By Lisa Shannon
Lisa Shannon [nee Stanmore] is a woman of the land - she is a cattle musterer, farmer, stockwoman, businesswoman and mother based near Mundubbera, Queensland. Lisa shared her story with the Invisible Farmer Project in 2017 via a Facebook post. Following on from this Facebook post (which received over 50,000 interactions within the first week), Lisa was invited to speak at a Melbourne Cup Day luncheon in Jandowae. This guest blog post from Lisa is an edited version of the speech that she gave at the Jandowae luncheon. Lisa reflects on her personal experiences in the agriculture industry, along with the highlights and challenges that she has undergone through living and working on the land.
I grew up on “Eurella” Station, near Ivanhoe in NSW. It’s not the type of place that is commonly described as God's own country, unless you come from there. It’s bloody hot in summer. Winter is bloody cold. My Dad’s family has been on the property for over 100 years. That sort of history gets imprinted into your DNA. I no longer live there or call it home, but when I go back I feel a glow of belonging.
My Mum and Dad lived on "Eurella" with Dad’s parents all my childhood. My Grandparents were very traditional. Grandma looked after the family and the house. Grandad did the farm stuff; he was an artificer in World War II so there was nothing he could not fix. When Mum and Dad got married times had changed a bit and Mum was more involved on the farm. Mum and Dad encouraged us to be involved on the farm and when we got old enough it did not seem to worry Dad that his free workforce was 3 girls.
In 2001 I finished school. As my friends went off to schoolies and partied in the city, I went to the Hay Races with some mates and then headed home to help out over the holidays as it was very dry and they were about to start carting water for domestic use. Dad had a broken ankle so Mum and I or Grandad and I would cart water for both houses. Grandad taught me to drive our old red Intertruck and some of the first trips were a bit hairy! Mum and Dad totally destocked the entire place and continued to cart water for domestic purposes on and off for 7 years. They still refer to that period as the 10 year drought.
I started at Dalby Agriculture College in 2002 and I loved it. We partied hard and had a whale of a time. I had 2 jobs, one washing dishes from 6-10pm Thursday and Friday nights, then the graveyard shift from 10 through to close on Friday nights at the seediest pub in Dalby. Pouring beers was not my preferred side of the bar, but a price I paid for my social life! We went on a College tour to the Northern Territory in 2003 and for me it was love at first sight; I was hooked! I applied for and was awarded a cadetship with Heytesbury Beef at Anthony Lagoon Station on the Barkley Tablelands and started there in February 2004.
Our stock camp was made up of 4 girls and 4 boys, which was a pretty common mix. I was determined to learn as much as I could from whoever I could. I guess my eagerness sometimes made me come across a bit pushy! I loved station life and relished the comradery and mateship in our camp.
I learnt to ride a horse when I was growing up, but the sort of riding we were doing in the camp was totally different from anything I was used to. Daylight till dark mustering, which made you feel parts of your body you forgot you had. I learnt what it was like to really work, and how to work with other people - how to work through jobs I didn’t like and how important it is to do a good job. I also learnt how to work when you were that physically tired that all you could focus on was the task at hand and I got a very good understanding of my own physical and mental endurance. I got some pretty handy skills under my belt like how to operate a grader, a loader, a bulldozer and how to weld.
When I went back to Anthony Lagoon in 2005 I took on the position of Leading Hand. Now this is a position I can say is the top of the bottom and the bottom of the top. There were 6 of us in the camp, no head stockman - just assistant manager and manager. I found the position a bit lonely I guess, however I threw myself into learning all I could and was very well supported by the assistant manager. It was from him I learnt the most about cattle! He taught me how to really look at cattle, how to read and interpret what they were going to do. I learnt about what rush and noise were, where to use it and where not to and that position is everything no matter what size the mob. I learnt how to set up a mob for success and how to position the inexperienced ringers so that the more experienced ones could be best supported. The assistant manager's name was Cameron Shannon. He was adored by the camp and showed us all the wonderful gift it is to have a true leader. Cameron and I remained friends after we left, and today he is my husband.
I moved on the next year and went to the Beautiful Kimberly’s to Argyle Downs station. Then to Yarrawonga Weaco, a Santa Gertrudis stud.
In 2007 I applied for and was given the position of Head Stockman at Quinyambie Station north of Broken Hill on the edge of the Strzelecki desert. Quinyambie Station is 1200km squared. It runs 1200 head of cattle. The manager Paul used to say if you couldn't do something you needed to try it the other way. Work it out and use your head, you have one for a reason. All of the stock work was done on motor bikes, which I was extremely inexperienced at. So ask yourself why did Paul Jonas give a 24 year old girl who could not ride a motorbike the position as Head Stockman on Quinyambie station? Because I was the best goddam person for the job! Not the best woman! Not best man! The best person - I had experience, I knew cattle and I was not dumb.
A few girls came and went throughout the year but usually I was the only female. I got the respect from the camp that I deserved. I worked out I did not have to be stronger or tougher. I definitely was not the best motorbike rider, but I equalled their physical endurance and I could out-think them. I led by example. I always did the best I could do and I expected the same from them. My only challenge came from within the corporate sector of the company as at the time I was the only girl Head Stockman, but I chose to ignore it. I was confident in my own ability, I now believe that small mindedness is an incurable disease!
The desert country is so fragile and beautiful that 20 points of rain will see the ever moving sand hills burst into flower. Names of places amused me, lake poverty and lake starvation! Hot artesian bores watered the livestock and at some of the bores there were bathtubs set up at the pump jack. When we were camped out we could have a hot bath at night. We trucked the biggest bullocks I have ever seen there fattened on the seed of protein packed desert herbage. I did not agree with some of the decisions that were being made in the company office and then expected them to be applied on the properties. So I did not go back the following year, instead I followed my heart back to the NT with Cameron who was contract mustering for AACo (the Australian Agricultural Company) on its Barkly properties.
In 2009 Cam’s contract with AACo was revoked un-expectantly and without for warning. As we learnt later on all contractors were put off, collectively referred to as AACo corporate road kill. We had people lined up for jobs and our plant was all up there we were a bit stunned. I don’t like holding grudges as it’s not healthy but the effect that decision had on Cameron was in my mind unforgivable. If our relationship needed a test just add financial and psychological stress to it!
We could have gone and got another contract I guess but life is all about choices. We already had an interest in a big undeveloped block called “Lorella Springs”. It had feral cattle and scrub bulls on it. We formed an agreement with the owner on shares in the cattle, doing up the fences and getting rid of the bulls. This choice changed my life forever! We moved our gear there and built a camp, with the caravan under a tarp and a half 44 gallon drum as an oven. Later on it developed into quite a palace with a concrete floor and real toilet. I had never worked for myself or had to spend days on end with the same infuriating hot tempered stubborn loveable human being! Who I’m pretty sure felt the same about me! Nothing went unsaid!
We did a few small contracts for private people yard building and a bit of stock work because running feral cattle and bull catching is not an instant money make. The contract had stopped but the financial commitments were the same! We armoured up a short wheelbase land cruiser with sheet metal, tyres and a rollover. We affectionately referred to her as “the Cherry” and she was the first catcher in a number that we had. The Red Rocket and Turbo also had their hours of fame. Cherry and the Turbo had hydraulic arms on them, which was the most valuable part on them - made the bulls easier to catch and didn’t knock them around too much.
Bull catching is not for the faint hearted! I got a very quick stiff education in handling feral cattle and bull catching. Cameron would drive and when the bulls were caught in the hydraulic arm I would put a rope on their horns and we would tie them to a tree, then come back in the goose neck when we had a few and load them, take them back to the yard for educating and ready them for sale. We ran portable yards with the help of a chopper to muster the cows, then educated them with our team of dogs and either trucked or walked them home for branding and more education.
For the adrenaline filled 5-10 minutes it takes to catch a bull and the excitement of running yards, there are hours of hard work before and after. Shifting portable panels, set up wings of hessian, picking up bulls, trucking cows and keeping the fleet of ancient vehicles going.
Our closest place for stores and supplies was Borroloola. We bought our fuel and stores from there and relied on the unreliable post office to keep our mail. Borroloola has a high Indigenous population. I found some of the social issues very confronting. In a town of 1000 residents there was cause to build the town’s own rental unit. The women’s safe house had 13 beds and every night at least half those beds were filled with kids, and sometimes 2 sibling children per bed. Drugs and alcohol are an ongoing concern for the whole community. The Borroloola Campdraft/Rodeo is the highlight of the year for the locals, it is not on the professional circuit so everyone has the opportunity to compete. The skylarking laid back atmosphere is infectious – a very important weekend on the community calendar.
We had Jessie Jane in the Albury Hospital in 2010 while staying with my sister. Cam and I returned to Lorella Springs when Jess was just 10 weeks old. We were getting our female numbers up and selling the bulls and steers to local buyers who were then selling them onto live export. I found this time a bit tough - a new baby, being a new mum, I felt a bit isolated. My role was now different. I had to make appropriate changes so she was safe but so we could still do what we had to do.
Live Export was stopped in June 2011. The ripple effect felt across the whole of northern Australia was unbelievable. We no longer had a market for any of our cattle. This pushed us to look for another opportunity. The property next door to Cam’s parents came up at the end of 2011. So we set out to make that happen.
Beautiful Buckley Shannon was born in April 27, 2012, and on May 20th Cam left for Lorella Springs for a final muster. I stayed behind with my parents and the kids. This was a very hard time for me. I knew what it would be like when Cam got there - flat out. We had very limited finances and the success of our new block rode on the success of the muster.
The muster was a success but Cam’s trip home with the cattle was a nightmare! The cattle were in light condition as there had been very poor wet. He was stopped at Horse Paddock yard Mallapunya with ticks, when he got to Blackall sale yards to sell the steer and Mickeys, the market was bottoming out. I have kept the print out from the sale. We sold 268 head that day with only 24 making over $1/kg the average for our sale was $202 a head. Cam rang from Blackall and both of us struggled through the phone conversations barely holding it together. I have no words to describe that day.
In August 2012 our precious females all walked off the truck after a 3000km journey into their new home foot sore and hungry but every single one of those old girls had what we needed - ovaries! We joined them to some good Hereford and Santa bulls, they formed the basis for our herd today.
Coming home from Lorella Springs was a hard time emotionally and financially. I didn’t want to unpack all my stuff that had come back from Lorella Springs, because that was my other life the one when I was out helping and doing productive things and a part of the show. I am no house keeper and gardening is not really my thing. I guess I missed the freedom. Cam was gone all day for the first 12 months cutting timber so we could try and catch up financially. I worked out if I was going to cope I needed to find ways to be involved.
Cam’s Mum was a big help and after I had Bonnie in 2014 I actually started to get someone to come to our home to help me out once a week with the kids. This gave me a very precious invaluable day. Kids are no short term contract. I love being a mum. That one day saved my sanity! I could pull my head out of mummy mode and enjoy helping Cam in the paddock, or catch up in the office knowing that the kids were safe and cared for.
Our property is light forest spotted gum and iron bark country. There were not many improvements on it. We made the commitment early on to explore every opportunity to ensure we made use of every square inch to the maximum of its ability. We split up our paddocks put in more waters and are continuing to control regrowth timber. We manage our native forest as a sustainable enterprise. Most years its' income equals that of the livestock. We got a fencing grant with BMRG and embarked on a high security fencing project so we could diversify into sheep. We bought a guard dog 'Frosty', our ‘Lambassador’ and trained him on a small mob near our house.
We built a sheep yard instead of going on a honeymoon. Once the sheep arrived in November 2015 we had the driest time since owning our place. Half our cattle went away on agistment and we were feeding our sheep, then when we had a bit of rain. We were tailing the sheep everyday so they could have a feed outside the high security fence.
The drought sucked the absolute life out of me. The relentless when will it rain, why won’t it rain, have you checked the weather? I reached my absolute lowest point, and I was only just surviving. I neglected all my relationships with my husband, parents and friends. I put a wall up and no one was allowed in. The only thing that kept me going was running. My body lent itself more to the couch than the racetrack, but the ability it gave me to shut up the constant chatter in my head was a saviour. I did the South Burnette Leadership Programme in March and realised that it all starts with me. If I want a change I have to make it myself.
In all of that I wrote a Facebook post for the ‘Invisible Farmer’ project. I have asked myself a number of times why write it in the first place? Ego? All those likes on Facebook were pretty good. But it was only the fluff I was writing about, me in a snap shot! I have realised now that I was worried that maybe the person I wrote about had gone. That strong independent girl who did cool stuff and worked on stations and caught bulls and rode motorbikes and ran the stock camp... she might have been gone. If she was gone who is left behind?
That was a bit confronting.
Lisa Shannon is my name and I was not left behind; I have just evolved. Who am I? I am a wife and a Mum, a daughter and a daughter in law. I am dedicated to my family. I am a business woman, a bookkeeper and Shannon family PR agent. I am a passionate believer in the continuing prosperity of my industry. I am a lover of horses and a wanderer of nature. I CHOSE this path. I have never wanted any special treatment just because I am a woman.
Women have played such an important part in the history of our Australian agricultural industries over the years, from the role Indigenous women played in providing food and fibre, to the first settlers, to the Australian Woman’s Land Army in WWII. It’s not like we have only just arrived on the farm; it’s just the recognition has not been there! In the early days the government did not want to have a young Australia appear as a country where women worked in the fields! Until 1994 the legal status for farm women was still “sleeping partner, non productive”.
Today I look around and see young women doing great things and planning for a career in agriculture or farming in every field. BUT I still find the board rooms and corporate sector wanting. On average in Australia’s peak state agriculture lobby groups women only represent 20% of the boardroom. Is the government hearing our voices? Is the consideration made that a woman’s perspective may be different?
Women’s contributions to the farming economy are difficult to calculate specifically! Our roles are so diverse. Apart from direct contributions like labour and administration, we need to calculate the hours of unpaid domestic work, the contribution of off-farm jobs and the value of moral support. Possibly it is we women who undervalue our own contributions too! Maybe we need to own it and start with ourselves and appreciate ourselves for the effort we put in! If women think that they are an unimportant undervalued cog in the wheel of farming then stop doing it all and see what happens!
In the words of Mr Patsy Durack, one of Australia’s early settlers and explorers, “Just where would we be now without the woman folk?’