Group keeps Wheatbelt women united

31 Jul, 2014 02:00 AM
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Agriculture Wheatbelt Women East founding member Olivia Grigson (left) and member Caitlin Griffiths represent the changing face of women in the eastern Wheatbelt.
Farming is the common thread that runs between us, it is something we all have in common
Agriculture Wheatbelt Women East founding member Olivia Grigson (left) and member Caitlin Griffiths represent the changing face of women in the eastern Wheatbelt.

RURAL WA is undergoing a period of significant change as populations decline and farm sizes grow bigger.

This means having community support has never been more important.

One group of strong, educated and motivated eastern Wheatbelt women are uniting and empowering women in the eastern districts through the Agriculture Wheatbelt Women East (AWWE).

A support network for women involved in farm businesses, the AWWE group has members from the Merredin and surrounding shires and hosts regular sundowners, workshops and professional development days.

Who would have thought when a handful of women gathered in Merredin during one of the worst harvests ever seen in the region back in 2012, that they would go on to form a support network spanning the entire eastern Wheatbelt and now boasting more than 150 members?

The organisation's seven co-founding members came together to form a network for women involved in farm businesses and to encourage professional development for primary products after they saw a void for women involved in the family farm business.

Since forming 18 months ago, the group has members from Southern Cross, Bonnie Rock, Mukinbudin, Beacon, Quairading, Bruce Rock, Hyden, Narembeen and beyond.

The AWWE group has held networking sundowners, professional development workshops on grain marketing and succession planning and co-hosted a OneLife Suicide Awareness session.

Founding member Olivia Grigson said the network aimed to support the essential role women play in eastern Wheatbelt farm businesses through the provision of networks, professional development and skills.

"There was nothing else at the time, we were thinking what we could do in that space?" Ms Grigson said.

"When we came together to form the group it was November and the harvest was almost a non-event because it had been such a poor season.

"I think that got people a lot more interested because they wanted to take more control and find out what other information was out there and form a network.

"People were struggling and wanted to know where they could get information to take ownership of their business.

"They were interested in meeting and socialising with new people."

Ms Grigson said women were immediately interested in the organisation.

"A lot of people are isolated out here and live out in the middle of nowhere without the support network," she said.

"AWWE is really important for people who are new to the area or new to the industry.

"Often they come into the industry and are thrown into the deep end when it comes to farming."

Fellow co-founder Julie Alvaro said the region needed a network such AWWE because women played such an important and diverse role in farm businesses and rural communities.

"The role of women in the family farm is everything," she said.

"In the family they are wife and mum, and a lot of women work off-farm to supplement the family income or because they have careers.

"They often do the bookwork and manage farm businesses, and on top of that they play an important role in the community."

Ms Alvaro said although eastern Wheatbelt communities had been affected by drought, everything was cyclical.

"There have always been these times in farming," she said.

"When you look back at the 1980s it was also tough, but it's just about changing and maintaining good mental health and knowing it is going to change and that it will rain.

"Obviously the financial losses of one drought are huge. You don't just make that up after one year. It takes two or three to get yourself back to where you were.

"If you have another below average (year) and then another thumping drought it is not easy to suck it up."

Ms Alvaro said AWWE gave its members the opportunity to improve their business skills.

"It is so hard to make a profit, management is so important. It is a huge part of our businesses to keep our costs low and people are becoming very aware of it," she said.

"Those that weren't aware of the need for good management are aware of it now.

"Farming is not as simple as it used to be."

AWWE member Caitlin Griffiths joined the group after moving from Perth to work as a teacher in Merredin, and said it allowed her to meet a new diverse group of people in the town.

"It was difficult moving out here at first because I didn't have a farming background," Ms Griffiths said.

"But everyone has been fantastic and by entering the group I have met new people and learnt a lot about farming. I don't ever feel like I am far away."

Ms Grigson is an accountant with Byfields Business Advisers and is also involved in a family farm business with her partner.

She is also an advisory council member for the Agriculture and Food Minister and said there was a positive future for young women in the eastern Wheatbelt.

"There are plenty of opportunities for people who live out here and want to have a career separate to the farm business," she said.

"Of course it can be hard when you move to a new town where you don't know anyone else and when you're from a completely different background, joining a group like this can help them.

"Farming is the common thread that runs between us, it is something we all have in common.

"I look at what we have got here in Merredin and I am really grateful for that.

"I think it is important to see the positives."

AWWE will hold a full day forum in Merredin on August 12.

p For more information email: info@awwegroup.com or like AWWE Group Agriculture Women Wheatbelt East on Facebook.

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