'Getting My Hands Dirty': USA Harvard student Rory Sullivan travels to Australia to immerse herself in farming

Originally from a small town in rural Maine, Rory Sullivan recently graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Biology. Ultimately, she plans to go to medical school to become an oncologist. But first, she will be travelling around Australia for a year, working on farms owned or run by women. She hopes to learn about what it means to be a woman farmer by working on farms, becoming a part of communities of women farmers, and hearing their stories.

 Rory graduating from Harvard University with a degree that inspired her to learn more about women in farming and agriculture. 

Rory graduating from Harvard University with a degree that inspired her to learn more about women in farming and agriculture. 

Having just graduated from college with a degree in biology, most of my time for the past four years has been spent on my laptop, pouring through books, or conducting science experiments in the sterile environment of a lab. Yet I have been longing to spend more time outside, working with my hands, connecting with nature. I grew up in a small town in rural Maine, and much of my childhood was spend outdoors, kayaking, biking, picking blueberries, and examining the natural world around me. I understood connection to the land because I lived it through my rural upbringing, but it wasn’t until I began farming that I experienced the more profound connection to the land that comes from agriculture. A summer urban farming internship midway through college awakened a passion for sustainable agriculture in me that I could not deny.

 Rory picking blueberries in her hometown near Maine, USA.

Rory picking blueberries in her hometown near Maine, USA.

As an aspiring doctor, I realised that food is fundamental to human health, yet can be overlooked as a contributing factor to illness. I learned that reforming food systems to improve the health of humans and the environment requires changes to all steps of the process, from farming to shipping. I came to believe in a holistic vision of health, of which food is a vital element. I hoped to learn more about the ways that food and farming impact people’s lives. At the same time, throughout college I was fascinated by questions about women and their experiences. I took classes about the history of women in science and medicine, women who pursued careers that were traditionally perceived as masculine. Dipping my toes into farming caused me to realise that agriculture is another field traditionally perceived as masculine. I wondered what that meant for women farmers, how they perceived themselves and related to one another.

 Rory at her summer urban farming internship at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, harvesting garlic.

Rory at her summer urban farming internship at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, harvesting garlic.

 Rory showing her peers how to pick beans at the Harvard Community Garden.

Rory showing her peers how to pick beans at the Harvard Community Garden.

Full of questions about sustainable agriculture and women in agriculture, I knew that I had to learn more, and that the best way to do so was to get my hands dirty and work on farms myself. While I knew that I wanted to be in rural places, my hunger for exploration and new experiences overcame my homesickness for the rural Maine landscape of my childhood. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to pursue my different interests in a synthetic way by spending a year working on farms owned or run by women in Australia. This trip is one of my first times travelling abroad, and I chose to come to Australia because of its impressive devotion to sustainable agriculture, and because I had come across and admired the work of the Invisible Farmer Project.

 Rory with Jersey Cows in Gippsland, Victoria. 

Rory with Jersey Cows in Gippsland, Victoria. 

Reading the Invisible Farmer Project blog showed me that, in Australia, there are communities of agricultural women who care for the environment and build cohesive communities in creative ways. I hope to spend time with these women and groups sharing meals and participating in the day-to-day tasks of running agricultural businesses, such as caring for livestock or harvesting produce. I want to be a part of these kinds of networks not only so that I can learn more about women in agriculture, but also, more personally, because I feel most nurtured when I am surrounded by strong women, working toward a common goal. I hope to experience different types of farming such as growing vegetables and livestock, different approaches to sustainability, and different regions of Australia.

I arrived in Australia in the middle of August and spent a few days exploring Melbourne before moving out to Warragul, Victoria. I will be working with Sallie Jones of Gippsland Jersey for the first portion of my time in Australia. During the spring planting season, I hope to get involved with vegetable farming so that I can experience the seasonal rhythms of farming and connection to the land. I will be guest posting about my experiences on the Invisible Farmer Project blog periodically, as well as on the Instagram account @women_in_gippsland. If you are interested in learning more, feel free to contact me at roryrose3@gmail.com.

 Rory starting her journey in Australia working with Sallie Jones of Gippsland Jersey.

Rory starting her journey in Australia working with Sallie Jones of Gippsland Jersey.

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