WOMEN have long been renowned for their ability to multitask and tackle many challenges at once – something South Australian viticulturist Mary Retallack achieves with aplomb.
In addition to running her own viticultural consulting company – Retallack Viticulture – Mary is involved in a remarkable number of industry organisations.
She is a member of the SA Wine Industry Council, the National Rural Women’s Coalition Networking the Networks advisory group and Adelaide University’s Wine Alumni Steering Group, as well as a founding member of Wine Grape Growers Australia’s Decision Support Network.
In March, she was also named one of the inaugural Women in Australian Agribusiness 100.
“Now that I’ve been working in agriculture, or more specifically viticulture, for 20 years, I’ve increasingly been thinking about how I can give back,” Mary said.
“I get real satisfaction out of seeing others reach their full potential, so I try and take on roles that will give people the support and networks they need to succeed.”
Mary developed a love of agriculture at an early age, growing up on a fruit block in the Riverland.
“It was one of those fruit blocks that colloquially gets called a fruit salad block,” she said.
“For me that meant everything from individually packing pears which went off to the Melbourne market to cutting apricots during Christmas holidays to make a bit of extra pocket money.
“Many of my birthdays in February would be spent on the tractor in the heat, seeing how many sultanas I could fit in my mouth.
“I think those experiences were always going to be pivotal in terms of shaping my interest in agriculture.
“I didn’t realise that I could forge a career being a viticulturist, but the opportunity presented itself in the form of work in the wine industry, and it’s provided me such a diversity of roles over the years that has given me endless fascination and interest.”
Mary has worked across the wine sector, including lecturing at TAFESA and Okanagan University College in Canada, working as a cellar hand in California and managing Mountadam Vineyards in Eden Valley.
She also currently holds a more unexpected title – student – having undertaken a PhD in Viticulture at the University of Adelaide in 2012.
Her passion and drive have been rewarded with numerous scholarships and awards, including being named the RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year in 2012.
She has also completed the Australian Rural Leadership Program, Wine Industry Future Leaders Program and the Pathways to Rural Leadership course.
Mary is optimistic about the future of the wine industry, and agriculture in general.
“I think the role and the future of Australian agriculture is really bright, and we shouldn’t underestimate our offerings,” she said.
“We are experiencing challenging times in the wine industry at the moment.
“We’ve come off an unprecedented period of growth, and we’ve now had 10 years of more challenging times, but that’s a good opportunity to see innovation.
“Out of adversity you see new solutions, and I’m excited about what that means going forward.”
She is fascinated by the innovation displayed in the industry, especially the use of ‘smart’ bungs in winemaking, and the use of octocopters to monitor variability in the vineyard.
“We’re going to see more change than ever before, whether that’s advances in technology, the extremes of climate variability and doing business in the international marketplace, but I find that really exciting.
“It means we have to be ready to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, but it also means we have to pull together and work collaboratively as an industry, which is not always easy, and have a united front on the domestic scene so that we can be a powerful force on the international stage.
“It’s all about coming together to work smarter not harder.”
She believes reaching these goals will rely on looking for opportunities to improve business models.
“A key thing for me is ensuring the profitability, and also the long-term sustainability of the agricultural sectors.
“That could mean looking at new business models, it might include things like collaborative farming, and understanding every part of our business to make sure that every part is profitable and working as efficiently as possible.
“It can cover things like economies of scale, but also looking at the farm and re-evaluating what we grow and how we grow it.
“Clear communication and timely information sharing along the value chain is also very important.”
She said it is also vital to attract the next crop of industry leaders as soon as possible.
“We have an ageing workforce, so for me that straight away triggers the need for generational change and making sure that those decades of knowledge, skills and wisdom aren’t lost,” she said.
“We need to be encouraging the next generation into a range of agricultural industries.
“To me it’s about demonstrating the diversity of roles that are available in agriculture and making sure that we can encourage school-leavers to take those opportunities and have ready access to those support networks.”
Finally, Mary emphasised that everyone could play a part in securing a strong future for agriculture in Australia.
“We all have the ability to be ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things,” she said.
“It just takes the courage to step up and to give things a go, and not to doubt that you can make a difference. It’s usually a person or a small group of people that’s able to really forge new directions when they’re needed the most.”
The Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 is a joint initiative of Emerald Grain and Fairfax Agricultural Media supported by Syngenta.
Read more of our 100’s stories here