a baby goat. "This is where it all began", recalls Rayali, "I had my first interactions with farmers in this village, and spoke to them about the farming challenges that they faced." 

As a curious thirteen year old, I questioned some of the farmers about their livelihoods. These farmers spoke to me about their sorrows and desperation they faced trying to save their crops from pests, disease and drought. They mentioned that they did not have access to basic Ag inputs, farm management knowledge and government funding to sustain their livelihoods and feed their families.

This phenomenon led me to ask many questions throughout my teenage years including: how is it that in Australia we always have access to fresh food? How did some of the poorest farmers in India support their families and work towards addressing the nation’s food insecurity issues? How is it that farmers who are unable to sustain their own livelihoods were the happiest and most giving people I had met? When it came to choosing a degree at the end of year 12, I knew I had to study something that allowed me to apply my curious and innovative mind-set and nurture my passion for supporting farmers, the environment and animals.

"This is one of my granddad in his home in Kolkata sharing his wisdom with me. My granddad (and grandmother) is one of my biggest sources for my inspiration and he is currently helping me grow one of my start-ups, even at the age of 81!"  

"This is one of my granddad in his home in Kolkata sharing his wisdom with me. My granddad (and grandmother) is one of my biggest sources for my inspiration and he is currently helping me grow one of my start-ups, even at the age of 81!"
 

"This photo was taken in front of my grandparents house. The man with all the plastic goods on the bicycle does his rounds selling his product everyday in my grandparents neighbourhood."

"This photo was taken in front of my grandparents house. The man with all the plastic goods on the bicycle does his rounds selling his product everyday in my grandparents neighbourhood."

My mum found the double degree at La Trobe and after speaking with Peter Sale (previous Ag Science course coordinator) at the La Trobe open day, I was convinced that the double degree was the best option for me. An aspect of the degree which appealed to me was the 3-month work experience component which equips students with vital hands-on experiences. I remember that on my first day of University I was so excited to get to class that I forgot which buses and trains I needed to take to get there! Luckily, I left three hours before my class began and made it just in time.

A photo during Rayali's studies at La Trobe University: "This photo shows a stall that I set up at La Trobe. Along with my course co-ordinator and professors, I attended the La Trobe open day where I was speaking to students from year 10-12 about careers in Ag and advocating for the Ag Science degree at La Trobe (one of the best ones going around)!"

A photo during Rayali's studies at La Trobe University: "This photo shows a stall that I set up at La Trobe. Along with my course co-ordinator and professors, I attended the La Trobe open day where I was speaking to students from year 10-12 about careers in Ag and advocating for the Ag Science degree at La Trobe (one of the best ones going around)!"

Looking back, the first year of Uni was the hardest as I had big goals that I wanted to achieve but those goals seemed distant as I struggled to understand basic Ag concepts. When I spoke to my peers who had grown up on farms, they were always on top of the content and through many discussions it became evident that coming from a farm helped immensely. However, I did not let this stop me and although I did not know it at the time, I believe with the benefit of hindsight that coming from a non-farming background was actually the biggest advantage I had.
 

Agricultural Work Experience in Bangalore, India

Throughout first year, I was knocked back from several internships so I began to brain storm ways in which I could turn my adversities into opportunities. I thought about the reason I wanted to study Ag which is my passion for enhancing the livelihoods of farmers. To act on this passion, I liaised with the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India who accepted me as a student intern and allowed me to have the experience of a lifetime. Upon arriving in Bangalore and working with farmers, I immediately noticed that not much had changed. Farmers still did not receive funding from the government and lacked basic farm management skills.

Rayali whilst interning with the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India. Here she learns how to till soil manually with a local farming group.

Rayali whilst interning with the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India. Here she learns how to till soil manually with a local farming group.

Rayali sharing some chocolate with a local boy in Bangalore, India.

Rayali sharing some chocolate with a local boy in Bangalore, India.

I worked with a senior agronomist who provided agronomy services to thousands of farmers and this meant he did not have time to advocate for farmers’ rights. This fuelled my motivation to make a difference in the lives of as many farmers as I could reach. I worked 14 hour days, seven days a week to put my plan into action. I compiled research and travelled to many parts of Bangalore to speak to local governments regarding funding, I conducted industry workshops to empower farmers to start selling their produce nationally and internationally and worked with agronomists to generate integrated pest management (IPM) programs.

"The village Panchpir where I was working with smallholder farmers. In this photo, I had just bought the kids some chips and chocolate (shop pictured behind us)."

"The village Panchpir where I was working with smallholder farmers. In this photo, I had just bought the kids some chips and chocolate (shop pictured behind us)."

   
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  "This is an innovative version of a pesticide sprayer made from an old scooter", says Rayali. 

"This is an innovative version of a pesticide sprayer made from an old scooter", says Rayali. 

It was such a thrill to see that my hard work started to pay off during and after my work in Bangalore; many farmers began to successfully implement and see reduction in pest populations; they also began to sell outside local markets and secure funding from their local government for basic Ag inputs such as pesticide sprayers and fertilizers. This experience was exhilarating, rewarding and fulfilling. As well as the direct Ag work, I also enjoyed being able to work with younger Bangalore students and help to teach them English in the classroom, as well as sharing stories with this younger generation about farming in both Australia and Bangalore. It was an amazing overseas internship opportunity and I learnt a lot.

Rayali teaching students English in a classroom in Bangalore.

Rayali teaching students English in a classroom in Bangalore.

The power of networking and persisting despite setbacks 

Once I arrived back in Australia, I took the energy and inspiration that this project had given me and decided to do something meaningful with it. I knew I still had a long way to go to develop and nurture my leadership skills and experiences in the Ag industry and I wanted to gain more experience to implement this. I applied for an internship with a multinational (MNC) company (Syngenta) that I had been following for a few years. I took the knowledge I had and thoroughly prepared for the interview. I found out a few weeks later that I did not get through and although it was another setback, I immediately started brainstorming ways I could create an opportunity with this company.

I had been following a senior leader who worked for Syngenta on social media for a while and although he was based in Singapore at the time, he was attending a conference in Melbourne and I jumped with joy as I thought I had finally figured out a way to meet him. The next barrier to entry was that the conference entry was $2500 USD. However, I did not allow this to be a barrier and I picked up the phone and called the company who were organising the event. They were based in New York and Hong Kong and so that involved a lot of late nights, emails and persistence. I was finally given the opportunity to attend this conference where I would be amongst Australian and international leaders in agribusiness, members of the government and producers.

Rayali believes that conferences and public Ag events provide a great opportunity for networking and career growth. Image taken at an Intercollegiate Meat Judging Association (ICMJ) event that Rayali competed in. 

Rayali believes that conferences and public Ag events provide a great opportunity for networking and career growth. Image taken at an Intercollegiate Meat Judging Association (ICMJ) event that Rayali competed in. 

Throughout the day of the conference, I had the opportunity to listen to inspiring, funny and insightful panel speakers. I remember during the first break I was looking around at a room full of CEO’s and thinking “how do I approach someone so successful without anything to offer?” To overcome my thoughts and insecurities, I pictured the big goals I had in my mind and I took a leap of faith and approached the Managing Director of a successful Australian agribusiness. The conversation I had ended up being one of the most important to date.

During the next few breaks, I spoke to almost everyone who attended the conference and through my conversations with the attendees, I realised that my passion and my willingness to go above and beyond was my strongest asset. Attending this conference was a turning point for me as I met some of my most inspiring mentors here. During the conference, I wrote down every piece of information I was given and afterwards, I followed up with all the connections I made. Because of my persistence and willingness to step out of my comfort zone, I was given the opportunity to undertake an internship with a Melbourne based agribusiness and the MNC that had knocked me back just a few months prior.

Part of Rayali's work experience and internship: "Here I'm immersing myself in beekeeping. On a side note,   did you know that 65% of agricultural production in Australia depends on pollination by European honeybees and that one in every three mouthfuls of food that we consume comes from the aid of pollination by honeybees!" 

Part of Rayali's work experience and internship: "Here I'm immersing myself in beekeeping. On a side note, did you know that 65% of agricultural production in Australia depends on pollination by European honeybees and that one in every three mouthfuls of food that we consume comes from the aid of pollination by honeybees!" 

During my time working with the Melbourne based business, goFARM,go I had some amazing hands-on experiences on farms and spent a lot of time with beekeepers, biosecurity officers, farmers and on the company farms that grew grains (wheat and barley).  My work was wide and varied; I researched and investigated potential investment opportunities in the apiculture industry; I learnt about bee keeping and visited apiculture farms; developed an understanding of agricultural asset management, due diligence and return potentials for various high value cash crops; generated cash flow and predictive models relating to current and future investments; managed goFARM's relationship with leading apiculture professionals and provided recommendations and strategies for investment opportunities in apiculture to senior board members and stakeholders. 

Part of Rayali's work experience and internship involved visiting lots of farms, including grain farms: "grain bags filled with grain right after harvest has finished. Grain bags are suited for short-term, high volume grains to assist with harvest logistics."

Part of Rayali's work experience and internship involved visiting lots of farms, including grain farms: "grain bags filled with grain right after harvest has finished. Grain bags are suited for short-term, high volume grains to assist with harvest logistics."

During my internship I always had access to senior management and worked in an environment where I was encouraged to make the project I was given my own. I was supported to travel, visit farms, network with stakeholders, attend conferences and undertake any opportunity which I deemed would be necessary for the success of the project. I also had the opportunity to present and make my own recommendations to the board. These experiences boosted my confidence, equipped me with essential corporate skills, allowed me to strengthen my networks and make a positive contribution in an industry I am passionate about. Having access to senior management was incredible as I learnt about each team member’s journey regarding where they began their career, challenges they faced and the successes they made from their hardships.

Travelling throughout developing countries in Asia

After this stint, I travelled around Asia with Syngenta and I was able to make a contribution towards Ag in developing countries. During these travels I met some incredible people and learned about new methods of farming. Together with community members and farmers that I met, we worked towards creating initiatives that would enhance the livelihoods of smallholder farmers; an essential part of these initiatives was the time I spent communicating with many smallholder farming communities.

   
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    "This is me with a bunch of smart primary school kids who are ecstatic to have had a system built in their school which will provide them with access to clean drinking water." Photo taken during Rayali's travels throughout Asia.

"This is me with a bunch of smart primary school kids who are ecstatic to have had a system built in their school which will provide them with access to clean drinking water." Photo taken during Rayali's travels throughout Asia.

This travel and work was busy and exciting - I immersed myself in corporate social responsibility projects, flew to a new city almost every day, networked with members of government and the global Syngenta team, learned how to breed rice for varying climatic and soil conditions and implemented apps and created business plans which support the efficacy of data collection in Ag systems. The words that come to mind when I reflect on these overseas experiences are inspiring, challenging and life-changing. 

"Sharing jokes with Naik, a woman who advocates and inspires other women to pursue a career in Ag."

"Sharing jokes with Naik, a woman who advocates and inspires other women to pursue a career in Ag."

Pursuing my career in Australian Ag

After arriving back in Melbourne, I continued to network with everyone I had interacted with during my internships. Alongside this, the inspiring experiences I had with passionate people continue to fuel my own passion for Ag. This allows me to implement my life motto which is to wake up every day and pursue my passion in Ag. I continued to attend national and international conferences, grow my network and strengthen my understanding of Australian Ag by competing in various student based agricultural competitions and gained hands-on experience in farm management through working in dairy, cropping and beef properties as well as on a research farm. These empowering experiences added value to my personal brand and equipped me with essential soft skills. I was able to secure a job before I graduated with Commonwealth Bank in their Regional and Agribusiness Banking graduate program.

Rayali gaining work experience on an oyster farm in Wonboyn, New South Wales.

Rayali gaining work experience on an oyster farm in Wonboyn, New South Wales.

Words cannot describe the extent to which these experiences, leadership opportunities and my academic and professional mentors have inspired me to excel in my studies and supported me to kick-start my career in Ag. Once I had a clear picture and a pathway to my goals, I went from being a credit average student to a high distinction student. Because of the inspiration, motivation and life-changing experiences I have transformed into someone who is constantly seeking knowledge, creating ideas, innovating and curious about all things Aussie Ag. I have found that not being from a farm has been the biggest blessing as I am always questioning the norm and providing solutions to do things differently and more efficiently in farming systems.

Rayali gaining work experience at a cropping farm in Balranald, New South Wales.

Rayali gaining work experience at a cropping farm in Balranald, New South Wales.

Aspirations to make a difference and help others

From a young age, I have undertaken humanitarian work with charities, orphanages, animal welfare organisations and in various other areas. In my spare time, I teach English to Sudanese refugees, mentor young students, travel to developing countries once a year and run different initiatives to empower smallholder farming communities. My humanitarian-focused philosophy has been ingrained in my mind-set since I was very young. This, alongside my experiences in the Ag industry so far, has instilled my aspirations to make a difference in the lives of farmers, farming communities and provide the opportunities I have had to students studying agriculture and any related degrees.

Rayali's graduation in December 2017, La Trobe University.

Rayali's graduation in December 2017, La Trobe University.

I have founded two start-ups because of my personal philosophy. The first is focussed on providing sustainable and affordable electricity to rural communities in developing countries. The second is a national initiative which is all about connecting consumers and farmers and providing students with access to global internships, career boot camps, conferences and mentoring opportunities. I encourage my readers to get in touch with me if you would like to hear more, get involved, take up internship and conference opportunities and fast-track your career in Ag. Even if you are not studying Ag and want to know how to find your own path, or learn more about Agriculture, get in touch with me as I run a mentoring initiative part of which aims to educate young people about careers in Ag. 
 

Rayali on a farm in Temora, New South Wales.

Rayali on a farm in Temora, New South Wales.

Advice to young women considering a career in Ag

Here are the most important lessons I have learned so far. I hope these lessons inspire you to begin your own journey into an area you love:

1.     When choosing a degree, make sure you study a topic or many topics that you are curious about. If you have a vague idea about what you like studying, follow it and take every opportunity to unravel the layers to discover what your passion is. You could start by joining student associations, attending career fairs, networking events and undertaking internships. Don’t study a degree for the sake of it or because it’s what your friends and family want you to do. Do your research, talk to people in your chosen industry and find out about the career opportunities.

2.     When you come across an interesting organisation, pick up the phone and give them a call. Most of you probably have unlimited calls to Australian numbers and you may have minutes allocated for international numbers too. Employers love initiative!

3.     Make sure that you have a coffee with EVERYONE. You never know where it will take you, what you can learn from them, how you can make an impact in their life and what opportunities will come out of it.

4.     It is quite normal to have a vision about life and how it should work out. However, if it doesn’t happen and we have setbacks, we often think of giving up. But life is a test and a trial and tests are not meant to be easy. If you are expecting ease from life and life gives you lemons, make lemonade and do not blame life for that. It is OKAY to fail, fall and have setbacks. When you fail, accept the failure, get back up and work even harder to achieve that goal, because you value the hard work it takes to set yourself on the path to success.

5.     Break down your goals into yearly, monthly and daily goals. When I used to glance over an entire semesters worth of work, I would stress about the quantity of the content. I soon realised that we all have the potential to do more if we break things down. My daily goal was to read five chapters a day but break it down to complete one chapter an hour. After each hour, I would then take a break and do something I love such as tend to my garden, ride my bike or chat to my family. To achieve your goals, you must apply discipline and be consistent everyday. When you begin the semester, plan ahead and strategically write down what you wish to accomplish everyday. Hard work truly works. You will feel successful after the semester is over when you reflect on your accomplishments. Do not be afraid to jump in joy when you have succeeded in something you set your mind on but remember to keep moving forward.

6.     Once you find yourself running forward and progressing along your path, don’t forget to look behind you and help someone else out. Don’t aspire to just make a living, aspire to make a contribution in all walks of life.

7.     Soak up the perks of being a student especially when it comes to attending events, reaching out to your teachers and interacting with leaders and peers in your chosen industry. Do not forget that you are the future of the industry and employers, companies and leaders who are already established want you to flourish to ensure the future of that industry stays successful.

8.     Happiness in life, career, studies and other aspects that you value lies in gratitude so take the time to reflect on how far you have come. Be grateful and make the most of each and every moment. 

 

Get in Touch!

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'My deep connection to agriculture': how 21-year-old Laura Lewis quit her academic studies in Melbourne to pursue a lifelong dream to live and work on an Outback station

By Laura Lewis

21-year-old Laura Lewis grew up on her family's sheep and cropping farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Western Victoria, and now lives and works at Riveren Station in the Northern Territory. She is passionate about the agricultural industry and is currently studying a Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management by correspondence with Charles Sturt University (Wagga Wagga). We would like to thank Laura for submitting this story about how she came to find herself working in the Australian Outback, and what led her to quit a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne to pursue her passion for farming, agriculture and Outback life.

Laura Lewis on horseback at Riveren Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura Lewis on horseback at Riveren Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

I grew up on my parents’ sheep and cropping farm, Nerrin Nerrin, in Western Victoria. I am the middle daughter of three girls. Having all daughters ultimately forced my dad to have a gender-equal workplace – whether he wanted to or not! But, especially as we entered our teens, Dad loved capitalising on his home-grown workforce. Having my incredibly capable mother involved on Nerrin as a role model also shined the way for us to have confidence in our own strength and brains, just as she did on the farm. Mum’s work was limitless and included mustering and working sheep with quad bikes and kelpies, all the yard work from drafting to drenching to rousabouting at shearing and crutching, operating a plethora of machinery for both the sheep side and cropping side of the farm (such as front-end loaders and tractors for feeding sheep), working the paddocks for sowing, and then learning to operate the air-seeder and boom-spray, carting grain with chaser bins and trucks, and spending endless hours on the header at harvest time. We did all of these jobs between the ages of 12 and 18. I remember that, at the time, I didn’t feel all that capable when compared to a lot of other farm kids, and it wasn’t until much later that I came to have a little pride in what we did as kids for our family farm.

 

Laura as a child on the family farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Victoria, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura as a child on the family farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Victoria, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura as a child with her two sister on the family farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Victoria, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura as a child with her two sister on the family farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Victoria, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

When I finished high school in 2015, my favourite subjects were English Literature, Music and French. I felt that I had two distinct sides of myself each pulling me in a different direction for my future – my love for language and my deep connection to agriculture. My ATAR score was good enough that I could do whatever I wanted, but I felt that this made my choice that much harder. After hours of emotional deliberation, I enrolled to study a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne and commenced in February 2016. I hated it! I rang my mum in tears night after night, wondering why I wasn’t happy. Not only did I feel like I didn’t fit in, but I couldn’t find any sense in what I was studying – where would this lead me? How could I use this degree to live a life that I wanted? I spent exactly four weeks living on campus at Ormond College and studying the degree. Eventually, in one of our teary phone calls, Mum said to me; “It’s ok Laura. You can stop if you want. You always have a job on the farm if you want it.” So, I deferred the next day and returned home to Nerrin to work for the next 5 months, paying back my parents for the cost of college.

Laura and her sister Alice on the family farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Victoria, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura and her sister Alice on the family farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Victoria, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Frustratingly, I was still unhappy. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. Like I was doing the same things over and over and not learning anything new. I wanted more. My Mum, younger sister Alice and I went on a road trip that June around country New South Wales (NSW). We visited a few friends on sheep and cattle stations around there. The weekend that I turned 19, we were at a friend’s station near Lightning Ridge, NSW, and I was inspired. I decided I was going to look for a job on a station. It was something I’d always dreamed of doing, but never felt like I was capable enough. I didn’t care where the station was and I didn’t care if it was sheep or cattle – I just wanted to try it. I was terrified and doubted myself immensely – I had no experience with cattle or horses or anything like that, and above all, I just didn’t think I was tough enough to handle station work or lifestyle. Nonetheless, I eventually got a job through my parents’ friends on a cattle station called Inverway, in remote NT, as a gardener (with no experience in gardening). I arrived mid-July 2016.

A road trip selfie from Laura's travels with her mother and sister in the New South Wales Outback, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

A road trip selfie from Laura's travels with her mother and sister in the New South Wales Outback, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

A road trip photo from Laura's travels in the New South Wales Outback, Clay Pan, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

A road trip photo from Laura's travels in the New South Wales Outback, Clay Pan, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

I remember my first few phone calls to my parents. They said it was happiest I had ever sounded. And I was! After a few weeks, one of the backpackers in the stock-camp left. I pestered our headstock-person, a girl named Samantha, every single night to tell the manager she needed an extra pair of hands for the next day’s job so that I could come along. Eventually, everyone just accepted that I was part of the stock-camp! And I absolutely loved it. I was learning something new every single day. I was using muscles I had never used before and falling into bed every night exhausted and exhilarated. I learnt to ride a two-wheeled motorbike and a horse, and to use them to muster cattle. I learnt to work cattle in a yard starting with the simplest things like vaccinating, ear-tagging and working the race, and moving up to things like pound-drafting, working the back-yards and dehorning at branding. I had my fair share of injuries, and during that September spent 2 weeks in Darwin Hospital after I jammed my finger in a gate and a cow collided with it, chopping off the top of my finger. It was in those two weeks that I decided to return the next year after the wet season – I knew I hadn’t had enough of the experience yet and, besides, I still didn’t know if or what I wanted to study.

Saddling up at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Saddling up at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Mustering at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Mustering at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.


In 2017 I spent a full year in the stock-camp on that same station. I continued to learn so much and grow my skill-base, including doing jobs such as bore-running and road building. That year, our stock-camp was made up of 5 females and 3 males. It was a great balance, and all the girls stepped up to take on jobs that I had only ever seen done by boys. It was inspiring; every shred of praise I got from our head stockman, Rick, or our manager, Gavin, I held on to for weeks. I wanted to be the best and the strongest and the most efficient at everything! It was tiring but I loved it.

Helicopter mustering whilst working at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Helicopter mustering whilst working at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

The neighbouring station was owned by the same company as us, and we shared a helicopter for mustering, which meant their pilot, Jamie, was often working and living with us at Inverway. I fell for him as soon as I met him, back in mid-2016, but we didn’t start ‘dating’ (as much as you can ‘date’ someone 600 kilometres from the nearest town!) until mid-2017 when he had moved to Inverway to be the overseer. By the close of the year, he and I had been offered the overseer’s position at the neighbouring station. I was incredibly nervous, having only been working on a station for barely 18 months, but I see now that this job is by no means for one person. Despite dealing with the odd accusation of having ‘slept my way to the top’, I know I can maintain that I have enough skills and natural leadership to uphold this position with pride.

Helicopter mustering whilst working at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Helicopter mustering whilst working at Inverway Station, Northern Territory, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

So just before Christmas in 2017, we moved next door (150kms away) to Riveren Station. It is now mid-June and we have been overseeing the workings of this cattle station for over 6 months. I am mostly in the office or bore running, as well as managing my garden (not sure if 2016 me would have seen this coming – back in the garden)! We have a crew of 10 staff; some complete rookies and some who’ve been working in the industry for 10 or more years. I have definitely found this hard – not only from having just 2 years of station experience, but appearing to be in a position of authority because of my relationship status. I’ve learnt to select wisely the people whose opinion matters to me, and to always be able to prove myself if I ever feel the need. Every so often, I get called out to fill in for a yard day or branding, and it’s definitely satisfying to remind everyone, including myself, that I can do this work just as well as the next ringer. Every single day presents new challenges. As with any agricultural enterprise, sometimes we hate it and sometimes we love it. Most of the time though, I just can’t imagine living anywhere else or doing anything else.

Laura with her partner Jamie, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura with her partner Jamie, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

A common daily view for Laura as she studies her Bachelor of Agricultural Business remotely, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

A common daily view for Laura as she studies her Bachelor of Agricultural Business remotely, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Just before we moved over to Riveren, I applied to study a Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management, part time, by correspondence with Charles Sturt University in Wagga. I have just finished exams for my first completed semester, which I had to do at Inverway with my old boss as my examiner, as I’m too far from a remote exam centre! While figuring out the work/uni/life balance has been, and still is, a challenge, I am really enjoying not only stretching my brain again, but being a part of a community striving for change in the agricultural industry. It was actually through one of my subjects that I came across the Invisible Farmer Project and came to be sharing my story today.

Laura captions this photo of herself, 'demonstrating OHS principles in the office'! For Laura, her duties include a combination of office work and outdoor work, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura captions this photo of herself, 'demonstrating OHS principles in the office'! For Laura, her duties include a combination of office work and outdoor work, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

I think that the most important idea I want to share with women through this platform is, to not be afraid. I know it’s intimidating stepping into an industry that appears to be dominated by males – but, in truth, there are women everywhere out here. I was always scared that I wouldn’t be ‘tough’ enough to measure up with the ringers out here, especially the boys. But I am, and you can be too! It’s all about getting through that first step of ‘scary’ and being open to learning. If you always aim to be the hardest worker in the yard, people will want to teach you. Once you’ve started, opportunities keep arising and things happen. Your knowledge and skills and strength, both physical and mental, will compound and grow. Try to have the confidence to start – to make that first baby step, whether it’s asking around for any kind of farm work or moving to the territory as a gardener with a secret plan to become a station hand! Whatever it is, there is an ever-growing place for women in agriculture – make the most of it! I'm sure glad I had enough confidence to make my first step into the ‘scary’. I hope you all will be too.

Laura with two of her female colleagues at Riveren Station, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

Laura with two of her female colleagues at Riveren Station, image supplied by Laura Lewis.

'Mira will always love the land': Reflections on the life of 94 year-old wool classer and farmer Mira Galvin

By Catherine Keneley

Catherine Keneley is a postgraduate student completing a Master of Cultural Heritage at Deakin University. Catherine has a passion for history and culture. She is currently a volunteer at Melbourne Museum and has been working on the story of Mira Galvin.

For over 60 years Mira Galvin worked as a wool classer and a farmer at her family's property, "Coralya", near Holbrook NSW. In this blog Melbourne Museum volunteer Catherine Keneley reflects on Mira's career as a wool classer, her love of nature and her experiences of living and working on the land. 

Ever since I was a kid I have always had a great interest in history, culture and museums. Now as a young woman studying history and cultural heritage I have been able to develop an understanding of the value of history in recording the past, and in influencing beliefs and values in contemporary societies.

Catherine Keneley working at her desk at Melbourne Museum.

Catherine Keneley working at her desk at Melbourne Museum.

Catherine Keneley holding the letter that was posted in to Melbourne Museum from Aileen Spangaro. 

Catherine Keneley holding the letter that was posted in to Melbourne Museum from Aileen Spangaro. 

I am currently a volunteer at the Melbourne Museum.  Through my role with the Invisible Farmer Project with curators Liza Dale-Hallett and Catherine Forge I have discovered a wealth of stories about the lives of women living and working on the land. The everyday experiences of these incredible and resilient women add a human layer to our interpretation of the history of Australian farming and of life on the land. Sharing their stories is so important in highlighting their value as part of our national heritage. These stories also help wider society and people of all ages to understand the vital role women play in Australian farming and agriculture. 

6 months ago at Melbourne Museum I received a package filled with a treasure trove of photos and articles that had been posted into the museum by Aileen Spangaro about her sister Mira. This package arrived in an A4 envelope and contained a plethora of images and a beautifully hand-written letter. I soon came to learn it was an incredible story about Mira Galvin and her career as a wool classer and a farmer.

An array of photographs and newspaper clippings that were sent into Melbourne Museum by Aileen Spangaro

An array of photographs and newspaper clippings that were sent into Melbourne Museum by Aileen Spangaro

As I read the letter that Aileen had written and perused the photos I was amazed by Mira’s story, her role within her family and as a farmer, and the challenges she has experienced living on the land. Written correspondence and phone calls with her sister Aileen, along with researching the physical documents that were sent in to us, has all been part and parcel of this wonderful and inspiring journey of documenting Mira Galvin’s story. Like many other women living and working on the land, Mira has always done what needed to be done and has made extraordinary contributions to her family and to Australian farming.

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Mira Galvin was born on August 24, 1923 to Michael Ignatius Galvin and Winnifred Matilda ‘Minnie’ Josephine Galvin (née Parsons) at “Killarney” 20 miles outside of Holbrook (NSW). They moved to their current family home “Coralya” in 1948. The second of nine children Mira helped her mother with household chores and cared for her siblings. She studied by correspondence and had to ride 5 miles every week to post her homework to the school in Sydney.

Growing up Mira was also involved in helping her family in the shearing sheds and out on the farm. As a young woman Mira was no stranger to hard work. Milking cows, looking after livestock, ploughing the fields and planting crops were all part of daily life on the farm.

“She milked cows and did all the usual farm chores that had to be done daily”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)
Mira helping her Dad (Michael Galvin) harvesting oats, 1952. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Mira helping her Dad (Michael Galvin) harvesting oats, 1952. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

In the 1940s Mira helped her father and her siblings clear scrub land for cropping and grazing pasture. They also produced Eucalyptus oil for 5 years. The Eucalyptus oil would be extracted through a process of passing steam through the Eucalyptus leaves in a sealed tank causing the oil to vaporise. The mixture of oil and steam leaving the tank would become cooled and then  liquefied – the oil becoming separated from the water.  

Distilling Eucalyptus oil in tanks. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Distilling Eucalyptus oil in tanks. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

A talented horsewoman Mira competed in many equestrian events at the local shows in Holbrook and winning best and fairest awards at polocrosse carnivals.

Mira Galvin (middle) with her Sister Joan (right). Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin (middle) with her Sister Joan (right). Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira would always enjoy spending time with her nieces and nephews during school holidays. Going on walks through the bush Mira taught them about the farm and to be “one with nature”. Mira’s nieces and nephews have fond memories of "Coralya" - fishing, horse riding, caring for baby animals and learning about nature and the bush.

Rebecca Spangaro (left) with her sister Gabrielle (right) holding a calf, 1974. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Rebecca Spangaro (left) with her sister Gabrielle (right) holding a calf, 1974. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

They would say to their mother Aileen that their favourite memories were of visiting the farm and spending time with their Auntie Mira.

Mira Galvin teaching her niece Rebecca Spangaro how to milk the cow, 1976. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin teaching her niece Rebecca Spangaro how to milk the cow, 1976. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Wool classer

At a young age Mira had her heart set on becoming a wool classer. When Mira was five she would help her father in the shearing sheds picking up wool and putting it into a bale while her father used hand shears to shear the sheep. Later on her father used a machine where Mira would turn the handle around and he would shear the sheep. Mira also swept the floors and was responsible for rolling and baling the fleeces. It was from her father that Mira began to learn about assessing the quality of sheep wool. While women were often not allowed to work in the wool sheds Mira’s father encouraged her to follow her passions.

“Dad always believed that you do what you like and you should be independent”
(Mira Galvin, The Land Magazine, October 30, 2003)
Michael Galvin (Mira's Dad) at "Coralya", 1948. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Michael Galvin (Mira's Dad) at "Coralya", 1948. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Attitudes towards women’s role on the farm never affected Mira’s decision about becoming a wool classer. The shearing sheds were a place of welcoming and Mira says that she never felt disrespected by the men she worked with. Mira began her wool classing course in Holbrook after seeing an advertisement in the local newspaper. She then moved to Henty and to Wagga Wagga where she received her wool classing certificate in 1953.

Mira Galvin receiving award for her wool classing examinations. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin receiving award for her wool classing examinations. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

The “only girl w’classer”, Mira was one of 4 other students out of 200 to pass the wool classing examinations with a distinction grade – her achievements were accredited in the local newspaper (“The Observer”).  Mira sees this as a very significant achievement in her life. Her sister Aileen remarked that, “right from the start her teacher was proud to have her in his class and the other students accepted her as one of them.” Mira’s determination and her supportive family helped her to pursue her passions and succeed in following a career as a young female wool classer.

Some of the roles that wool classers perform include: assessing the quality of sheep wool based on factors such as the breed of the sheep, grade, the length and strength of the fleece and the spinning capacity of the wool. For almost 60 years Mira Galvin was responsible for classing her family wool clip and ensuring her wool would sell at best market value.

Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1980. Photo: supplied by  Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1980. Photo: supplied by  Aileen Spangaro.

Like many other wool classers Mira has held an important role on the farm and has been actively involved in decision-making processes surrounding the management of the family property at "Coralya".

Challenges

Mira has experienced the “best and the worst” of the challenges of living and working on the land.

Mira has experienced first-hand the challenges of gender inequality – one that many women face working on the land. Every year Mira would go to the wool sales in Albury where she would sell wool and complete a refresher wool classing course. The story follows as such:

Mira walked into the room and the teacher said, “Can I help you miss?”

Mira replied, “I am here to do the wool classing refresher course.”

“Well this is no place for a lady”, he said.

She replied, “I will be fine”, and sat down.

When it had finished she went out onto the floor to check the family clip. Almost every man in that class came up and apologised for the teacher’s behaviour and encouraged her to continue classing wool.

Mira Galvin (right), "The Observer", 1953. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin (right), "The Observer", 1953. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

The fluctuating changes of prices for livestock and wool within Australia’s agriculture industry have been difficult issues that have affected Mira’s livelihood and the viability of her farm. The stock piling of wool in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was a significant crisis for the Australian wool industry. The impact of this ongoing event hit close to home for Mira’s family resulting in the shooting of the family’s merino sheep. It was a tough day for Mira and her Mother (who was in her nineties) to watch the men take their guns and shoot the sheep, they were given a small cash incentive for each beast.

Living on the land Mira has also dealt with the harsh conditions of droughts, bushfires and diseases in livestock. On January 25, 1954 (her Mother’s birthday) Mira and her family experienced the worst fire on record. Mira’s Sister Aileen recalls the devastating impact of the fire that destroyed 100 houses and took 3 lives. The fire approached the property on 2 fronts that was divided by the Jingillie Road. Aileen along with Mira and the rest of their family vividly remember the image of the glowing 100ft wall of fire destroying everything in its path.

“It looked like a bar on an electric heater … destroying everything in its wake the shearing shed yards where the sheep and cattle were all burnt, fences, machinery”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

As the fire approached the house there was a “roaring blackness”. Pieces of burning wood sprayed sparks as they went flying through the air. Branches from the willow trees crashed into the creek. Minnie guided Mira's younger siblings up the hill through the darkness and chaos into the house.

As the fire approached the farm house Mira and Joan climbed onto the roof and saturated the house with water. They then ran up the hill beside the house dropping matches to start a fire break burning back to the approaching fire. Mira and Joan then rushed inside to escape the fury of the fire and joined their Mother, Father and 3 brothers and sisters. They held their arms around each other as the house shook and the windows rattled amidst the “roaring blackness pounding the house”. Mira and her family gazed in disbelief at the destruction caused by the fire.

 “…the hens were little black balls on the charred ground, stock lay dead and everywhere others staggered about burnt and dying”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

At the end of the day Mira’s mother sat the family down and made them all a cup of tea. The family would start over again and life would go on.

A woman of the land

Mira Galvin wears many hats - a farmer, a wool classer, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. Mira has a wealth of experience in farming and the wool industry. She is a well-respected member of her family and her local community.  

Mira Galvin, "In a Class of Her Own", The Land, October 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin, "In a Class of Her Own", The Land, October 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira has always been a quiet achiever. Always taking initiative, helping others and doing what needs to be done. In cases of emergencies Mira would be out with the local fire brigade fighting the fire alongside the men; everyone working together as a team and all totally focussed on the job at hand. After which she would rush home and help the other women prepare food and drinks for the men. 

Despite the hardships she has experienced throughout her life Mira has always been positive and resilient.  She believes,

you [have to] prepare for the worst and hope for the best”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

Mira has always done her best in taking care of her family and the farm. Like many other women on the land Mira was just doing what needed to be done.  

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1964. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1964. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

In 1945 there was a long drought. Mira’s father and her two brothers had gone away to drove sheep as there was no feed for the stock at the farm. It was up to Mira and her sister Joan to make sure the other animals had plenty to eat and water to drink. Mira crushed wheat and with a horse and cart carried the wheat five miles to feed 500 pigs. Mira also had to take care of her six younger siblings and look after the household as her mother went to hospital for the birth of her ninth child.

Another major drought in the 1970s led Mira and her younger brother Nicholas to drove a mob of 5000 sheep from Holbrook to the Queensland border in search of feed for the flock. Times were tough for a lot of farmers trying to get enough feed for their livestock. Each day Mira and her brother would go out and see how far away water was – this determined where they would stop to feed the sheep. They used their own feed reserves and then had to rely on the feed reserves available in the paddocks. When the rains came Mira and her brother returned back to the family property with their livestock.

Mira and her brother Nicholas then ran the family farm together.

Mira Galvin working in the fields, "Coralya", 1965. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin working in the fields, "Coralya", 1965. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

“He ploughed all night while she ploughed all day. They planted the crops, shore the sheep and did all the never ending tasks that farmers do”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

In 1970 after 5 years of illness Mira’s Father died at Mercy Hospital in Albury. Mira’s Mother and Sister Joan returned from Albury. Everyone worked hard to look after the family and keep the farm going.

Over the years Mira’s wealth of knowledge, experience and skills have shone through in everything that she has done. Mira was involved in all aspects of life on the farm. She classed the wool, and ploughed and planted the crops. She always checked the paddocks and the livestock for any sign of disease or illness. She assisted with the delivery of the young lambs or calves when necessary.

Mira Galvin (left) with her niece Rachele Spangaro (right) drenching the sheep, "Coralya", 1982. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin (left) with her niece Rachele Spangaro (right) drenching the sheep, "Coralya", 1982. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

At home Mira cooked, cleaned, washed and knitted, croched, smocked and made lovely clothes for her family, including wedding dresses for her nieces. Family members sing her praises for her cheesecakes and the best trifle they have ever eaten. Mira also enjoyed travelling. She walked to the top of Uluru at age 70.

Mira Galvin taking care of an injured kookaburra, "Coralya", 2018. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin taking care of an injured kookaburra, "Coralya", 2018. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Now at 94 and retired Mira still enjoys living on the land, inspecting the sheep and shearing sheds and spending time with family and friends. Her family will also take Mira out with them on the farm to check the livestock and crops.

Mira loves living on the land. She enjoys the wide open space and watching the changing seasons.

Feeling the sun on her back and the wind in her face being surrounded by nature … Mira will always love the land”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)
Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1975. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1975. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Minnie Galvin

Likewise, Mira’s Mother Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin (25-1-1900 – 27-2-2000) is another woman of the land who was important for the success and well-being of her family.

Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin at 95 years of age, 1995. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin at 95 years of age, 1995. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Minnie was described as the peacekeeper in the family. No shouting or misconduct was tolerated. She was a resourceful and hardworking woman who invested all her efforts into caring for her family and the home against the harsh conditions of the Australian bush and having no access to electricity, water, refrigeration or a telephone. She nursed her children through times of illness and raised her family to live in peace and with dignity.

“She was shy but strong and resourceful, cut from the same fabric as pioneer women”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

Like her daughter Mira, Minnie Galvin also wore many hats. Minnie was the bookkeeper and oversaw the farm’s financial management. She arranged appointments and always made sure the banker got his reports. At the same time Minnie kept a nice clean house and made sure that everyone was well cared for. 

Minnie would make extraordinary meals using only a few simple ingredients. Mira and her siblings were treated to golden syrup dumplings (a family favourite), as well as rice custard and beautiful plum puddings at Christmas time. She loved being in the garden surrounded by the bush and nature and cared for all creatures.

Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin (right) at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin (right) at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Minnie was the one who listened quietly to all the talk about the day’s work, as the family sat down for their evening meal.  She was the “glue” that held everything together on the farm and in the home. She lived to 100 years of age and was always there for her family.

Reflections

The Invisible Farmer Project is an opportunity to share the stories of women of the land and to celebrate their contributions to their families, to their communities and to Australian farming and agriculture.

“Women on the land are the silent ones who make a huge contribution to the success of farming in Australia”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)
Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin is an extraordinary woman whose efforts have been greatly important to the success of her family. Her contributions to her family and her community, as well as to the agriculture industry reflects more broadly on the vital role women play for the well-being of their families and for the success of farming in Australia.

On a personal note I would like to thank Mira’s sister for sending this letter and for allowing me to share this incredible story about Mira. It is wonderful to learn about the stories of the amazing women who live and work on the land. I encourage others to share their stories with the Invisible Farmer Project so we can learn more about the role of women on the land and how important they are to the success of Australian farming and agriculture.

'Something Magical about Farming': 24-year-old Emily Mueller of Glenbrook Dairy, Murray Bridge, South Australia

By Catherine Forge (Curator, Invisible Farmer Project, Museums Victoria) with Emily Mueller (Farmer, Murray Bridge, South Australia)

Industry: Dairy farming
Name of enterprise: Glenbrook Dairy
Location: Murray Bridge, South Australia

Emily Mueller photographed by Catherine Forge, Murray Bridge, South Australia, Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2243774

Emily Mueller photographed by Catherine Forge, Murray Bridge, South Australia, Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2243774


Emily's Story:

‘I’ve been around farming my whole life so it’s second nature to me… I guess it’s hard to get it out of your blood when you’ve been around it so long… I’m just passionate about the farm.’

24-year-old Emily Mueller [nee Miegel] was born in Murray Bridge, South Australia, in 1994 and spent her childhood and teenage years growing up in Coonalpyn and Murray Bridge with her family. Emily’s family were livestock and grain farmers, and Emily reflects that farming was in her blood from a young age. As a child and teenager Emily worked both indoors, and outdoors. 'I have fond memories in the shearing shed and being in the piggery doing daily duties', she recalls: 'The best part of living on the farm was walking up through the paddock to Grandma's house to do some baking, and I also loved tractor rides with my Dad, and having little lambs to look after.'

Young Emily and her brother with lambs on the family farm, image supplied.

Young Emily and her brother with lambs on the family farm, image supplied.

Emily as a child holding her toy cow, image supplied. 

Emily as a child holding her toy cow, image supplied. 

Emily Mueller photographed by Catherine Forge, Murray Bridge, Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2243766

Emily Mueller photographed by Catherine Forge, Murray Bridge, Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2243766

With her passion for agriculture only growing as she got older, Emily was educated at Urrbrae Agricultural High School and subsequently completed a TAFE certificate 3 in Business. ‘I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to be a farmer’, reflects Emily: ‘I guess it’s just that interaction with the land, interaction with the livestock, and just that feeling of being on the farm is an incredible thing. You just can’t put it into words.’

Emily Mueller photographed by Catherine Forge, Murray Bridge, South Australia, Source: Museums Victoria:  https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2243771

Emily Mueller photographed by Catherine Forge, Murray Bridge, South Australia, Source: Museums Victoria: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2243771

Emily holds a firm belief that there's ‘something magical about farming’, and in many ways her own journey into dairy farming has a magical element to it. ‘I always had dreams to marry a farmer’, Emily reflects, and these dreams became a reality when she married her dairy farming husband Trent in 2015. The wedding was held in Murray Bridge with photos taken on Trent’s parent’s farm. ‘We wanted our wedding photos to reflect us’, recalls Emily, and ‘were so happy our photographer was happy to work the farm into our memories.’

Emily Mueller on her wedding day, Murray Bridge, South Australia, photographer: Deb Saunders Photography, Source: supplied, Emily Mueller. 

Emily Mueller on her wedding day, Murray Bridge, South Australia, photographer: Deb Saunders Photography, Source: supplied, Emily Mueller. 

Emily and Trent Mueller on their wedding day, Murray Bridge, South Australia, photographer: Deb Saunders Photography, Source: supplied, Emily Mueller. 

Emily and Trent Mueller on their wedding day, Murray Bridge, South Australia, photographer: Deb Saunders Photography, Source: supplied, Emily Mueller. 

The fairy-tale for Emily and Trent began years before the wedding though, back in 2009 when the young couple got to know each other through a chance meeting at the Royal Adelaide Show. Trent’s family were presenting a dairy heifer named Begonia at this Show, and Emily took a liking to the sweet-natured, mild-tempered cow:

I went up to Trent’s family, and I asked them if I could borrow this cow, Begonia, to participate in a handlers class… A couple of years after she kept coming to the Adelaide Show and she’s become quite a pet to us now. Trent and I both look at her as being a bit iconic, because she got us together in many ways. She’s a bit special I think.
Young Trent and Emily at the Adelaide Show with Begonia, image supplied.

Young Trent and Emily at the Adelaide Show with B