By Laura Lewis
21-year-old Laura Lewis grew up on her family's sheep and cropping farm in Nerrin Nerrin, Western Victoria, and now lives and works at Riveren Station in the Northern Territory. She is passionate about the agricultural industry and is currently studying a Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management by correspondence with Charles Sturt University (Wagga Wagga). We would like to thank Laura for submitting this story about how she came to find herself working in the Australian Outback, and what led her to quit a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne to pursue her passion for farming, agriculture and Outback life.
I grew up on my parents’ sheep and cropping farm, Nerrin Nerrin, in Western Victoria. I am the middle daughter of three girls. Having all daughters ultimately forced my dad to have a gender-equal workplace – whether he wanted to or not! But, especially as we entered our teens, Dad loved capitalising on his home-grown workforce. Having my incredibly capable mother involved on Nerrin as a role model also shined the way for us to have confidence in our own strength and brains, just as she did on the farm. Mum’s work was limitless and included mustering and working sheep with quad bikes and kelpies, all the yard work from drafting to drenching to rousabouting at shearing and crutching, operating a plethora of machinery for both the sheep side and cropping side of the farm (such as front-end loaders and tractors for feeding sheep), working the paddocks for sowing, and then learning to operate the air-seeder and boom-spray, carting grain with chaser bins and trucks, and spending endless hours on the header at harvest time. We did all of these jobs between the ages of 12 and 18. I remember that, at the time, I didn’t feel all that capable when compared to a lot of other farm kids, and it wasn’t until much later that I came to have a little pride in what we did as kids for our family farm.
When I finished high school in 2015, my favourite subjects were English Literature, Music and French. I felt that I had two distinct sides of myself each pulling me in a different direction for my future – my love for language and my deep connection to agriculture. My ATAR score was good enough that I could do whatever I wanted, but I felt that this made my choice that much harder. After hours of emotional deliberation, I enrolled to study a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne and commenced in February 2016. I hated it! I rang my mum in tears night after night, wondering why I wasn’t happy. Not only did I feel like I didn’t fit in, but I couldn’t find any sense in what I was studying – where would this lead me? How could I use this degree to live a life that I wanted? I spent exactly four weeks living on campus at Ormond College and studying the degree. Eventually, in one of our teary phone calls, Mum said to me; “It’s ok Laura. You can stop if you want. You always have a job on the farm if you want it.” So, I deferred the next day and returned home to Nerrin to work for the next 5 months, paying back my parents for the cost of college.
Frustratingly, I was still unhappy. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. Like I was doing the same things over and over and not learning anything new. I wanted more. My Mum, younger sister Alice and I went on a road trip that June around country New South Wales (NSW). We visited a few friends on sheep and cattle stations around there. The weekend that I turned 19, we were at a friend’s station near Lightning Ridge, NSW, and I was inspired. I decided I was going to look for a job on a station. It was something I’d always dreamed of doing, but never felt like I was capable enough. I didn’t care where the station was and I didn’t care if it was sheep or cattle – I just wanted to try it. I was terrified and doubted myself immensely – I had no experience with cattle or horses or anything like that, and above all, I just didn’t think I was tough enough to handle station work or lifestyle. Nonetheless, I eventually got a job through my parents’ friends on a cattle station called Inverway, in remote NT, as a gardener (with no experience in gardening). I arrived mid-July 2016.
I remember my first few phone calls to my parents. They said it was happiest I had ever sounded. And I was! After a few weeks, one of the backpackers in the stock-camp left. I pestered our headstock-person, a girl named Samantha, every single night to tell the manager she needed an extra pair of hands for the next day’s job so that I could come along. Eventually, everyone just accepted that I was part of the stock-camp! And I absolutely loved it. I was learning something new every single day. I was using muscles I had never used before and falling into bed every night exhausted and exhilarated. I learnt to ride a two-wheeled motorbike and a horse, and to use them to muster cattle. I learnt to work cattle in a yard starting with the simplest things like vaccinating, ear-tagging and working the race, and moving up to things like pound-drafting, working the back-yards and dehorning at branding. I had my fair share of injuries, and during that September spent 2 weeks in Darwin Hospital after I jammed my finger in a gate and a cow collided with it, chopping off the top of my finger. It was in those two weeks that I decided to return the next year after the wet season – I knew I hadn’t had enough of the experience yet and, besides, I still didn’t know if or what I wanted to study.
In 2017 I spent a full year in the stock-camp on that same station. I continued to learn so much and grow my skill-base, including doing jobs such as bore-running and road building. That year, our stock-camp was made up of 5 females and 3 males. It was a great balance, and all the girls stepped up to take on jobs that I had only ever seen done by boys. It was inspiring; every shred of praise I got from our head stockman, Rick, or our manager, Gavin, I held on to for weeks. I wanted to be the best and the strongest and the most efficient at everything! It was tiring but I loved it.
The neighbouring station was owned by the same company as us, and we shared a helicopter for mustering, which meant their pilot, Jamie, was often working and living with us at Inverway. I fell for him as soon as I met him, back in mid-2016, but we didn’t start ‘dating’ (as much as you can ‘date’ someone 600 kilometres from the nearest town!) until mid-2017 when he had moved to Inverway to be the overseer. By the close of the year, he and I had been offered the overseer’s position at the neighbouring station. I was incredibly nervous, having only been working on a station for barely 18 months, but I see now that this job is by no means for one person. Despite dealing with the odd accusation of having ‘slept my way to the top’, I know I can maintain that I have enough skills and natural leadership to uphold this position with pride.
So just before Christmas in 2017, we moved next door (150kms away) to Riveren Station. It is now mid-June and we have been overseeing the workings of this cattle station for over 6 months. I am mostly in the office or bore running, as well as managing my garden (not sure if 2016 me would have seen this coming – back in the garden)! We have a crew of 10 staff; some complete rookies and some who’ve been working in the industry for 10 or more years. I have definitely found this hard – not only from having just 2 years of station experience, but appearing to be in a position of authority because of my relationship status. I’ve learnt to select wisely the people whose opinion matters to me, and to always be able to prove myself if I ever feel the need. Every so often, I get called out to fill in for a yard day or branding, and it’s definitely satisfying to remind everyone, including myself, that I can do this work just as well as the next ringer. Every single day presents new challenges. As with any agricultural enterprise, sometimes we hate it and sometimes we love it. Most of the time though, I just can’t imagine living anywhere else or doing anything else.
Just before we moved over to Riveren, I applied to study a Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management, part time, by correspondence with Charles Sturt University in Wagga. I have just finished exams for my first completed semester, which I had to do at Inverway with my old boss as my examiner, as I’m too far from a remote exam centre! While figuring out the work/uni/life balance has been, and still is, a challenge, I am really enjoying not only stretching my brain again, but being a part of a community striving for change in the agricultural industry. It was actually through one of my subjects that I came across the Invisible Farmer Project and came to be sharing my story today.
I think that the most important idea I want to share with women through this platform is, to not be afraid. I know it’s intimidating stepping into an industry that appears to be dominated by males – but, in truth, there are women everywhere out here. I was always scared that I wouldn’t be ‘tough’ enough to measure up with the ringers out here, especially the boys. But I am, and you can be too! It’s all about getting through that first step of ‘scary’ and being open to learning. If you always aim to be the hardest worker in the yard, people will want to teach you. Once you’ve started, opportunities keep arising and things happen. Your knowledge and skills and strength, both physical and mental, will compound and grow. Try to have the confidence to start – to make that first baby step, whether it’s asking around for any kind of farm work or moving to the territory as a gardener with a secret plan to become a station hand! Whatever it is, there is an ever-growing place for women in agriculture – make the most of it! I'm sure glad I had enough confidence to make my first step into the ‘scary’. I hope you all will be too.