By Lynne Strong and Mandy McKeesick
Lynne Strong and Mandy McKeesick are part of the Art4Agricutlure organisation. As National Program Director and Founder of Art4Agriculture, Lynne Strong is passionate about highlighting the important role of Australian farmers and encouraging young people to become involved in the agriculture sector. In this blog Lynne and Mandy reflect on the unique stories and experiences of young women that have partaken in Art4Agriculture's Young Farming Champions (YFC) Program.
Our Young Farm Champions (YFCs) are enthusiastic young women (and men) with a passion for agriculture. Through workshops and mentorships our Young Farmer Champion program develops them into confident public speakers who are media savvy, highly visible and capable of engaging the community on agricultural topics.
Since the program’s inception in 2011 we have trained 75 YFCs, including agronomists, scientists, geneticists, extension officers, wool brokers, accountants and traditional farmers. Nearly three quarters of these (55) have been women.
We’ve asked our female YFCs to identify the issues and biggest challenges they face as young women in what was once considered a male domain, and here are the top four issues they told us about:
Isolation appears in many forms. It can take a physical form as is the case for Bessie Thomas. Bessie lives and works with her husband on a 70,000 acre sheep station in western NSW, and has recently expanded her family with the birth of their first child.
“My daughter choked the other day and my husband didn't answer the UHF and our landline wouldn't dial out. I had to call the RFDS while administering first aid and later it really hit home how vulnerable I am out here by myself when something goes wrong.”
Bessie is also concerned about social isolation.
“This has only become a battle since having a child. I used to be able to work outside all day with my husband and whoever else is working here, or jump in the car and go and see a neighbour for a drink on the weekend, or take part in things like Young Farming Champions and socialise with other young people. Now I feel tethered to the house.”
With 200km to the nearest town social activities such as playgroup are non-existent.
Another form of isolation is the professional one, experienced by Art4Agriculture founder and director Lynne Strong.
“I spent 25 years as a community pharmacist and one of the things I truly valued was working side by side with other professionals as committed as me to providing the community with the knowledge to lead healthy lifestyles. Every day was an opportunity to talk to people and hear their stories and provide advice where needed. In 2000, I came back to the farm. As a sixth generation farmer I was struck by how isolated I felt. I only lived 10 minutes from the nearest town of 20,000 people and the closest city was 45 minutes away yet I struggled to identify my tribe and feel like I was part of a collective.”
Young women like Anika Molesworth feel that global issues such as climate change have a significant impact on their lives and their futures. Home for Anika is an arid sheep station near Broken Hill, yet she spends much of her time in Cambodia and Laos researching a PhD, which is looking at optimising soil fertility in water constrained environments.
“Knowing the region, I hold dear, the far west of NSW, is going to become hotter and drier with more frequent and intense dust storms drives me to build resilience and sustainability into our farm model. I see climate change as a driver for farmers to equip themselves with the best skills and knowledge to ensure a bright farming future.”
Anika’s actions speak louder than her words. In 2015 she and fellow YFC Joshua Gilbert were crowd-funded to attend the United Nations Conference on Climate Change held in Paris. Anika is also the founder of Climate Wise Agriculture and was the 2015 Australian Young Farmer of the Year.
Even in these modern times sexism still can make the list of issues facing women working with the land. Bronwyn Roberts has a wealth of experience in the cattle industry. Working beside her father she helped transform 5,500 acres of cropping land into a beef operation by fencing, establishing watering points and building yards. She also worked for years as a grazing project manager officer with the Fitzroy Basin Association – so she knows her stuff and was surprised at the reaction she received when she took on a new role this year.
“Since starting as Business Development Manager for Bar H Grazing I've been asked by three different people if I'm the new secretary! It doesn't really matter but I bet a male my age wouldn't be asked if he was secretary for a medium scale agricultural business. It never really affected me as a project manager but it will be interesting to see if others treat me different because I'm a female manager with a fancy new title and not simply a male station manager like they're used to.”
Sexism can also be unintentional and rather a lack of consideration over something as simple as toilet requirements. Dr Jo Newton, a research geneticist working with the dairy industry, has seen it all ranging from clean, lockable toilets complete with a sanitary bin right outside a shearing shed, to having a half hour drive to the nearest facilities.
“I'm capable of squatting behind a tree (or finding a handy ute to offer cover when no trees are available), however I do find this an uncomfortable experience when not familiar with my host, especially when I am the only female present.”
Communication is an issue that many women have identified with in their daily lives. In particular internet availability, cost, and data amounts. There is probably nothing as frustrating as dealing with our city cousins who do not understand that we have run out of data for the month (“How can you run out of data,” they of the unlimited plans ask aghast) or have had to drive fifteen minutes to the top of a hill, crawl onto the roof of our vehicle and hold the phone at a 37 degree angle to get reception.
Reliable internet underpins many of the other issues facing everyone in agriculture. Sufficient internet speed and data would allow Bessie to open up her social world. It allows Lynne to find her tribe and Anika to connect with people all over the world, which is so important to her studies. It allows Bronwyn, who’s alter ego Farmer Bron is popular on social media, to communicate with those interested in agriculture. And it allows YFC Rebecca Thislethwaite, pictured below, to undertake her PhD on breeding wheat varieties, and collaborate with scientists around the world from the vast plains of the Narrabri in western New South Wales.
At Art4Agriculture we believe partnerships and collaboration are the solution to many of the big challenges in agriculture, an ethos women all over the world share. The challenge is how we connect these women. This was the driving force behind the Young Farming Champions program. What seemed like a straightforward concept at the outset has become a trigger for so much growth and contribution. It lights the fire, then those participants, once sparked, seem to carry their own torch. We are proud of our YFCs – proud of the fact all of them continue to pursue careers in agriculture, proud they advocate on behalf of agriculture and proud of their involvement with the next generation having visited over 210 schools and taken their stories to over 140,000 students.
Likewise the Invisible Farmer Project shines a light on women in agriculture. It’s an opportunity for other women, policy makers and change makers to identify likeminded thinkers and bring them together. Just imagine what we could achieve if we all worked together across sectors, industries and communities to pool resources, pool thinking and pool skills for the benefit of all.
Want to find out more?
Youth Farming Champions Program: http://www.youngfarmingchampions.com/
The Archibull Prize: http://archibullprize.com.au/
To find out more about the young women of the Young Farming Champions Program mentioned in this blog post:
Rebecca Thistlewaite: https://www.agwomenglobal.com/blog/agwomen-rebecca-thistlethwaite
Bessie Thomas: https://www.agwomenglobal.com/blog/agwomen-bessie-thomas
Lynne Strong: https://www.agwomenglobal.com/blog/agwomen-lynne-strong
Anika Molesworth: https://www.agwomenglobal.com/blog/agwomen-anika-molesworth
Bronwyn Roberts: http://leadingagriculture14.topmagazines.com.au/20/