By Tagen Baker
As a visiting research associate for Museum Victoria, and a PhD student in Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society, I had the opportunity to explore the diverse landscape of Victoria and interview and photograph women farmers—to learn from them about their histories, responses to climate change, and how they adapted their agricultural practices to sustain themselves and their families. I wanted to know how their experiences have been similar or different to women in my home state of Idaho, USA. How have women been key agents of change embedded in their environments? How do women farmers provide unique perspectives and contributions to the futures of agriculture and to their communities?
As part of my research process, I asked women if I could photograph them with an item of value. This item opened up a unique opportunity to communicate and learn about the farmer’s lives. The item chosen was not only symbolic as a physical item of value, tangible and necessary, but a portal into a storytelling journey, a symbol of their rich and unique life experiences.
I interviewed, Brialey Brightwell, a berry farmer from Hoddles Creek who explained her item of value was her chainsaw:
I find it quite important because I love getting wood for the fire, but I always had to be dependent on having a man with me who was going to cut the wood. When my husband bought me my chain saw, it meant I could go get wood without having to ask someone to come and help me. I like being independent.
While interviewing Brialey about her item of value, I learned that having wood burning fires in the home were part her family background and culture. She uses the firewood to heat her home, hot water for showers, and for cooking on the stove. Cutting wood from fallen trees on her property was also part of her daily work to maintain the farm.
In the agricultural sector in Victoria, there are many layers of knowledge and forward thinking required to sustain each farm. No farm has the exact same ecology. Similar to Idaho, there is great diversity in the types of crops that are grown and a long history of seasons of drought. All farms require water to survive. Climate change is a constant concern and requires the ability to manage timing and usage of water for the specific needs of each property and crop. In an interview with Elizabeth Mace, a Field Officer for G.V. Crop Protection, she discussed the change of irrigation practices over the last 20 years. At the beginning of her career, 70 percent of pear trees in the Goulburn Valley were flood irrigated. Since that time, many initiatives have been in place to help save water, such as micro sprinklers. She said, “It has made a big difference… you have to have diversity, to understand that water is precious and have to really time [irrigation] at the right time, not just flood irrigating every two weeks.”
Like farmers in Idaho, growers in Victoria have shifted irrigation practices to help conserve water as well as provide a more efficient options to support dynamic growing systems. As noted by Rien Silverstein, a horticultural farmer who chose two aerial photographs of their orchards in Tatura and Orville as her item of value:
The photographs are very symbolic of the changes in the industry, and to come to terms with climate change affecting the micro-systems that are in the farm. In the photographs, you can actually see those changes to the farm, the first image looks like a patchwork of what you can actually do and the other one looks more like a very fine embroidery, because each tree is planted very close together now . . . there is lot more science into growing fruit trees now.
The imagery showcased the changes in the technology, but also how women farmers are embedded in their environments, testing different types of technology and methods that best suit the agricultural processes of their farms.
Throughout my time in Victoria, a strong theme that emerged during the interview process was the support women offer to one another and the importance of neighbours and community. The nearest neighbour could be a fair distance away. However, friends and neighbours provide assistance and emotional support during times of crisis. Sarah Parker, a dairy farmer in the Shepparton area and current President of the Australian Women in Agriculture Inc, shared an experience she had when she first moved onto her farm in 2007, during one of the worst years of drought on record in the Goulburn Valley. Without the feed to support their dairy, they had to bring in hay:
We had fifteen loads, that’s fifteen trucks of hay delivered in one day and a rain storm hit. The hay was sitting upwards, not on its side. We had all this hay sitting on the front yard, along the road, and on the front paddock. The next thing we knew, we had four different neighbours arrive with tractors. We had only been their two or three months and they came and tipped the hay over.
Sarah noted there is a relationship of trust within the women’s agricultural community when it comes relying on friends and neighbours for help and insight. She and her friend and fellow dairy farmer Gemma Monk both expressed the importance of communication and having a stable network of support, in order to conduct business, manage upcoming weather to determine management aspects of the farm such as paddock rotation, and for emotional support. When asked to choose an object that signified their role on the farm, both Gemma and chose their phones, demonstrating the importance of connectivity and communication on the farm.
After completing my field trip to Victoria, it became evident the network of communication among women farmers is one of the most vital aspects for the successes of farms in Victoria. Information sharing is paramount to every aspect of managing a farm, and looking forward to sustainable futures. I am excited to be a contributor the The Invisible Farmer project, because it will be a nexus of information sharing, providing in-depth histories and stories, as well as strategies for securing a sustainable future for agriculture. The project will add another dimension of information sharing, as farmers all over the world will be able to access the stories and knowledgebase unique to Victoria and the women who live there. Although the stories will be distinctive to these women and their lives, threads of commonality will be evident across geographical and cultural boundaries.
Want to know more?
To find out more about the Project and visit Melbourne Museum's Collections:
To view Tagen's photography work, visit her Instagram page: