Let me start off by saying that I, Ash Robertson, am not a farmer; and I was never really provided an opportunity to engage with farmers or the farming lifestyle. While I certainly wasn’t ignorant to the plights of the farming industry, I never had an opportunity to actually confront these issues in any productive or beneficial way. I grew up in the southern states of America, and came to Australia in 2012, so my knowledge of Australian farming practices was minimal. However, that all changed in January 2017 when I was offered a chance to join the Invisible Farmer Project as a curatorial volunteer at Museums Victoria in Melbourne.
Working alongside Liza Dale-Hallett (Senior Curator Sustainable Futures) and Catherine Forge (Curator, Invisible Farmer Project), I quickly became immersed in the world of women on farms. My work at Museums Victoria was varied and required that I peruse photographic collections of stunning farmland, read dozens of community-submitted tributes on Australian women farmers, and listen to hours of candid oral histories. While this project has certainly allowed me to gain experience in museum practice and social media strategies, the most significant and rewarding outcome over the past three months has simply been being a part of such a historic project by helping to shine a light on the stories of Australian women farmers. Working with the stories of Australian women on the land has provided me with some much needed perspective with regard to the farming industry and women’s roles within that space. I’ve come to learn that women are a vital force in Australian agriculture, and that their stories need to be recognised, celebrated, and shared in the public sphere.
Shining a light on women's farming stories:
From poultry and dairy farming to horticulture and viticulture – I’ve encountered a wide range of stories. Throughout my time with The Invisible Farmer Project, I have been fortunate enough to share in the mission and journey of these incredible women by listening to and engaging with their personal experiences of triumph and tragedy. This project serves as a portal through which members of the public can begin to gain an insight into the life of women on the land; and there are many ways in which women’s farming stories are being brought into the spotlight:
ABC Open Tributes: To date, there have been over 70 stories shared with The Invisible Farmer Project through ABC Open. These submissions pay tribute to mothers, daughters, friends, and neighbours who are currently or have previously contributed to the agricultural industry. The campaign ends 15 May 2017, so be sure to get involved!
Oral History Interviews: Since the beginning of the project, several oral history interviews have been collected from women farmers across Victoria, with each story providing a rich, personal narrative of women’s experiences in farming. These interviews will continue throughout the project with an aim to gather and share stories across Australia.
Media Campaign: Invisible Farmer has been successfully launched and shared on a number of media platforms. The project has a strong social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The curators have both been interviewed on a several radio shows and have attended conferences and talks, such as the 2017 Women on Farms Gathering in Harrow.
Women's roles and contemporary issues:
During a site visit through Melbourne Museum’s collections, I was introduced to one of the objects relating to farm women. The object is a hat that was worn by Heather Mitchell, a prevalent figure in the agriculture industry who helped to establish the Landcare Movement in the 1980s-1990s during the Rural Women's Movement. Displaying badges from a number of areas of interest – such as agriculture and community organisations, education, and government – the hat represents the vast number of roles and responsibilities that Heather undertook during her life. More than just an example of what this collection has to offer, Heather’s hat is symbolic of the nature of farm women’s work, which often requires them to “wear many hats.”
The roles of women in agriculture aren’t at all invariable but are rather multifaceted, requiring a wide-range of capacities to fulfil the demands of the industry. Women are working from places as diverse as cattle stations to wild caught seafood operations; they are taking on the demands of their own enterprises, running financial accounts, contributing to their families and communities and often balancing multiple and diverse roles.
By sharing their stories through The Invisible Farmer Project, women farmers have been able to bolster their visibility within the wider community, advocate for positive change in their respective industries, and vocalise their personal hardships. While these accounts certainly highlight individual experiences, there is a sense of collective consciousness that emerges through shared themes, such as recognising the importance of innovation in sustainable farming practices, acknowledging industry hardships, and engaging the community to promote consumer-producer relationships.
From poultry farmer Amy Paul’s advocacy for organics and indigenous farming methods, to pig farmer Amelia Bright’s push for off-grid living and animal welfare, to Tagen Baker’s emphasis on the importance of ecological irrigation practices, sustainable farming methods have surfaced as a truly significant focal point for contemporary farmers. Serving as an indicator to the influence and authority behind this movement is Amelia Bright’s business, Amber Creek Farm:
Being an environmentally positive entity is our highest priority. Therefore running our business and farm using environmental farming principles that increases habitat, sequesters carbon, enhances waterways and water quality is paramount. Consequently, if we are unable to achieve these objectives then we don’t see it as a successful operation.
There are a number of environmental, economic, and social influences that can bring hardships upon the agricultural industry. We’ve heard from horticulturalist Rien Silverstein how climate change has taken its toll on her orchards in Orrvale and Tatura. We’ve learned of the wide-spread impact of the dairy crisis from dairy farmer Di Bowles in her ABC Open tribute. The ripple-effect following such crises often leads to issues in emotional wellness and mental health. Speaking to this issue, Sallie Jones of Gippsland Jersey shared the story of her father’s tragic passing during the dairy crisis in 2016, highlighting the importance of mental health awareness and suicide prevention through a business model of kindness and fairness in the dairy industry:
Bypassing the large milk processors allows Gippsland Jersey to ensure a fair price is paid to farmers, and gives consumers are clear choice when buying their milk. And by returning a portion of profits to the Gippsland farming community, Gippsland Jersey helps support the mental and emotional wellbeing of dairy farmers who may be struggling.
Linking producer with consumer
More than simply a business of supply and demand, farmers are becoming more and more conscious of the importance of connectivity through developing and maintaining links to their local communities and consumers. Through these vital connections, farmers are able to steward to their community relationships and equip members of the community with a better understanding of the industry.
The importance of buying and selling local produce was emphasised in the ABC Open tribute to Pat McPhie, who campaigned for local cheeses to be sold at large supermarket chains. Lisa Sartori of Dirty Three Wines stressed the significance of nurturing relationships with the wider community through hosting a series of Melbourne-based wine tastings, allowing them to share their farming stories and truly connect to their consumer base.
Women are also staying connected to their local communities through their involvement with food movements happening across rural Australia, such as the slow food campaign and connecting with chefs and restaurants on a more personal level. For example, Sallie Jones advocates for getting involved with your local farmers’ market as it is the most convenient way to get to know your local farmers and vice versa. Reflecting on her early experience with the movement, Sallie states:
I was involved in the farmers markets when they first started up in Melbourne; they were a very big place of connection. When I was at university I would sell my Dad’s ice-cream on the weekends, just to have that relationship with customers. People generally do want to support farmers because it’s all about connection, right? People care when they’ve got a connection, and they will share that connection with other people.
Why this matters:
Women contribute to nearly half of the real income on Australian farms, yet their public profile pales in comparison to their male counterparts, with approximately 80-90% of Google images for “Australian farmer” reflecting a male focus. Moreover, many of contemporary women farmers still find it difficult to identify themselves as a farmer. The Invisible Farmer Project wants to redefine what it means to be a farmer by turning the conventional understanding of the term on its head. We want people to recognise that being a farmer encapsulates a wide variety of experiences, duties, and roles – working both on and off-farm, indoors and outdoors. As Liza Dale-Hallett has said, “Without farmers we’d be starving, naked, and homeless!" We want nothing more than for women on farms around the world to show pride in their work and contributions by declaring, “I am a farmer.”
Want to know more?
Read more about the Invisible Farmer Project on Museum Victoria's Collections Online