Everlasting passion of rural women

Everlasting passion of rural women

Life & Style

The Lucinda tank features nine faces: a wool classer, agronomist, sportswoman, three generational farmers and a volunteer community stalwart, firefighter and ambulance officer.


"WOMEN are the backbone of a rural community".

It is a simple, yet powerful message painted on a concrete water tank, which stands proudly on the Horsepower Highway or Broomehill-Gnowangerup Road.

A detailed mural celebrating rural women in all of their diverse forms, ages, appearances and roles, complements the string of words.

The Lucinda tank features nine faces: a wool classer, agronomist, sportswoman, three generational farmers and a volunteer community stalwart, firefighter and ambulance officer.

All women are an inspiration in their own right.

"These are real women that live in our region, most of whom were born and bred in town," said Horsepower Highway project manager and GNP360 secretary Cassandra Beeck.

"The artwork celebrates what rural women are and what they do."

Gnowangerup locals would recognise them and know their story, but those passing by would be intrigued to learn more.

Who are they?

And what do they do?

Farm Weekly and Ripe journalist Brooke Littlewood spoke to four of the tank's nine faces including 'chook lady' Blair Hinkley, horsewoman Shelby Garnett, fourth-generation farmer Chantelle Varley and wool classer Dael Parnell to find out.

Beyond that Ms Littlewood learned the mural - alongside other artwork and agricultural relics - was a reflection of Gnowangerup's people and pioneering heritage and how the Horsepower Highway had revived the small rural town, bringing it back from the brink of lifelessness.

Vintage tractors stand proudly along the highway, as examples of real-life machines that established the agricultural regions around the township.

Some are displayed in their original working state, others have been restored to reflect the fabric and personalities that make up their local community.

Each has a name and a story to tell.

It is a simple, yet powerful message painted on a concrete water tank, which stands proudly on the Horsepower Highway or Broomehill-Gnowangerup Road.

It is a simple, yet powerful message painted on a concrete water tank, which stands proudly on the Horsepower Highway or Broomehill-Gnowangerup Road.

The Lucinda tanks are the latest installation to the tourist attraction trail, a brainchild of Gnowangerup volunteer group GNP360.

As well as artwork of the women, the Lucinda tanks site features a second tank, which has been revitalised with a splash of colour in Lucinda everlasting flowers.

There is also a bright pink tractor Lucinda - named for the supplier of those flowers along the highway and right across the Great Southern.

The site is important to the town's local security, as the tanks hold an emergency water supply used for animal husbandry and to combat bushfires.

"I thought, wouldn't it be amazing if we could highlight not just women through the tractor itself, but also tie that in with something more substantial such as an art piece and mural," Ms Beeck said.

"After securing two grants, we held community consultation and that's where the idea of having women on the tanks came from."

Freelance visual artist Jerome Davenport captured more than 300 images, as part of the engagement process before deciding on the final combination.

As well as Ms Hinkley, Ms Garnett, Ms Varley and Ms Parnell, the mural featured community volunteer stalwart Wendy Gordon, Borden Bushfire Brigade volunteer firefighter Heidi Sounness, St John ambulance volunteer Betty Brown, Nutrien Ag Solutions agronomist Cass Chambers and sportswoman and proud Goreng girl Caroline Miniter.

"I found the stories of those women and included them for their significance during that process," Ms Beeck said.

"The reason it worked was because we had a good idea of the kinds of things that many women across our whole community do rurally anyway.

"It worked out to be a beautiful combination in the end because there is a very broad cross section of women represented on the tank."

Ms Beeck added that the whole intent of the Horsepower Highway was to share history and rural life in a fun and interactive way, which in turn would attract more tourists to the town.

She said it had done that.

"It has given people a reason to come through the township of Gnowangerup to approach the Stirling Range National Park, which is one of Australia's most beautiful drives and that has in turn created life and vitality in our main street," she said.

"It has also created conversations not just within our own community, but online as well."

Blair Hinkley

The tank mural shares the message that women are the backbone of a rural community. Despite being known as the chook lady, 19-year-old Blair Hinkley's passion is sheep.

The tank mural shares the message that women are the backbone of a rural community. Despite being known as the chook lady, 19-year-old Blair Hinkley's passion is sheep.

THERE'S irony in the artwork that depicts Blair Hinkley on the Gnowangerup water tank art.

Despite being affectionately known as the chook lady, the 19-year-old's greatest passion is sheep.

Ms Hinkley said there was a story behind every face that featured on the mural.

Some were not yet finished and others only just started.

And while every story may be different, they have one thing in common: they honour and recognise the efforts of rural women in communities and inspire future generations.

"Betty (Brown) and Wendy (Gordon) are idols of the community and I have looked up to them my whole life," Ms Hinkley said.

"Even though they aren't directly involved in agriculture, to see how far they have come inspires me, as if to say 'you can do this too'.

"And then there's Chantelle (Varley) and Shelby (Garnett), who have returned home and to their family farms, which is exactly where I want to be."

Ms Hinkley's career in agriculture started at six-years-old with more than a 100 chickens and their eggs.

From the end of her driveway, she sold the eggs by the dozen for two dollars and she was quick to build a reputable, household name within the community.

"We would buy day-old chooks, which (as well as the eggs) I would raise and sell," she said.

"I always had chooks, but that stopped when I went away for boarding school because I was not onfarm to manage them and keep them going."

Ms Hinkley added that it was humbling to know the efforts she made as a child benefitted the Gnowangerup community in such a way.

She said it was what had inspired her to carry on.

"I want to give back to the community - that's what I am most excited about,'' she said.

"I hope people make that link like 'hey, she was on the tank when she was 18 and now she's back'."

She may be an only child, but Ms Hinkley's interest in agriculture and farming was never forced.

And it comes as no surprise that her main interest is livestock, given her family runs anywhere between 10,000 and 14,000 sheep at any time.

The Hinkleys' breeding stock are mostly Merino, but they also have the Prolific maternal composite breed, which utilises Prime SAMM, East Friesian, Finn and NZ composite genetics, originating from Genstock, Kojonup.

Risk is spread between farms at Gnowangerup, Rocky Gully and Bridgetown.

"When you put the Prolific composites over the Merino you get the best of both worlds and that dual-purpose sheep," Ms Hinkley said.

"We get high fertility and the wool quality is also still there as a by-product.

"We breed Merinos to keep the flock going and put the composites back over them.

"But that's what I am interested in, the whole genetics side of it."

Ms Hinkley's interest in genetics started when her father Brenton started buying Prolific rams, as well as Gotland sheep.

She said she also enjoyed pregnancy scanning, which was something done every year to identify multiple and single bearing ewes.

"I love helping out, over summer I run the sheep side of it, while dad does harvest, so he doesn't have to do as much work,'' Ms Hinkley said.

"I only stepped up to take over the sheep side of things last year when I finished school early.

"I came home at the start of harvest in November.

"When we started harvest I fed all the ewes and any others that needed feeding on a two or three-day rotation."

On the rotation, sheep were fed grain, barley and a small amount of oats.

Ms Hinkley said she had always been interested in sheep, but it was an orphaned lamb named Buddy that she rescued, which ignited her passion.

This passion pushed her into studying to become a veterinarian and to work with livestock, which she believes will help her when she eventually takes over the farm.

"It was always inevitable that I would come back, but it has never been forced on me that I have to come back," she said.

"I love being back here, it is great."

When it comes to the sheep industry's future, Ms Hinkley said it was obvious many issues were associated with it.

She said she believed practices, which the wider society deemed cruel and unethical, could be combated through genetics.

"I feel like practices such as mulesing are going to be phased out,'' she said.

"So maybe the alternative is to find a way through genetics or breeding to reduce the need for that, without losing the quality of meat in sheep.

"Everyone asks me what I want to do when I graduate, but I'm not entirely sure, I just know it will involve livestock.

"Hopefully by the time I graduate there will be a job or I can create a job in what I am interested in.

"I hope that being on the tank helps other young women realise that while there may not be a spot in agriculture for you now, there could be jobs created in the future."

Shelby Garnett

Sixth-generation sheep farmer Shelby Garnett, 22, is proud to represent rural women in agriculture on the Lucinda tanks.

Sixth-generation sheep farmer Shelby Garnett, 22, is proud to represent rural women in agriculture on the Lucinda tanks.

DESPITE growing up on a sheep farm, Shelby Garnett didn't always know women were - or could be - farmers.

"I obviously realised they were involved, but thought it was more so behind the scenes," the 22-year-old said.

Today, Ms Garnett is proud to work on her family's farm and represent rural women, particularly in agriculture, as one of nine faces featured on the Gnowangerup water tank art.

"I think there are definitely more women stepping into agriculture and realising that it isn't just for men," she said.

"Being on the tank says 'we are here, we are having a crack' and also inspires conversations around farming succession and things such as that."

A sixth-generation sheep farmer, Ms Garnett is the eldest of three daughters and works alongside her father Collyn on her family's Willemenup farm.

While she was painted with her beloved horse Lani to represent the Great Southern's horsewomen, she actually has a passion for sheep.

Her childhood is filled with memories of showing sheep, helping out in the sheep yards, droving sheep and all the things farm kids do.

It is fair to say that she has always had an affinity for life on the land with a particular interest in prime lambs and animal production.

After graduating from high school, Ms Garnett moved to the big smoke and studied agribusiness at Marcus Oldham at Geelong, in Victoria.

At the end of 2019, she found herself drawn back to farming life and returned home.

"It has been a readjustment from studying in the city, but I wouldn't have it any other way,'' she said.

"Life is really good - farming is what I have always loved and what I always will love, I think."

Formerly a Poll Merino stud (and Curlew Creek Poll Dorset stud), Willemenup is now primarily a wool growing operation with prime lambs and cropping.

The Garnetts run 3000 Merino breeding ewes and are going through their Poll Dorset stud's last line of rams.

This year, they decided to expand their cropping program and planted a canola crop for the first time in more than 10 years.

"It is exciting to expand on our enterprise a little bit more," Ms Garnett said.

"Now that we don't have the studs we can focus on cropping a bit more and our sheep numbers."

Her interest in animal production has given her the opportunity to travel internationally to Argentina, China and New Zealand.

A highlight was working on a cattle boat as an onboard stockhandler in 2017.

The boat was sent to Vietnam and being only 18-years-old at the time, Ms Garnett described the experience as both daunting and a confidence builder.

Her interest also spans through to environmental stewardship in looking after the land, pasture management and soil health.

"In terms of agriculture, what I love most about it is that it is extremely inclusive,'' she said.

"I know people from all walks of life who are having a crack in agriculture and have found their place, they enjoy it and they love it.

"The people are great - they are like no other people in the world.

"One thing dad and I have always said is farmers are the same worldwide."

Ms Garnett added that she was "extremely grateful" for the opportunities the industry had given her.

As for now, her focus was becoming more involved in the farm and ultimately taking over when her father decides to retire.

"I'm working towards that as an end goal, but in the meantime I am absolutely lapping up all the knowledge and experience I can," she said.

"And hopefully I can inspire some other young women along the way.

"Collectively, for all of us to be a part of the mural has shown that - as it says - women are the backbone of rural communities."

Dael Parnell

Dael Parnell, Gnowangerup wool classer and handler.

Dael Parnell, Gnowangerup wool classer and handler.

LOOKING at Dael Parnell's image on the water tank, one is overcome with a feeling of great strength and power.

With her arms crossed and clippers in hand, the Gnowangerup wool classer and handler represents all women working in shearing sheds across the Great Southern district.

And she's proud of it.

"Many people wouldn't know, unless they are locals, that there are women around here that do the things we do," Ms Parnell said with pride.

"I think the artwork will definitely inspire young people, in particular females, who drive past and think 'wow, that's cool, I can do that'."

Thirty-four-year-old Ms Parnell's earliest memories of the shearing shed date back to when she was just four-years-old.

"We would hang out at the shed with dad and grab lollies off the shearers," she said.

"I'd often be on the broom rousing and picking up wool.

"I loved the freedom and being able to go play in the yards and pens."

Born and bred in Gnowangerup, Ms Parnell is a local through and through.

While she is technically a townie, her grandparents lived on a farm and agriculture has always been a part of her life.

Her father was a farmer and shearer and she carried on the tradition at 18-years-old when she started working in the sheds fulltime.

Before receiving her wool classing stencil, Ms Parnell worked as a roustabout for six years.

"As a rousey I worked with classers, who took me under their wing.

"They knew I was interested in classing and taught me a few things on the job."

Over the years, the industry has taken her all over Australia, New Zealand and even as far as the United Kingdom.

When she was 19, she travelled to South Australia and worked in the station country between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy.

When asked what one of the biggest highlights of her career was Ms Parnell said: "Working for renowned shearer Darin Ford in Southland, New Zealand."

"I did a season there and that's probably the fastest team of shearers I have ever worked in,'' she said.

"They were all shearing well over 100 sheep per run in two hours - no-one was shearing under 400 sheep a day for an individual tally.

"The flock is predominantly crossbred sheep, so I had to move much faster than I do with the Merinos here."

She added that while it was a more demanding job in New Zealand, there were more staff in the shed, which meant more hands on deck.

"I feel like we do work a lot harder in Australia, but that one job I had in New Zealand was an exception,'' she said.

"Some shearers were going for world records and things such as that."

Another standout memory for Ms Parnell was working at King Island, in the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania .

She labelled the experience as "crazy" with a two-stand and shearing for the entire island in a week.

Nowadays she works mainly as a wool classer, but not full-time as she has children.

"I have had my wool classing stencil for 10 years,'' she said.

"The whole idea is to class the wool into saleable lines and present it as best as you can for market, so the farmer can get the big dollars.

"You get a variety of people coming and going in the shearing industry and because of this I think communication and people skills are most important."

With more and more women working in shearing sheds, Ms Parnell hoped to inspire the younger generation to do the same.

"There are so many females working in the industry, I would say a good 90 per cent of wool handlers are women," she said.

"There are so many female shearers too and they are really good at it.

"They have a great mentality for shearing and a better eye for detail than the blokes do."

Chantelle Varley (née Wise)

Chantelle Varley (nee Wise) a fourth-generation farmer, with dog Nala was destined for a future in agriculture and life on the family farm.

Chantelle Varley (nee Wise) a fourth-generation farmer, with dog Nala was destined for a future in agriculture and life on the family farm.

REFLECTING on her childhood, Chantelle Varley (née Wise) has fond memories of jumping in the ute and helping her dad move sheep.

She was destined for a future in agriculture and life on the family farm, but didn't always think the dream was possible.

Today, the 27-year-old fourth generation farmer works alongside her brother Brandon in running the family's sheep and cropping operation.

And she wouldn't change a thing.

For Ms Varley, the water tank art was a great way to honour a diverse range of women, who play an integral role in rural communities.

"Men do a lot too obviously, but it is nice to show that women are getting involved," Ms Varley said.

"Previously there was that mentality of 'women don't take over the farm'.

"But times are changing and there are more younger women staying on and having an opportunity they might not otherwise have had before."

Clear Valley runs 1750 mating ewes and a 2100 hectare cropping program of mainly wheat and also barley, lupins and canola.

With an interest in livestock, Ms Varley focuses on the sheep side of things and leaves Brandon in charge of cropping.

Before moving onto the farm she was studying at TAFE to become a veterinarian nurse.

"I was studying long distance and working part-time for a vet while also working part-time on the farm," she said.

"While studying was a good experience, the farm won out.

"I never wanted to move to the city or anything like that."

It is the lifestyle of the land - as well as the sheep - that Ms Varley loves most.

She said while she doesn't mind sitting in the tractor, she prefers to deal with animals because it was "more hands on and fun".

As a commercial operation, Clear Valley breeds its own rams and also buys some to introduce different bloodlines into its flock.

"That's what I love about it - going through and picking the sheep out," Ms Varley said.

"We are a bit more hands on compared to your average farmer, who might buy all their rams in.

"Dad and I select the special sheep for breeding rams, we go through them all, class them and pick the ones we want.

"We get one or two different rams every couple of years to keep the bloodline different while breeding our own rams, which is fun."

Having focused on Merinos, Ms Varley is introducing crossbred sheep for the first time this year.

Crossbreds are run separately on a lease block and were introduced to get more of a return on prime lamb, spreading their risk.

Having a smaller operation than most in the Great Southern district, Ms Varley said she does all of the sheep work - apart from shearing - with her brother and father.

Her interest however lies in the wool.

"We want a sheep that does a bit of both, with the breeding mob it is all about the wool and we look for a sheep with good structure and size as well,'' she said.

"I love wool, but it is important to have that balance in the flock."

Shearing is once a year and produces about 100 bales.

When it comes to agriculture it is the lifestyle and working outdoors that Ms Varley loves most - as well as the togetherness and connection within small town communities.

"The neighbours are always there to help and you are always there to help them in return,'' she said.

"It is a great environment to grow up in, you can't beat it."

When it comes to any changes she would like to see on the farm in the future, Ms Varley said she wanted to continue carrying on her father's legacy.

"Dad runs a pretty good ship," she said.

"I would love to increase sheep numbers if we were able to secure more land, but with farming at the moment, land prices are crazy so I doubt that would happen any time soon.

"I would also like to increase lambing percentages; we had a particularly bad year this year and we dropped down to about 85 per cent off the back of drought.

"We didn't have much feed around and a couple of my mobs were on OK feed, while others weren't, so that killed the percentage.

"The mob on feed was quite strong, so I should have managed that a bit better with rotating sheep on different pastures."

It's a different story this year with high rainfall (exceeding the 350 millimetre average) filling dams and leaving paddocks "bouncing".

Ms Varley said with water everywhere, this season was set-up to "be a good one".

"We installed tanks onto the property, so we can cart water if we need to, should we face another drought," she said.

"I don't think we are going to need that anytime soon thankfully."

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