By Alison Brinson and Ilse Matthews
Alison Brinson and Ilse Mathews are volunteer researchers at Museums Victoria who have been working with curators Liza Dale-Hallett and Catherine Forge on the Invisible Farmer Project. They have come to know Liza and Catherine over the years through their involvement in Women on Farms Gatherings, and through the connections that Museums Victoria has established with this community of rural women via the Victorian Women on Farms Gathering Collection, and more recently, the Invisible Farmer Project. In this blog post Alison and Ilse reflect on their journeys as farmers and their experience of rural women's networking. They also share their journey of volunteering with the Invisible Farmer Project and researching Heather Mitchell's hat.
Flower Farming, Rural Women's Networking and Raising the Profile of Women on Farms
Alison and Ilse have known each other for over 30 years, initially through their respective business involvements in the cut-flower industry. What started out as a purely business relationship grew into a firm friendship as they both became involved in local activities and groups that supported women in agriculture in developing their skills and networks.
About Alison's flower farm
Alison and her husband Gerald set up Peny Bryn Flowers in Silvan in 1984. The farm was a mature protea plantation when they bought the land and over the next 5 years they expanded their protea production, buying new plants from Proteaflora, which is where Alison first met Ilse. Peny Bryn Flowers produced flowers for the florist industry. In the early 1990s they added gerbera cut-flowers to their product range. Gradually, the protea production was phased out, in favour of gerberas. Gerberas are grown in hydroponically, in greenhouses, providing year-round production of high quality, colourful blooms to the florist industry. Today, Gerald and Alison’s son, Owen, manages the farm, giving Alison time away from the farm to volunteer at Museums Victoria and pursue other interests as a woman in horticulture. Alison reflects:
What I love about farming is producing a colourful product (flowers) that gives people joy. I never tire of the sea of colour and the whoosh of warm air on my face that greets me every morning when I open the doors to the greenhouses full of gerberas in bloom.
About Ilse's flower farm
Proteaflora Nursery was established in 1974 by Peter and Rita Mathews and remains a family owned and managed business today, with Ilse and David Mathews at the helm. Proteaflora Nursery is a wholesale production nursery specialising in the Protea family of plants, including South African natives such as Protea, Leucospermum, Serruria and Leucadendron, as well as Australian natives like Banksia and Telopea. The Protea family of plants is an ancient botanical family going back to Gondwanaland, when the continents of Africa and Australia were joined together. Ilse enjoys working on the nursery, networking with other horticultural and women's groups and volunteering with Museums Victoria. Ilse reflects:
What I love about farming is that it connects me with nature and helps keep me grounded. Farming is vital for our daily life – the food and fibre we grow feeds and clothes us, and the plants and flowers we grow feed our soul and help to power our Earth’s “lungs”, with the air we breathe. I am proud to be a part of all of this.
WinHort Yarra Ranges
Women in Horticulture Yarra Ranges (WinHort YR) is one of the main horticultural groups that Alison and Ilse have been actively involved with locally:
We were both founding members of WinHort YR in 2002. WinHort brings together women involved in horticulture in an informal and supportive way around issues that affect them and their businesses. We organise farm visits, workshops and training on topics of interest as well as social events like our International Women’s Day dinner, featuring inspirational women sharing their story.
A major highlight of WinHort’s Calendar is a farm walk or visit, where members come together from a diverse range of industries such as nursery, berries, flowers, orchards, vegetables and wine. These visits are a chance to see at first-hand how the business is organised and operated:
While there quite a few differences amongst our farms and enterprises, we find that we all share the challenges of running a family business, finding good staff, coping with too much or not enough rain, having to work with various government agencies and their regulations, etc. It is always inspiring and fun, and a great chance for our husbands to get out and about and network too.
As well as being a way to organise events or training, WinHort has led to the development of strong women's networks. These such networks were invaluable in 2009-10 when WinHort YR organised two "Pamper Days" for women in the Yarra Ranges area who had been directly affected by the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires. The Pamper Days were a chance for these women to get away from the stresses of post-fire life, share their experience with others and to have some fun, laughter and a bit of pampering and TLC. The local council, businesses and community groups were incredibly supportive.
The Pamper Days were also an inspiring way for women to come together and network on a large scale. One example of this was the support and involvement of one of the “Singed Sisters” from Canberra. This group formed in response to their experiences with the devastating fires in Canberra a few years earlier. They sent one of their members to the Yarra Valley to share her story and offered support symbolically with the gift of a quilt created by all of the Singed Sisters.
For both Alison and Ilse, being members of WinHort has been an immensely valuable experience. Not only has it enhanced their farm skills and opened up wonderful networking opporunities, but it has also been a positive and affirming process. 'Alison and I were delighted and touched when WinHort's activities were recognised by our local council in 2015 on Australia Day', says Ilse. 'It's not often that you get publicly reognised for the things you do'.
Women on Farms Gatherings
Alison and Ilse are regular attendees of Women on Farms Gatherings. Gatherings have been held every year somewhere in rural Victoria since 1990. They are a chance for rural women to get together in a low-key and low-cost way. They provide a forum where women feel free to discuss ideas, share and learn skills, express concern about issues impacting on rural life and enterprises, offer and seek support, create networks as well as to have fun at a workshop and relax on a weekend away from the farm. Museums Victoria has been actively collecting stories from these Gatherings via the Victorian Women on Farms Gathering Collection, which you can read about here.
As well as going to Gatherings in other parts of the State, Alison and Ilse have also been involved with organising a Gathering in their own area. Gatherings have been held in the Yarra Valley/Dandenong Ranges based at Healesville in 2000 and in 2015. Alison was on the organising committees of both of these Gatherings and Ilse got the ball rolling in galvanising community support and establishing the Organising Committee for the 2015 Healesville/Yarra Valley Gathering:
It took 18 months of hard work to plan and organise the 2015 Gathering. We were all pushed to our limits along the way but learnt a lot and were heartened by the support we got from the community, our local council and businesses of the Yarra Ranges area.
Each Gathering Committee chooses a specific theme for their Gathering with a logo and an icon that reflect something about the theme or the local area. The 2015 Gathering’s Theme was “Making every woman count”, and the logo reflected the role of women from several generations involved in vineyards and horticulture generally:
Our icon was a humorous play on the word “count”, with the beads of an abacus used to spell out our theme and location – Yarra Ranges, 2015. We were proud to have the abacus and other significant items from our Gathering become a part of Yarra Ranges Museum’s Heritage collection.
The 2015 Healesville Gathering was based at The Memo (Memorial Hall) with the support of Yarra Ranges Council elected members and staff. This wonderful facility was recently renovated and has an excellent auditorium for the more formal plenary sessions as well as informal reception functions. It also has a dedicated a Gallery space which enabled us to showcase all the items that form a part of Museums Victoria’s Women on Farms Gathering Heritage Collection. Due to limitations of suitable space, it has not always been possible to do this at every Gathering, so the Healesville Gathering was a great chance to showcase it in full.
Collecting and Researching Heather Mitchell's Hat
At the Hopetoun Women on Farms Gathering in 2016, Senior Curator Liza Dale-Hallett was presented with an Akubra hat by Deirdre Brocklebank. The hat had belonged to Deirdre’s mother, Heather Mitchell, a former resident of Hopetoun who is best known as the first (and only) woman President of the Victorian Farmers Federation and as the founding co-chair of Landcare Victoria, alongside Joan Kirner. Heather wore the hat as part of her “uniform” in the ten or so years that she was active in the agri-political arena in Victoria, and nationally, in the 1980s-1990s. The hat became the first physical item to be acquired by Museums Victoria as part of the Invisible Farmer Project.
Documenting and researching Heather’s hat so that it could be formally acquired by the Museum was main first task that Allison and Ilse worked on together:
What we found most interesting about the hat is that it has 40 individual badges attached, representing a diverse range of organisations and issues. These badges were a wonderful way to discover the other areas of interest that Heather was involved with during her life. Discovering the story behind each badge helps us to really appreciate what an amazing person she was.
This photo, below, shows Ilse talking about Heather Mitchell’s hat to a delegation from Australian Women in Agriculture visiting Museums Victoria in 2016. Note the appropriate use of protective gloves – very important when handling items from the Museum’s collections.
'What I found most interesting about working at Museums Victoria on Heather Mitchell’s hat was how little was known about Heather Mitchell in the public arena, beyond her role as the first woman President of the VFF and as founding co-chair of LandCare Victoria with Joan Kirner', reflects Ilse. 'Her hat was the vehicle through which we were able find out so much more about her, and the many amazing things she did. She was, and is, an inspiration.'
The main task for Alison and Ilse was to identify the badges on Heather Mitchell's hat and then to uncover any stories about these badges and how Heather had acquired them. In order to undertake their research, Ilse and Alison enlisted the help of Heather's immediate family, and Heather's daughter Deirdre Brocklebank:
Deirdre made available to us copies of newspaper articles relating to Heather, including the many obituaries that were published shortly after her death. Deirdre has also written a personal memoir “Tell Tales. Memoirs of Hopetoun Victoria, 1950s-70”. As well personal anecdotes, the book also includes an extensive and impressive list of the contribution that both her parents made to their local community. These family history treasures gave us a lot of very useful information that made our research work so much easier. Without the help of her family, our research task would have been so much more difficult.
As well as speaking to Deirdre's family, Ilse and Alison investigated public records at various libraries, and used online Google and Trove searches. 'At times we felt a little bit like Sherlock Holmes in our efforts to find out the story behind each of the 40 badges on Heather’s hat', reflect Alison and Ilse, 'in the end we were chuffed to be successful in identifying 37 of the 40 badges!' Alison reflects:
My favourite part of working with this object was discovering the humanity, compassion and humour of the woman behind her public image represented by her hat. I felt very privileged to be able to help bring the story of Heather Mitchell’s enormous contribution to rural Australia to life.
Once Alison and Ilse finalised their research they were able to write narratives about Heather, the hat and the badges so that they could become a part of Museums Victoria’s Invisible Farmer Project and their online collections. They wrote a narrative badges on Heather's hat, and what stories these badges tell, which you can read on Museums Victoria's online collections, here. They also wrote a narrative about the life and work of Heather Mitchell, which you can on Museums Victoria's online collections, here.
More recently, Heather’s story and hat formed part of a pop-up display in the Museum’s Discovery Centre and three of Heather’s children and a grandson came along to see it (image above). 'It was a wonderful opportunity for us to meet them all face to face and share stories about Heather', reflect Alison and Ilse, 'and to share stories of the vital role that their mother/grandmother had played in rural Victoria.'
Want to know more?
- Come and see Heather Mitchell's hat on display at the Women of the Land pop-up exhibition running from 13 October -26 November at Melbourne Museum.
- Read about Heather Mitchell's hat, here: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/15081
- Follow the Invisible Farmer Project on Facebook, Instagram and
- Watch this video, below, showing Senior Curator Liza Dale-Hallett working with Heather Mitchell's hat.