Women on the Land: Entrepreneurs and Business Innovators

 By Kerry Anderson, author of "Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business"

Some of our rural towns are dying while others are thriving. The question is: What can we do about it?

Having grown up in rural Victoria as part of a small business family, the importance of supporting local businesses and encouraging new enterprises has always been clear to me.  Sadly it is not always so clear to others, hence my passion to promote entrepreneurship and small business. We shouldn’t wait for governments to act, it is up to all of us.

In the process of writing my book, Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business, I had the privilege of interviewing a variety of business people across rural Australia, many of which were enterprising women on the land. I am pleased to report that more and more rural and farm women are becoming successful in their own right and helping to strengthen our rural towns. Their stories are truly inspiring.

Sarah Sammon of Simply Rose Petals, Swan Hill, image: supplied.

Sarah Sammon of Simply Rose Petals, Swan Hill, image: supplied.

Sarah Sammon (pictured above) returned to her home town of Swan Hill with a science degree but no clear career path. Spurred on by her inability to get a job in her hometown, Sarah put her science degree and entrepreneurial spirit to good use researching alternatives to a struggling cut flower industry. Combining forces with her mother they reinvented a declining property with 1,000 rose bushes for the cut flower industry into a new and incredibly successful business, Simply Rose Petals.

‘At this time traditional confetti started being frowned upon at wedding venues because it caused staining and was not biodegradable,’ explains Sarah. ‘We saw an opportunity and went for it.’

Simply Rose Petals has grown rapidly from a small idea into a booming business. Specialised technology allows their rose petals to be freeze-dried, packaged and shipped to 15 countries around the world. Such has been the demand, that they have expanded their number of rose plants from 1,000 to 6,000. The product has also been featured on popular Australian television shows such as The Bachelor, X Factor, Dancing With The Stars, The Bachelorette and Big Brother!

With an insatiable curiosity and boundless enthusiasm driving her to continuously improve the business, it is no surprise that Sarah has been recognised as a finalist through the Telstra Businesswomen’s Awards and, in 2015, received the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award for female Australian entrepreneur under 40. To read more about Sarah's journey, please click here.

Naomi Ingleton of King Valley Dairy, Moyhu, image: supplied.

Naomi Ingleton of King Valley Dairy, Moyhu, image: supplied.

Similarly, Naomi Ingleton (pictured above) saw an opportunity and brought an old butter factory in Myrtleford back to life as a new business capitalising on the surrounding dairy farms.

'I kept driving past this beautiful old empty building in Myrtleford,' recalls Naomi, 'and thinking this is crazy, someone should do something with that!'

Prior to purchasing the old butter factory Naomi had worked as a chef overseas, and then back in Australia she had helped to set up a Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden in Wangaratta. 'Gardening and horticulture are a passion of mine', she says, 'so I went and studied horticulture and then did a Diploma of Agriculture at Dookie so I could learn a bit about farm management.' 

Naomi's mutual passions for gardening, farming and cooking have all informed her role at King Valley Dairy. The business began as a cafe serving food to customers, and then evolved into a commercial butter factory, The Old Butter Factory Myrtleford, in 2010. Like many Australian chefs  dissatisfied with the quality of commercial butter produced in Australia, Naomi had previously been purchasing butter from France, or making it herself. 'Here I was in an old butter factory, surrounded by dairy farms, and making a batch of butter for my customers', she recalls, 'it was a light bulb moment' to turn the butter-making into a business opportunity. 

'I'd never seen naturally cultured butter made on a commercial scale before and no-one was doing it here in Australia', says Naomi, 'so I had to do a lot of research on Google.' With the help of a Churchill Fellowship Naomi also travelled to France to learn butter-making techniques, and upon returning home her butter, cheese and dairy products began to bring in awards from the likes of the Royal Melbourne Show, International Cheese Awards and Delicious Magazine. 

With success came challenges, including the difficulties in meeting market demand and managing the business through a period massive growth. 'We believed the business could be big and amazing', reflects Naomi, 'but we needed to move the factory to a much bigger space.' In 2016 the company moved to Moyhu in the King Valley and was re-branded to King Valley Dairy. Production has increased from 2,000 to 16,000 litres per week and Naomi is now Managing Director and CEO of the company. When asked what advice she has for other rural women in business, Naomi responded, 'be confident you can do it' adding that 'often women have way too much self-doubt.'

“I have spent my life wondering if I will find something that I’m really good at', she reflects, 'and I’ve finally found my thing.' To read more about Naomi's journey, please click here. 

Rebecca Comiskey, Alpha, Queensland, image: supplied.

Rebecca Comiskey, Alpha, Queensland, image: supplied.

Rebecca Comiskey (pictured above) is a teacher by training but alongside her husband David she has thrown herself full time into a 20 year plan to rejuvenate their 8, 500 hectare cattle station in Melton, near Alpha, in central Queensland.

Entering the organic market, adopting a rotational grazing system, and maximising their herd management forms a three pronged approach to the couple's 20 year plan. Closely monitoring and benchmarking their progress against previous years’ performances, all three goals have been fast tracked beyond their initial expectations.

The first big decision was to go organic and the reason was quite simple according to Rebecca.  “We decided to go with grass fed organic cattle because that is what we like to eat ourselves.” Rebecca is learning her craft in infinite detail by monitoring everything from organic soil carbon to genetics and genomics. In doing so she is taking the business to a new level that David could not achieve on his own.

Part of Rebecca's work involves future-planning, reporting and safe-guarding against inevitable drought. 'The rotational grazing system is far more climate effective,” says Rebecca. “For every one percent increase in Organic Soil Carbon, achieved through good grazing land management, another 72,000 litres of water can be absorbed into the soils per hectare, making our property more resilient for the droughts that will always be a part of our business.'

'We like to think that we are custodians of the land', says Rebecca', 'it is our aim to leave our soils in better shape than how we found them.' To read more about Rebecca's story, please click here.

Kerry Anderson holding her book, 'Entrepreneurship: It's Everybody's Business', image: supplied.

Kerry Anderson holding her book, 'Entrepreneurship: It's Everybody's Business', image: supplied.

Every one of these stories is helping to break the glass ceiling for women in rural Australia. These women are far from invisible as they create new businesses and new ways of doing business, but there is always room for more.

As the next generation of young women mature and enter the workforce, I am heartened that they will have the benefit of many great role models that are contributing to the future of rural Australia. My concern is for those who don’t have access to role models as research shows that we are over thirty percent more likely to go into business if we know someone in business.

Yes, we can do something positive by personally encouraging innovation and being a customer of a rural businesses. And, we can share the stories of those who are already successful.

Want to know more?

  • Visit Kerry Anderson's website and read her book: http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/book/
  • Visit King Valley Dairy's website: https://kingvalleydairy.com.au/about/
  • Visit Simply Rose Petals' website: http://www.simplyrosepetals.com.au/
  • Read a case study on Rebecca and Dave's cattle station: http://www.rcsaustralia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/File-Upload-The-RCS-Story_Stories-from-Clients_Case-Studies_Comiskey-Case-Study.pdf