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A tribute to our rural women

International Rural Women’s Day is always a great opportunity to reflect on the involvement of women in our rural and regional industries and communities.

This year, as I look at my own industry, I’m pleased to say that the involvement of women has never been stronger, and that women in Australia are playing an active and visible role right through from the paddock to the plate.

Agriculture has always been a strong and vibrant industry in Australia, and although generally regarded as a male dominated industry, I’ve always thought that one of the reasons agriculture has thrived in Australia is because of the involvement of women. Since the very early days, many women have worked alongside their husbands on the farm, sharing not only the physical labour but also the family and business decision making.  Although it was the males who provided the public and business face, women were the glue that kept not only their farm business running, but also ran their families and their homes, and often the lynchpin of many small rural and regional communities.  Not only were household chores, educating the children, making and mending family clothes, washing, cooking and cleaning part of their everyday routine, but also supporting their husbands and helping out physically on the farm when an extra pair of hands was required or completely running the farm when their husbands were away. In remote areas, men and women were often each other’s only company, and small communities relied on the involvement of women to coordinate and organise local activities.

Despite all that, however, women were generally behind the scenes.   In my previous role as head of a state farm body, I heard many lovely stories from women about the “old days”. One of my favourites was from a highly educated woman who had married a farmer and lived in the Central West of NSW. Her interest and education (one of the first female university science graduates of her time) was in animal breeding and genetics.  She and her husband bred sheep, and at home had many interesting and lively conversations about their flock, and choosing the best genetics for it. She played a very hands on role on the farm, but left her husband to attend the local farmers meetings on his own.  One night, a specialist in sheep genetics was speaking to the branch, and she asked her husband whether she could accompany him.  As it was her special topic, he agreed.  She was the only woman in the room.  She found the speaker fascinating, and asked him a number of questions, and enjoyed a lively discussion with him at the end of the meeting.  On the way home, she talked excitedly to her husband about the talk, but her husband was unusually quiet. When she asked him what was wrong, he replied that it was all very well for her to attend meetings, but he hadn’t expected her to ask any questions! 

Including women in our ranks diversifies our thoughts, and women’s contributions at the highest levels of national representation ensure a wider conversation.
Fiona Simson, NFF Vice President

Of course now things have changed, and I’m pleased to say that many women are openly and equally contributing not only on farms, but also in farmer representation organisations, and agribusiness and commercial boardrooms across Australia.  We have active women farmers, women agronomists, women animal health specialists, women grain traders, women agribusiness CEO’s, and women sitting at the highest levels of our banks and commercial institutions.  I’m also very pleased to say that sitting at the NFF Members’ Council table, I’m now joined by a number of women representing farmers and agricultural commodities at the national level.  With no quotas in our industry, women are being elected and chosen not just because they are women, but because of the skills, knowledge and expertise they bring.

Although agriculture currently has huge opportunities in front of it, one of our challenges is to make sure we’re expanding our conversation to talk to decision makers and community members who are now disengaged from the whole process of growing food and fibre.  Including women in our ranks diversifies our thoughts, and women’s contributions at the highest levels of national representation ensure a wider conversation.  Agriculture is indeed lucky that it has a huge (and growing!) talent pool of people who have hands-on involvement in their businesses but often wider skills, networks and experiences as well.

On International Rural Women’s Day, it’s important not only to recognise how far we’ve come, but also the opportunities in front of us if we continue to expand and encourage the involvement of women at all levels of our industry.

Fiona Simson is a farmer from the NSW Liverpool Plains, and Vice-President of the National Farmers' Federation.

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