“SHE believed she could, so she did” was the motto of the Facey Group’s Women in Agriculture day which was echoed throughout the seminar at Wickepin last Wednesday, that aimed to inform, inspire and empower women working in the agriculture industry.
More than 80 women attended the event, whether they be farmers, industry representatives or from a country town, to gain information about navigating through an industry in which they were, and sometimes still are, only referred to as a “farmer’s wife” or an “important woman in agriculture”.
The day featured five presentations and a technology session which Women in Agriculture chairwoman Peta Astbury described accurately as being a “world full of knowledge and inspiration”, beginning with Hannah Robinson and Jacinta Richardson, Hire in Style, providing guidance and inspiration for operating a business.
Sergeant Andy Brown and senior constable Craig Williams, Wickepin police, delivered information about rural crime and methods of crime prevention.
Leadership and diversity in agriculture was discussed by Kylee Hetherington, CSBP, who talked about challenges she faced gaining leadership roles in the corporate world, including in agriculture and Gary Philpott, Lincolns, emphasised the importance of succession planning.
The keynote speakers were Sue Middleton and Elizabeth Brennan who own and operate a diverse farming business in the Wongan Hills area, comprising cropping, hay, pork and one of the largest citrus businesses in WA and consulting.
They spoke about persevering through the challenges of farming and breaking through barriers that being a female in the industry presents.
Over the past eight years, Ms Middleton has been widely recognised for her efforts to change rural WA and agriculture by being awarded the Centenary Medal for Services to Regional Australia in 2002, the Rural Industries Research and Development Rural Woman of the Year in 2010, being inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame and as a member of four boards.
Ms Middleton said that despite her various impressive awards and recognised achievements, she didn’t care for positional power but it was necessary for her to make change.
“We live in a world that responds to power, titles, wealth, status and things that are prestigious and we are hard wired to respect that,” Ms Middleton said.
“I think those are the complete opposite of what actually matters in life and the way women work.
“Rather than having life determined by material objects, I think what really matters when you get to the end is who you were, how you made people feel and how you made them feel about themselves.
“This is a very female way of working and I think it is very powerful, but it is invisible.”
Rather than boasting about her many success stories, Ms Middleton shared her stories of challenges, claiming that they were the key to her eventually achieving success.
“Real success comes from failure and I am one of the best people at failing,” she said.
The fascinating stories of Ms Middleton and her family overcoming hardship gave visitors inspiration and motivation to manage their challenges and Ms Middleton a chance to look back and laugh.
She said she first faced the biggest hurdle when converting a sheep paddock into a citrus orchard that became riddled with melons and required hand weeding of the entire paddock and establishing the citrus business meant Ms Middleton and her husband Michael worked seven days-a-week for eight years.
Hardship kept rearing its head subsequent years later, including when a tornado destroyed 70 per cent of the farm’s piggery, one of the family’s farrowing house burnt down and now farmers are experiencing the lowest pork prices in its history.
“Each of these moments have taught me that I will survive, but it does hurt,” Ms Middleton said.
“Overcoming the sense of failure is an important process that (everyone) has to go through.
“For most women, when things get real bad, it will be them gluing everyone together.
“Every day is a new dawn – whatever happened yesterday does not have to determine what happens today.”
A passion for community, agriculture and volunteering shone through as Ms Brennan, who is Ms Middleton’s stepdaughter, gave her presentation which asked speakers to consider not only how they would farm in the future, but how they would farm the future.
After exploring various areas of the workforce Ms Brennan decided to volunteer in Papua New Guinea (PNG), living there for 18 months.
During that time she gained the respect of the local women and most difficult, the men, as well as “challenging her conventional understanding of agriculture” which drove her to study a masters degree in sustainable systems.
After living in PNG, Ms Brennan has been actively involved in the family farm business by leading the marketing strategy and development for Moora Citrus.
Ms Brennan has also been involved in various community and agricultural development projects in the Wheatbelt and across Australia and still co-ordinates a multidisciplinary agricultural research program in PNG on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Centre for International Research.
In 2012, Ms Brennan became the youngest president of Australian Women in Agriculture at age 26, a role she held for three years, helping to guide the organisation through its toughest patches.
She is a commissioner for the Agricultural Produce Commission, chairwoman of the Farmers for Climate Action Rural Economic Futures Taskforce and volunteers on many agricultural advisory groups and committees.
Ms Brennan’s commitments were formally recognised in 2014 when she was awarded the Most Outstanding Emerging Leader Award at the inaugural Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 and was named WA Young Achiever of the Year in 2016 for her voluntary and community contributions.
She has been determined to take control of the common narrative given to women in agriculture of being a farmer’s wife or an important women in agriculture by choosing to “write (her) own narrative”, which she encouraged other women to do.
“These narratives are formed from the past, reflecting on where we have gotten today, but they can limit women into thinking that that’s the only way things can be – well these are the past and not the future,” Ms Brennan said.
Positioning herself outside of her comfort zone, most notably during her stay in PNG, proved to be crucial for enabling Ms Brennan to grow and ultimately achieve success.
“The biggest growth I have had has been when I have thrown all caution to the wind and jumped in the deep end,” she said.
The uncertainty of working in agriculture can bring just as much happiness as it can sadness, but as the speakers of the Women in Agriculture day highlighted, planning ahead and having the ability to persevere through tough times and adapt is the only way to turn failure into success.
As Ms Middleton said, “no matter what you are going through, if you really want it and stick at it, you will win, you will be successful”.