101 on building a business at 17… and not listening to your mum

Sometimes you meet someone who just seems to be able to do everything. In the world of agriculture, look no further than Rachel Chirgwin. A woman who has fit more jobs into her 36 years than most of us do in a lifetime.

This powerhouse loves showing up for a day’s shearing only to shock her colleagues by being tiny in stature. She drives trucks with her handbag on the front seat and classical music playing.

To add to that, she started her own sheep stud at age 17 and has since added grain trading and muscle scanning businesses to her resume. What’s more, she loves to cook! Rachel Chirgwin is a woman not to be underestimated. However, there is one role she’d still like to add to the mix – wife and mum.

Rachel started her own sheep stud at just 17-years-old.

Rachel is passionate about work and feels no more at home than in the sheep yards on her Clare Valley property in South Australia.

“Because sheep breeding is my thing, I spend a lot of time in those sheep yards. Lambing time is when all those decisions come together. There’s a lot of science behind sheep breeding these days,” says Rachel.

“One of my favourite times is my late-night checks of my lambing shed where I’ve kept in any ewes or rams for various reasons. It’s cold and wet outside but cosy and warm inside and the lambs have got a belly full of milk. It’s just a really nice time to reflect about how life’s gone, how things have worked out and how blessed I am to do what I love.” 

There’s a lot of science behind sheep breeding these days.”

Fair to say, she has a lot to reflect on with the many hats she wears in her work life. So where did this passion for country life come from? Rachel credits her childhood on a small sheep farm on Kangaroo Island with giving her a solid practical knowledge of life skills.

“Mum home schooled us, so we were on the farm and involved in farm life every day. My father was a fencing contractor. So, we were involved with life on the farm our entire lives. We had pet lambs, calves and chooks as little kids. I just love animals. That instinct was always there for me,” Rachel recalls. It has lead to Rachel never having a fear of trying something new.

A teenage businesswoman

At 17-years-old, Rachel turned that knowledge into her own business, starting a sheep stud currently called Curlew Valley Suffolks.

I just love animals. That instinct was always there for me.” 

“That’s when I turned something that I really enjoyed into a business,” she explains. It all began with her mum selling her kids five sheep when they were young. “We had to pay those sheep back over time, but any profit went into our bank accounts. So, by the time I was 17 I had $6500 from that, plus any birthday money I was given as a kid.”

Rachel took that money across to the mainland and returned home with seven ewes and a ram. She registered the stud and that’s where her entrepreneurship began.

Rachel says she has always had an instinct with animals.

The next step was buying some land. One year out of university, she bought her first property. The block had no infrastructure and every cent she earned was poured back into the farm. Initially that meant no water or electricity.

“I put a tiny transportable house onto it straight away and only stayed there a few nights a month. Those times, I’d light a fire out the front and put a billy on that to cook dinner or have a cup of tea or have a bath. I think I’d owned the property for five years before I had the money to put the power on!”

Not doing what she is told

Rachel still loves the science behind selectively breeding animals to achieve a certain outcome but in her early 20s she assumed life would take a very different path, that of becoming a wife and mum first and foremost.

“That’s how we were raised. Mum was a stay-at-home mum. My sister got married when she was 21 and started a family straight away. In the back of my mind, I thought that would be the natural progression, but I’ve always had the mindset that if I didn’t get out and do things, I might still be sitting at home waiting for that dream man. I made the decision that with or without him, I’m going to give life a red-hot crack,” she laughs.

That was the era we grew up in. There were very few female shearers. It’s a hard job but I was fascinated with shearing as a kid.” 

That attitude combined with hard work has helped Rachel achieve the unexpected her whole life, including becoming a shearer after her mum told her that wasn’t something girls could do.

“That was the era we grew up in. There were very few female shearers. It’s a hard job but I was fascinated with shearing as a kid,” Rachel recalls.

Keeping everyone on their toes

Rachel did her first shearing school aged 21 but it wasn’t until she lost her job at 26 that she really gave it a go. Her appearance was often met with surprise.

“At some shearing sheds, if they don’t know you, they’ll assume you’re the rousy!” she laughs.

Rachel was fascinated by shearing as a kid.

Once she ticked that off the list, it was on to another passion – truck driving.

“It was another thing I loved as a kid. We’d always have trucks coming in to pick up sheep and the odd cow. They always fascinated me,” she says.

So, whilst doing her degree she also learned how to drive trucks. It’s something she still loves to this day.

You might often be the only girl driving a truck into the silos during harvest, so everyone remembers you and are super friendly.”

“Most people have been really supportive. It used to be a bit of a novelty to have a female shearer but these days it’s more common and there are some amazing shearers out there. In the trucking world, that’s probably even a bit tougher but I’ve always worked with really good teams. You might often be the only girl driving a truck into the silos during harvest, so everyone remembers you and are super friendly,” she happily remembers.

“I’m only 155.5 cm tall. It shocks blokes a bit when a truck pulls up and this little girl hops out,” she laughs.

Dust yourself off and try again

Rachel recalls one of her lowest points was a shocking ram sale. A friend rang her to see if she was okay and she admitted she wasn’t. That friend said the only thing left to do was to try again. Rachel has taken that motto and run with it ever since.

“You always learn something out of that experience and that usually puts you in a better position to tackle what’s coming up next,” she says.

So, what is coming up next for Rachel? She has plans to build her dream home on her farm and still intends to look for a life partner to grow a business together. Family and friends are everything to Rachel and no matter how busy she is, there’s always time for connection.

Hear more stories just like Rachel’s by subscribing to the Telling Our Story podcast on iTunes and follow podcast host Angie Asimus on Instagram for more updates.

Angie Asimus

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