By Catherine Forge (Curator & Photographer, Invisible Farmer Project) with Sally Hall (Farmer, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, Harrietville, Victoria)
This blog post is based on an interview that was conducted in 2017 between curator Catherine Forge (Museums Victoria) and trout farmer Sally Hall for the Invisible Farmer Project. Using excerpts from this interview, Catherine reflects on meeting Sally and provides an overview of Sally’s journey into farming, her connection to the outdoors and her experiences of being a farmer.
Meeting Sally Hall
In May 2017 I packed my camera and audio recording equipment into the car and travelled from Melbourne to the small Alpine township of Harrietville, Victoria, to interview trout farmer Sally Hall. Sally’s family farm, Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm, is located in a scenic part of the world – right at the foot of Mount Hotham and Mount Feathertop, with fresh water streams and abundant greenery. As I pulled into the driveway I was immediately struck by the farm’s natural beauty; autumn leaves radiated bright red and orange, water gently trickled in the nearby streams and Sally emerged from her landscaped garden to greet me with a welcoming smile.
Being the first aquaculture farmer I’d interviewed for this project I was excited to meet Sally Hall and hear more about her journey into farming. Women contribute greatly to Australia’s seafood and aquaculture industries, yet their stories have tended to go unrecognised, undocumented and hidden to the public eye. Sally’s own story as a trout farmer had not yet been recorded, and there was nothing available about her farming career on the public record or online. In fact, in preparing for the interview I had only managed to find one reference to Sally on Google – a news article in the Weekly Times – that had mostly focused on Sally’s husband Peter and son David and only mentioned Sally’s name in passing. This absence of information about Sally’s farm life had sparked my initial curiosity in her story and led me to pick up the phone in search of further information: ‘Hi, I’m wondering if there are any women working on your trout farm and if they would be interested in speaking to me about their farm experiences?’, I had asked. ‘Yeap, that’s my Mum Sally and she does everything around here’, responded Sally’s son David, ‘she’s the one that you need to speak to.’
Pouring me a cup of tea as we prepared to start the interview, Sally confessed to feeling a tad nervous about sharing her story, mainly because she didn’t think she deserved the attention. ‘My story isn’t that interesting or important’, Sally informed me, and admitted to being a bit confused as to why I would want to interview her. This a common scenario when interviewing women who farm; many women tell me that they share a similar fear about being interviewed, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard phrases such as, ‘I don’t feel my story is important’, ‘maybe you should speak to my husband/partner instead’ or ‘I don’t know why you’d want to interview me.’ And yet, every woman that we have interviewed for the Invisible Farmer Project has had an incredible story to share, and I firmly believe that all of these stories are of great significance. After all, women contribute half the world’s food and fibre and play a vital role on farms across Australia. Their stories, and Sally’s story, deserve to be told.
‘I wasn’t always a trout farmer and I wasn’t born into farming.’
Sally Hall [nee Baldwin] was born in 1958 in Watford, London, and immigrated to Australia as a “Ten Pound Pom” with her parents when she was just four years old. The family lived in Perth, Western Australia, until Sally was fourteen, and then relocated to a 2 ½ acre block outside of Perth in the suburb of Wattleup. It is here surrounded by a neighbourhood of market gardens that Sally was given her first horse, and subsequently developed a strong interest in the outdoors:
“Once I got my first horse I immediately became an outdoor kid. If Mum couldn’t see me it meant that I was outside playing with a horse. I think this passion for the outdoors has lived with me ever since.”
Sally’s love for the outdoors began young, but her life as a farmer didn’t come into full swing until she married her husband Peter Hall in 1980. ‘He was a farmer’, recalls Sally, ‘so I automatically went into farming, and I guess that’s when I became a farmer too.’
Sally and Peter’s first farm was located in Wialki in remote Western Australia and consisted of 18,000 acres of dry cropping and sheep. Situated on the eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia, Wialki’s landscape is dry and arid with extremely hot summers. It was a tough introduction to farming, but Sally remembers throwing herself into farming and working as hard as she could:
We ended up doing seven years of farming there, through lots of droughts and the arrival of two children at the time. I mostly tried to be a good wife and a good mother to our two young children, as well as looking after the staff. I did as much farm work as possible. It was a more male-orientated job back then, but I did whatever was needed of me: fencing, truck driving, sheep work, grain carting and whatever came my way.
There were parts of this life that I loved. I loved the great expanse of the remote outdoors, the sense of community, the church and its’ people and the physical work. But droughts were at times severe. We were in marginal country, right near the emu-proof fence, where you would be lucky to get a few bags an acre. And then the interest rates went to 22 per cent and that was the end of us farming in Wialki.
After seven years of farming in the marginal country of Western Australia, Sally and her family made the decision in 1987 to relocate to Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, and try their hand at opal mining. Lightning Ridge is a small outback town in north-western New South Wales, famous for Black Opal, a rare and highly sought after gemstone unique to the region. It is here with Peter working in the opal mines that Sally developed a newfound interest in opal cutting and jewellery making:
I found that I was drawn to opals and jewellery making, and that I really enjoyed working on new jewellery creations. It was a completely different world to the remote farming world that we’d previously inhabited. Rather than being outdoors on the land, I was working in an office all the time making jewellery and cutting opal.
Much to Sally’s surprise, her jewellery-making hobby soon became a full-time job. She not only found herself opening up a retail store in Lightning Ridge, but also travelling all around Australia to meet with clients and sell her products:
Opals ended up becoming a really big part of my life. I opened a retail outlet under the name “Everything Opal” and had five staff and then travelled around Australia six or seven times a year, for ten days at a time wholesaling. When I reflect on my opal life and my farming life, I feel like there’s two different versions of me. But even though I’m a farmer right now, I still love opals and continue to occasionally make jewellery.
Sally and her family ended up staying in the opal mining business in Lightning Ridge for 18 years (1987-2005). During this time, Sally reflects that ‘farming was still always in our blood’ and it wasn’t uncommon for dinner table conversations to turn to the topic of farming, and how to get back into it. In the end it was the additional income provided by Sally’s jewellery-making business that helped make it financially viable for the family to re-enter farming. A decision was made to purchase 4,000 acres of farm land around Narromine and Trangie, New South Wales, and Sally soon found herself balancing two different jobs – making opal jewellery and farming Angus beef and mixed crop varieties.
For the first five years, Sally and Peter travelled the long four-hour drive from Lighting Ridge to manage the Narromine and Trangie farm sites over weekends while they continued to mine, cut opals and sell jewellery during the week. Eventually, however, they decided to discontinue with the opal mining completely and transition back into full-time farming. Relocating to live permanently in the dry and remote landscape of Narromine and Trangie, Sally dedicated herself once again to farm life. During this period Sally and Peter diversified the farm by planting 1,200 olive trees. They also started to produce their own olive oil.
Due to the remoteness of the Narromine and Trangie farm sites, Sally’s two children David and Kathy left home to attend boarding school and with no children at home to care for, Sally spent more of her time outdoors. Although this work was tough at times, Sally recalls feeling ‘most at home’ when working in the outdoors:
My indoor duties were less intensive without the children home, so I spent a lot of time doing outdoor work in those years – anything from fencing to tractor driving to looking after the Angus mothers and their variously aged baby calves. I suppose it wasn’t what you would describe as an easy life. The work was ongoing and there were always things that needed to be done. But I really liked the outdoor work and the physical work.
For Sally, working outdoors was one of the real joys of farm life – a joy that she still continues to cherish:
There’s something about being outdoors working the land that I can’t describe. It gets under your skin, and it’s where I feel I belong. It’s so beautiful being outdoors too. Sometimes at night time in Narromine and Trangie you could look up into the sky and see hundreds of stars shining. And at daytime the sun would belt down on your back, and the sky would be the most brilliant shade of blue. Yes, the outdoors is where I like to be – under the open skies, on the land.
‘When I first saw this trout farm, it was the lush green landscape that pulled me in.’
Listening to Sally talk about farming in Western Australia and New South Wales, she described the colours of the Outback to me – the orange earth, the dry dust and the long empty roads that stretched out to the horizon. It all seemed so different, and so far away, from the lush, green and mountainous region that Sally now inhabits. ‘How did you make such a big transition – from farming cattle and crops in the Outback, to farming trout and salmon by ponds and waterways?’, I asked.
Sally responded with a smile:
We were down here at Mount Hotham on a family skiing holiday actually. And then we spotted this trout farm as we drove along the Great Alpine tourist road and saw the “For Sale” sign. It was love at first sight, and at the time we agreed – my husband, my son and my son’s wife – that this would be such a lovely place to come to. So we sold everything from Lightning Ridge, Narromine and Trangie and came here, and we’ve been here for eight years now.
Purchasing the trout farm was a quick decision, however it was one that made sense for the family and seemed like the right step to take. Sally’s son David had been in Tasmania studying aquaculture at Launceston University, and he was keen to bring his training and studies into practice. Sally recalls that there was also a big allure in the natural beauty and greenery surrounding the farm:
I think the reason that we loved it when we came here was that it was green, and there was water everywhere and rivers and freshwater as opposed to Western Australia where it was salty water. It was such a beautiful, beautiful green place, and all the autumn leaves too. Yeah, it was just a completely different climate to our previous farms in Western Australia and New South Wales.
After her experience of farming through dust and drought, Sally relished the water that flowed from the snow-capped mountains in Spring, and the abundant greenery that turned into bright orange and red in the Autumn:
We have here 20 acres of beautiful, beautiful country with probably forty ponds on it, and sheds with ponds. Stony Creek comes into our place at the top corner and it gravity feeds right through our farm, putting water through all the fish ponds. And then after it’s settled for a while it goes back into the Ovens River out the front. It couldn’t be more beautiful here, especially the fact that it stays so green over summer too. I’d have to say that green is now my favourite colour! I just love it. I love the water and the freshness.
Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm was first established in 1971 and when Sally and her family took ownership of the property, there was a lot of work to do in order to bring the farm back from a state of disrepair. Although Sally and her husband Peter hadn’t had any experience in fish farming, Sally believes that her son’s education – coupled with the family’s prior farm experience – came in handy:
With David doing the Uni degree in aquaculture there was the technical side already there. But I think because we’ve been farmers on and off all our life, it’s still animal husbandry and a lot of that is just born into a farmer really. You just learn it as you go. You see what needs doing.
Over the past 8-9 years, Sally and her family have increased the productivity of their farm by investing in new infrastructure, technologies and machinery, planting up gardens and introducing new fish farming methods and techniques:
We’re growing about six or seven different varieties of fish now – rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout, Atlantic salmon, cheetahs, tigers and golden trout. We have worked to make the gardens beautiful for the tourists that come here to fish, and we have invested in new equipment. On top of this we have grown our market and client-base and we are selling to a wide range of customers including other fish farmers, the Government, chefs and local restaurants. It’s been a lot of work to get the farm to where it is now, but it’s been worth it.
‘I can’t quite put my finger on my role here on the farm – I’m sort of in all the jobs.’
Sally has been involved in all aspects of the fish farm since moving there in 2009, however when I asked her ‘what kind of farmer are you?’, she responded that it wasn’t easy to define her work:
What sort of farmer am I? That’s a really hard one! I’m just the back-up person really… I don’t think of myself as just being a ‘fish farmer’, like the men would, because I feel that I do all sorts of general things as well. Whatever needs doing in that particular month, I’m just there doing it.
For Sally, the difficulty in defining her role is due to the fact that she has so many diverse roles, and that they change every day:
I mean, I am a fish farmer, but I also worry about the garden, and do the paperwork and money things. I package fish, I make pâté, I mow grass, I do orders for restaurants and butchers and I sell fish weekly at various farmer’s markets. Yeah, I guess I’m a fish farmer, but it’s hard to define. It’s anything from chopping wood to moving the tractor to cleaning the shed to feeding the workers. I can’t quite put my finger on my role here on the farm – I’m sort of in all the jobs, where I’m needed.
Talking to Sally about the multitude of diverse daily tasks that she performs on the farm, it is clear that her life’s work is dedicated to her farm and family, and that she plays a pivotal role in keeping the farm running. Yet by initially describing herself as ‘just a back-up person’, I couldn’t help but feel that Sally was inadvertently under-valuing her importance and her role on the farm. Sally is not the first woman that I’ve interviewed who has referred to herself as the “back-up person”, “helping hand” or the “just the Farmer’s Wife.” While these are commonly heard terms, I worry that by using them to describe their role on the farm, these women are accidentally sending a message that their work is somehow less important or less worthy than the work of their male counterparts, which clearly isn’t the case!
In reality, women like Sally play an essential role on the farm, not only in balancing a multitude of different kinds of farm work, but also in keeping their families, farm workers and communities together. Sally believes that women often find themselves performing an additional farm role as communicators and providers, and she refers to this additional role as the “mothering role”:
I think for women there is more than just the manual and physical work. There is a mothering role that continues on forever when you’re farming. I think farm women do both. They are quite capable of chainsawing and wheelbarrowing and doing all the physical work that is required, but they are also often called upon to do emotional and communication work, which is a different role altogether. I think with the men, there’s a lot of things that they can say to a woman that they won’t say to a man, so being the only woman on a team of men, I’ll often find myself in that mothering role too.
For Sally, this mothering role doesn't only involve emotional support; it also involves a daily focus on ensuring that the workers are fed and well cared for:
I’m a farmer, but I’m definitely also a mother on the farm. For a lot of farm women like me, there is always a lot of food involved. You do end up taking on that kind of nurturing role with all the staff that you work with – you make sure that they’ve been fed, and that they’ve got a cup of tea. You know, you make sure that they are okay and looked after.
This process of feeding the staff might involve a lot of hard work, but Sally relishes the opportunity that it provides to sit down with her staff and exchange stories:
We eat together, always. So half a dozen of us will sit together. It’s always under the trees around tables, and that’s where we talk, where we plan what’s next, where we laugh, where we tell stories. It’s often around food that we have a chance to communicate. And these are my favourite times really.
‘There’s tourists every day, so it’s always about sharing the farm.’
Sally doesn’t only share stories with the other workers on the farm; she also enjoys the opportunity to interact on a very personal level with her customers. Mountain Fresh Trout and Salmon Farm offers farm gate sales and is open to the public five days per week. Visitors to the farm can learn to fish with bamboo fishing rods, catch fish, tour the gardens and then watch the fish be prepared and packaged up to take home. A regular part of Sally’s day-to-day work involves meeting with visitors, showing them around the farm and sharing stories about the life-cycle of the fish. Sally believes that this one-on-one interaction helps to educate consumers and bring them closer to understanding where their food comes from:
The link between producer and consumer is definitely there, especially when people have caught fish for themselves. I mean they catch their own fish, they are excited and then they come to the workbench and have it cleaned. They become a captive audience while I clean their fish, and they usually want to know all about your life and how you clean the fish and how you farm. They want to know all about the farming process, so you interact with the tourist at that level always, every day.
Just a 20-minute drive from the farm is the bustling tourist town of Bright, and Sally also regularly interacts with consumers locally via the monthly Bright Farmer’s Markets, as well as the neighbouring Myrtleford and Wangaratta Farmer’s Markets. ‘Our Alpine Shire is very proactive, so there’s always tourists’, reflects Sally: ‘so the other way I interact with consumers is most definitely at these farmer’s markets, where there is a lot of talking on a very personal one-on-one level.’
Beyond her local farmer’s markets Sally also travels into the city to Melbourne once a month to sell fish at the Slow Food Farmer’s Market in Abbotsford. ‘I think a lot of people do worry about fresh food and where it’s grown and that kind of thing’, reflects Sally, ‘and I love being able to tell people in the city about our farm, how green it is and to ease some of their concerns about what they are feeding their families.’ Another benefit of selling at farmer’s markets is that it provides an opportunity to reach a wide consumer-base:
There’s money that comes from the farmer’s markets, but there’s also a lot of restaurant owners and butchers and various people wandering around fresh food markets looking for new ideas, or the next thing they’re going to put on the plate. So we do definitely pick up bigger customers by being out there and being seen. It’s great tapping into the city market, and also the local market. All the local restaurants use our fish. Their menus change all the time, but all the local people use it – the pubs and the butchers all round the region really.
After touring Sally’s farm, I had the opportunity to attend the Bright Farmer’s Market and visit Sally at her market stall. I arrived to find her standing alongside her mother Rita Baldwin and the two worked in unison as a mother-daughter team interacting with customers and selling their fish and homemade caviar pâté. I asked Sally about her relationship with her mother and she informed me that their bond is strong, and that she has relished the opportunity to work together in more recent years:
Mum moved to Bright 10 years ago, when we came here. She helps me make pâté (38,000 so far) and she comes to all the fresh food markets with me. She will pop into the farm any day and bring food and anything from town. She’s 86, so there’s obvious limitations, but she has always been there to mother me, even though I’m now 60. She gives plenty of love, comfort and care. Really our parents are our best advocates and I hope I can be that for my kids.
When ‘the land owns you’
‘I don’t feel that we own this place – I feel that it owns us’, said Sally when reflecting on her connection to the farm and landscape:
We are here to care for the land really. I feel like I look outside and I know what to do because it’s telling me all the time – you know, fix this, garden that, tend to that. I feel like when you’re a farmer the land owns you, if that makes sense. You can’t just walk away and take a week off or a month off.
Being owned by the land has a romantic appeal, but it is not without its’ challenges. For Sally and her family, one of these challenges revolves around the water and power supply:
Water is always a problem. For us when the creek gets low we have to pump water from the Ovens River, so water is always a concern. Power is our next concern because we’ve got to run generators the whole time to pump water, so power is really expensive at the moment. Sometimes I feel we’re doing all our work just to pay the power bills.
Another challenge is the fact that the farm requires maintenance and ongoing care on a 24/7 basis, which ties Sally to the land and makes it difficult to take time off or go away for holidays:
It’s an every day, all hours of the day job. I mean in summer we’re still checking fish of a night. It’s probably emotionally harder than it looks form the outside, in that you have to commit yourself to being here all the time. You’re definitely owned by the land in that way too.
In 2018, over a year after my first interview with Sally, I paid another visit to the farm, this time accompanied by my mother Fiona McLennan. I was excited to see Sally again, and to hear what she had been up to in the past twelve months. ‘Well, we haven’t had any major holidays except for a family wedding recently’, she informed me, ‘and that wasn’t really a proper holiday, just a weekend away really, so in many ways nothing has changed – the land still owns us!’
Sally and Peter gave my mother and I a tour of the farm gardens, which were flourishing with a wide variety of beautiful new Spring flowers in bloom. As we chatted and looked at the flowers, I soon came to learn that it hadn’t been an easy year on the farm; the previous summer heat had caused many fish to become ill, leading to significant stock losses. Sally walked us down to the outdoor workstations where new antibiotics were being trialled to prepare for the coming summer. ‘It’s a full-time job and you always have to be prepared for the next thing’, Sally explained, ‘we are always at work here, there’s always something to do!’
Despite the significant challenges associated with the daily realities of farming, however, Sally believes that two things have helped her to stay motivated. The first of these is her faith:
Probably the only thing that has kept me together and continuing on when there’s been droughts and hard times and living in a caravan park for a year in Lightning Ridge with no money, I think being Christian has probably held me together, held my marriage together, helped grow my children into lovely kids.
The second thing that has kept Sally passionate about farming is the connection to the outdoors, and the joy that she gets from being able to produce a fresh, high-quality product.
I think being outside and the fresh air and a love for the land and animals.. and no traffic, no people, no rushing. It’s a very healthy lifestyle I feel. If I have to be inside and do bookwork for an hour I can’t wait to go outside and just do whatever’s out there, whether it’s the garden of the grounds.
I also love that since we’ve been here the produce is a premium now. When we first came it was relatively run down and the fish were hungry and not in the greatest condition. But they are now all being bred by us, fed by us and couldn’t be in any better condition really, so people are getting really good quality produce, and I couldn’t feel more proud to feed it to them.
‘The men couldn’t do it without us.’
Not only has Sally been a farmer over her career, but she has also managed and operated a small jewellery business, and through this work with opals she was able to provide the family with an additional off-farm income that helped facilitate their re-entry back into farming. When I first visited Sally in 2017, we spoke about her passion for jewellery-making and how her opal business had been a big part of her life, but Sally confessed that she wasn’t sure if her previous career as a jewellery maker was relevant to her story as a farmer. ‘They both feel like two different worlds’, she had told me.
When I visited Sally again in 2018, however, things had changed. Sally invited my mother and I into the Farm Gate shop and explained to us that she had just started to sell her opals alongside the fish products. As she showed us her beautiful opal jewellery and her homemade caviar pâté, there was something quite lovely about seeing these two worlds – her farming world and her jewellery-making world – come closer together.
Women contribute to farms in so many diverse ways – they farm outdoors, indoors and in many cases they work off-farm to provide additional income that helps to sustain the farm. It is important to recognise and celebrate all of this work, because all kinds of farm work – from driving tractors to balancing accounting books to providing off-farm income – is work that contributes to the overall productivity and success of Australian agriculture.
Towards the end of our visit, Sally generously packed up some trout for my mother and I to take home. We said our goodbyes and as we drove out the driveway my mother turned to me and said, ‘wow, what a remarkable woman.’ Having met Sally a few times now, I have to agree that she is a remarkable woman, and yet I doubt that Sally would openly call herself “remarkable”, or expect to have her work publicly recognised. On the contrary, as we said our goodbyes, Sally confessed that it was unusual for herself to talk about herself, and that she had never really been in the limelight or shared her story with anyone beyond her immediate family.
I believe that Sally’s story deserves to be told though, and that her ongoing dedication to her farm, her family and her community should be celebrated. For Sally is not just a “helper” on the farm – she is a vital part of it, and she has every reason to feel proud of what she has achieved:
Yeah, when I think about the journey so far I’m definitely a farmer. When I look back at my career over the years I can now see that I can drive the tractor, I can drive the truck, I can do anything that men can do, except for the heavy lifting. Physically we’re not made the same really, but there’s mostly nothing that women can’t do. I think we’re essential. The men couldn’t do it without us.
I wish to sincerely thank Sally for sharing her story with us, and for the delicious fish and homemade pâté that she generously provided on both visits. I’d also like to thank her husband Peter, son David, mother Rita and farm worker Jessie for welcoming us to the farm and showing us around. Finally, I want to thank my mother Fiona McLennan for volunteering her photographic skills to the project.
This interview is now a permanent part of Museums Victoria’s collections, and you can view it online, here: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2241713