Elizabeth adopts big picture thinking

Elizabeth adopts big picture thinking

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Elizabeth Brennan (left), with mentee Philmah Waken at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Women's Leadership Initiative in Canberra, July, 2018.

Elizabeth Brennan (left), with mentee Philmah Waken at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Women's Leadership Initiative in Canberra, July, 2018.

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Farm Weekly journalist Bree Swift spoke to Ms Brennan about her experiences and plans for the future.

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Having grown up on her family farm at Wongan Hills and co-ordinated a lot of her work for the betterment of the Wheatbelt, Elizabeth Brennan is a name that most locals would know.

A board director of the Rural Regional Remote Women's Network of WA, non-executive director of regenerative food and farming company Wide Open Agriculture and cofounder of consultancy business, agdots, Ms Brennan continues to use her big picture thinking to help the agricultural industry and those living in regional and remote Western Australia.

Having lived in Papua New Guinea for two years, Ms Brennan's work has also extended to the country, co-ordinating a multidisciplinary agricultural research program on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), providing her with a unique insight into global food systems.

Farm Weekly journalist Bree Swift spoke to Ms Brennan about her experiences and plans for the future.

QUESTION: The broadacre farm you grew up on in Wongan Hills recently sold. With the property in your family since 1926, has the sale had an emotional impact on you and your family?

A: The farm sale has been a full spectrum of emotions.

With a legacy as long and as deep as our family has had in Wongan Hills, the sadness is only so raw because the joy of being part of this community has been so profound.

But just because we won't be broadacre farmers here anymore doesn't mean we won't be part of the Wheatbelt or part of the agricultural industry.

Our family will continue to be actively involved in Moora Citrus and Northern Valley Packers in Bindoon.

Q: What did you want to be when you were younger?

A: A zookeeper.

Except chemistry became my nemesis and got in the way of that dream.

We always had injured or orphaned farm and native animals in the backyard.

Watching TV shows like Totally Wild or movies like Fern Gully impressed upon me the importance and beauty of our natural environment - and fostered an early sense of social justice.

Being part of the cyclical nature of farming and understanding how farm machinery worked also catalysed a fascination with systems - which is also why I love nutting out wicked global problems and big picture thinking.

Q: Can you tell me about agdots which you co-founded with your business partner, Sue Middleton? What does the consultancy aim to achieve and how did you first come up with the idea for the business?

A: Sue and I have been working together and in the same circles for years.

The evolution of agdots signifies us getting more strategic about how we want to imagine the ag industry and regional WA - and work towards making that happen.

The kinds of projects we are currently working on focus around building local food systems, regional leadership development, industry strategy and development.

The kinds of projects we're keen to work on in the future would be in food security and enabling other family farming businesses to position and attract investment for growth.

Q: You co-ordinate an agricultural research program in PNG on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). How did you first become involved in this program and what are its objectives?

A: I lived in Papua New Guinea about a decade ago for two years as a then AusAID volunteer - and being exposed to a food system so different to what I knew at home in the broadacre industry triggered a fascination in food security.

I started a Masters in Sustainable Systems majoring in Food Security and started exploring what work was already being done in this space in PNG - that's when I came across ACIAR.

After a few years of sounding out opportunities to work with ACIAR, I was approached by the agency to facilitate a first-of-its-kind multidisciplinary research program.

The program is a unique and diverse set of ACIAR research for development projects (not just research for research's sake) which aims to improve rural livelihoods for men and women in PNG.

The projects look at productivity, market development, private sector investment and making family farms sustainable and effective across key commodities such as cocoa, sweet potato and native nuts.

Q: You lived in Papua New Guinea from 2010 to 2011. What was this experience like and how are PNG's food systems different to that of Australia's?

A: The two years I lived in PNG was humbling and eye-opening.

Growing up on a broadacre farm in an area with some of the best dryland farmers in the world had me a little humbled when I went to PNG and I realised I knew relatively little about how our nearest national neighbour produces food.

There are some stark differences in the types of food given the climate, but probably the biggest difference is the market orientation.

With a relatively small population to land mass and, as a developed nation, we're largely exporters, whereas PNG is home to predominantly subsistence farmers that produce enough for themselves and their families.

But what struck me the most was how relatively food secure PNG was, given its developing nation status.

Most families that have access to customary land have diverse diets and are self-sustaining.

Both our nations have much to learn from each other.

Elizabeth Brennan. Photo by Strange Images Photography.

Elizabeth Brennan. Photo by Strange Images Photography.

Q: A board director for the RRR Women's Network of WA, how important do you think it is that women in agriculture are supported and supportive of each other's endeavours in a typically male dominated industry?

A: Having people in your back pocket that you can call upon when you're struggling with a career conundrum or tackling a problem that is bigger than you can muscle alone is critical.

I'd say that for both women and men.

I'd also suggest that the stereotype of a solo male farmer has shifted each generation and now it's either whole families or broader agribusinesses that reflect the industry composition.

So, women have always been involved in agriculture but generally are less prominent or stereotyped roles.

Historically, we haven't necessarily valued the roles that women have predominantly assumed, but that are critical to farm business success and sustainability.

But that's definitely changing.

And you can say that for the community more broadly too.

While the economic drivers of a regional town are critical, if we don't have the social infrastructure to sustain the town, it doesn't function.

There are barriers to women being more actively involved in different roles within agriculture and regional communities, some of which are structural and some of which are social.

I think if we want to ensure the sustainability of the agricultural industry, we need to ensure that we have as many diverse brains solving problems such as food security and climate change as we can.

Elizabeth Brennan (left) with CEOs for Gender Equity executive officer Tania Cecconi.

Elizabeth Brennan (left) with CEOs for Gender Equity executive officer Tania Cecconi.

Q: You are a non-executive director for Wide Open Agriculture, a regenerative food and farming company which owns the Dirty Clean Food brand. What role do you think regenerative agricultural practices have in the future of the industry and do you think farmers are becoming more receptive to the idea of regenerative agriculture?

A: What resonates with me the most about regenerative agriculture is that it recognises the interconnected nature of human and planetary health.

It seeks to mimic ecosystems in farming, working contextually and more systemically, rather than purely focusing on yield with little consideration for the broader impact.

If I think back a couple decades ago in agriculture, we certainly didn't know then what we know now, and we are now understanding that our narrowly-focused productivity fixation comes at a cost - both onfarm and off.

I see regenerative agriculture as philosophy as much as a series of practices, which I concede can mean that sometimes it's hard to define or understand.

But that's also to be expected because like no two farms are the same, no two ways of farming are either.

Farmers are not shy to innovation and have embraced new knowledge for generations.

Given the holistic nature of regenerative agriculture, many farmers have already adopted many regen practices and others are paying closer attention.

As with any new technology or innovation, there will be the early adopters that will lead the way and create opportunities for us to deepen our collective knowledge.

It is my hope that if any farmers are challenged by the notion of regenerative agriculture they take a moment to reflect why and explore what's stopping them from taking a broader look at the impact of how they farm.

Q: Co-ordinating marketing strategies and implementation for one of the largest citrus operations in the State, Moora Citrus, how easy is it to make WA produce stand out from the rest?

A: WA has a strong reputation for quality fresh produce within the State, nationally and in overseas markets.

Locally, WA is a very parochial market so it's easy to sell the 'buy local' message.

Nationally is a little trickier as WA has a relatively smaller production base compared to the east coast.

When selling into international markets, positioning products as Australian grown resonates more strongly.

That being said, having a brand architecture that allows products to be recognised as Australian while being able to focus down to a regional provenance is becoming more prominent.

Traceability for food safety and the product story is increasingly important regardless of the market.

p Elizabeth Brennan (left), with Alicia Adkins Consulting founder Alicia Adkins at a RRR Network sundowner.

p Elizabeth Brennan (left), with Alicia Adkins Consulting founder Alicia Adkins at a RRR Network sundowner.

Q: Appointed to the Industry Funding Scheme Appointments Committee and as a Commissioner for the Agricultural Produce Commission, what do these roles entail and what prompted you to apply for them?

A: In both cases I was tapped on the shoulder to apply for the leadership positions, which has been the case for many of the career opportunities I've been presented.

Early in my career, I was intentional about getting in front of and connecting with people that I admired and asking how they got to where they did.

I kept building this curiosity and networking muscle until I started getting opportunities to offer my own insight and perspective.

The industry leadership roles I have are fundamentally about ensuring good governance and require me to be across various issues and trends within the agricultural industry.

Q: You won a scholarship from Fairfax Agricultural Media to undertake an intensive 18 month leadership program with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. Can you tell me about this experience and what you learnt?

A: Aside from living in Papua New Guinea, undertaking the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) has been the most formative experience I've had in my career.

The program encourages and, if you're up for the challenge, forces you out of your comfort zone as a leader.

The diverse cohort, who are in the deep end with you, become your greatest supporters, most strategic critics and strongest champions for your personal and professional growth.

The most salient lesson I learnt from the ARLP was to focus my energy on the things that I love and where I can make the biggest impact.

Q: A volunteer on many agricultural advisory groups and committees, what motivates you to dedicate your time to these organisations when you already have a jam packed schedule with your existing jobs?

A: If you have ever lived in a regional community, you'll know that the ambos don't operate, the footy boundary fence doesn't get run, Meals on Wheels don't get delivered to the oldies and many other community lifeblood activities won't happen without volunteers.

I have a strong internal compass and have used the opportunities I've been granted in life to figure out how to financially support myself doing things that I love and making time for things that make my soul happy.

Q: Winner of the Most Outstanding Emerging Leader at the inaugural Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 in 2014 and awarded WA Young Achiever of the Year in 2016 for your voluntary and community contributions, of which career achievement are you most proud?

A: I don't have one standout achievement - it's the subtler, yet profound cultural shifts are the most humbling for me.

One strength I've capitalised on in my career is my intuition and ability to build consensus in teams.

I often notice things that others don't, and it helps me bring the quieter minds and voices into discussions.

It's those perspectives that are often most profound and authentic, and having that sense of team is so much more impactful and fulfilling for all involved.

That's where the real change happens.

That's how we solve the major issues and have meaningful cultural shifts.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced in 2020?

A: I was going to say 'not being able to hug during COVID-19 lockdown' given I'm such a tactile and people-loving person, but the decision to sell the farm probably impacted me more profoundly.

I have a very strong connection to place so the thought of not being able to come home to the wide-open spaces lined with gumtrees and to the embracing community of Wongan Hills was a difficult new reality to adjust to.

It took some time, some introspection and some reimagining the future to remind me that just because I no longer live on a farm doesn't mean that I can't still contribute to the agricultural industry.

Elizabeth Brennan dials into the virtual Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) WA Rural Women's Awards last year.

Elizabeth Brennan dials into the virtual Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) WA Rural Women's Awards last year.

Q: What are your goals for 2021?

A: A key goal of mine is to progress my Masters thesis.

I took a semester off to coalesce ideas for the thesis topic, which is currently focused on how resilient WA's food system is, especially in light of the shock that COVID-19 gave us.

There were record numbers of people seeking food relief last year - and still.

We are a food exporting nation and arguably food secure, yet we have communities that are going to bed hungry and/or malnourished.

I had a conversation with someone earlier this year and they framed it for me well; "You only use sunburn relief when you've been sunburnt, and you only use food relief when your food system is broken".

The other key goal of mine is to have my Calingiri Cougars netball team win at least one game this season.

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