THE ongoing challenges of retaining staff on WA farms, looking at new ways to address risk management and the latest requirements around farm safety were some of the key topics at the recent Inspire Summit 2018, held at Fremantle.
Co-ordinated by Partners in Grain WA, the event also had a focus on how balancing a healthy lifestyle between business, family and off-farm employment is a struggle for many WA women.
A panel of Emma Scotney, Gemma Walker, Tara Vermeersch and Nicole Batten spoke to the audience about their experiences and how being involved in grower groups and community boards were a relief and helped them overcome isolation.
Ms Scotney now spends two nights a week in Perth after realising she could balance life as a solicitor in Perth and a farmer in Badgingarra.
She works for HopgoodGanim, Perth, after she studied her post graduate law degree online.
“It wasn’t until my third child went away to boarding school that I really started to get a bit jittery,” Ms Scotney said.
“As much as Badgingarra was definitely home and I loved our farm and our business, it was going to be pretty quiet for me and it wasn’t enough for me to be content.
Ms Scotney soon realised the more frequently she went to Perth she could complete a law degree as a postgraduate.
Thanks to technology and the internet she said it was possible to do the course online from home, along witha mix of face-to-face learning.
Without telling her husband John Ms Scotney enrolled in a postgraduate degree, saying it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
When she did speak about it with John, they worked out a plan and upon completing the degree, they realised two nights a week in Perth would be workable.
Ms Scotney was a city girl who married a farmer and after 24 years on the land, she is working part-time back in the city.
When she first moved to Badgingarra she thought she would be able to side by side with John.
“Being quite different personalities it didn’t work and I had my first child within 18 months of getting married,” she said.
“That again was a real adjustment because then I was housebound on a farm which was lonely and isolating, despite the fact that Badgingarra was and still is an embracing community.”
Ms Scotney has always maintained some interest off-farm and she was involved in partnership groups.
She said she enjoyed working with the former Department of Agriculture and Food WA in business planning and community development on a part-time basis.
“I have seen women get lost in that phase when their children become independent and country communities don’t function without the help of women in the community,” she said.
Munglinup farmer Gemma Walker is a busy woman, balancing many farm roles, off-farm commitments and a two-year-old daughter.
Ms Walker is involved in the family’s mixed cropping and livestock farm.
“As part of the journey to my farm I started at Muresk, then from there I worked in natural resource management, a State marketing role in AWB Landmark, then moved on to managing grower groups including the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA),” Ms Walker said.
Originally from South Australia, Ms Walker has a routine that keeps her involved with the farm and also allows her to spend time on other projects.
“At 5am I leap out of bed, hop on the motorbike and spend two hours checking all of our sheep because we have a big wild dog problem,” she said.
“Then from there I come back and get organised for the day and continue with the other jobs that are required.”
Ms Walker said she was involved in everything from the farm planning, to a grease monkey during seeding and harvest, a tractor driver, a header driver and whatever else needed doing.
“Our two-year-old daughter has been very lucky to grow up on the farm and has been coming in the tractor with me since she was three weeks old,” she said.
Off-farm Ms Walker spends approximately 25 per cent of her time in different roles, with the main role being part of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Western Panel.
“I am very lucky in my role at GRDC where they have allowed me to take my daughter to the meetings and she has been going to the meetings since she was seven weeks old,” she said.
Ms Walker is also on the Partners in Grain WA board and is helping to build the capacity of people in so many different areas.
“I am on the board of Esperance Organised Primary Producers and I decided to take on that opportunity because I am really keen on business development within our region.”
Whenever there is an opportunity presented Ms Walker said she would stop to see if it was something she was really passionate about before embracing it.
With 20,000 hectares, it’s no wonder Cascade farmer Tara Vermeersch finds herself busy.
Ms Vermeersch works on the family farm that is spread across the Cascade and Mt Madden area.
With an all-cropping enterprise, the business hires three full-time employees and during peak season employs up to 13 casuals.
“I have been on the farm for 10 years, I started working in the office straight away, my mother-in-law was really keen to free up some time and hand over some responsibility,” Ms Vermeersch said.
Today Ms Vermeersch is responsible for all of the office work, including accounts payable, human resources and payroll, employee contracts and the mapping each year.
She said anything to do with paperwork was her responsibility.
“I went paperless two years ago, but sometimes it feels like I am losing a constant battle with my husband’s reading pile,” she said.
The farm also employs a cook to help take away some of the endless responsibilities that come with a large on-farm business.
Off-farm Ms Vermeersch has been an employee relations consultant for a company based in Perth.
“I have been consulting with them for the past 10 years since I moved to the farm and prior to that I was in HR for BHP,” she said.
“I have had lots of clients in Esperance, the Wheatbelt and in Perth, and it just shows that if you have an internet connection you can work from anywhere these days.”
One day Ms Vermeersch noticed there was a significant gap in farming communities and there was a definite lack of awareness and understanding about what their obligations were as employers.
She has been able to merge her professional background in industrial relations with this new industry where she also realised how marginalised they were as small businesses in the bush.
Ms Vermeersch was the co-founder and inaugural chair of Esperance Farm Office Management (EFOM).
“I could see technology taking off in the paddock but we were still using clunky file office systems and fax machines in the office,” she said.
“With the help of another farmer we pitched an idea to SEPWA to start a sub-committee that was dedicated just to the professional development of the farm office manager.”
In 2013 she was elected to the SEPWA executive where she has sat on the board before stepping down last month.
Ms Vermeersch said she suffered from relevance deprivation syndrome, with her husband working a lot.
“I was very isolated and back when I first moved here, I didn’t have a wide support network, but I eventually realised that I was strong and I could do this,” she said.
“More than anything I needed to be kind to myself, because doing the books and raising the kids were two significant contributions to our family, to our business and also to our industry.”
Yuna farmer Nicole Batten said her mixed cropping and livestock program functioned properly with shared responsibilities across the business.
Ms Batten’s role as the director is around the finance, human resource and industry relations, grain marketing and a whole list of other things.
Eighteen months ago Ms Batten resigned from her position in off-farm employment as a community development officer at her local government.
“I had been involved in our farm business for 19 years and had worked off-farm for most of that time in between having children,” Ms Batten said.
“The decision to resign wasn’t one I took lightly – it took me about six months because I needed to analyse where my skills, time and energy were best spent.”
Ms Batten said working off-farm gave her a purpose during the tough seasons and it was gratifying to work with a different team in a different way with a flexible workplace.
“I think the survival of our communities and the survival of our businesses goes hand in hand,” she said.
After resigning from off-farm employment Ms Batten has been able to spend more time on their business and her goals were to do more financial analysis, redevelop their website, transition to a paperless system and improve the HR systems as well.
“I have definitely made some headway into all that and it has freed up some time to spend with our last child before she goes to boarding school,” she said.
Ms Batten’s message was for farms to maintain the systems they had put in place and communicate well with the rest of the team.
“Keeping on top of technology is definitely something that takes a bit of time as well,” she said.