THE RURAL WOMEN LEADING THE WAY

The Agrifutures Rural Women’s Award, Australia’s leading award acknowledging and supporting the essential role women play in rural industries, businesses and communities, has boosted the exposure of more than 50 like-minded, vibrant women. Here you’ll meet this year’s seven state champions, who are busy putting their ideas into action.


Country women wear many hats. They’re changemakers and tyre changers. Sunscreen police and entrepreneurs. Businesswomen, family CEOs, list-makers, aunts, musterers, coffee-drinkers-while-running-for-the-school-busers, fencers, mothers, dirt road drivers, roll up the sleevers, gardeners, volunteers and committee members.

Work doesn’t stop at 5pm for most women in the bush, and it’s not just the flickering internet service that poses a challenge. It’s the roos on the side of the road, the limited health resources and the long distances to travel. The ripple effects of drought, flood and fire, whether on the land or not.


The innate grit to get things done, despite the odds, is one of the driving forces behind the Agrifutures Rural Women’s Award (RWA); Australia’s leading award acknowledging and supporting the essential role women play in rural industries, businesses and communities. Running for more than two decades, the Award has boosted the exposure of more than 50 likeminded, vibrant women vying to instil change in their communities. Alongside a $10,000 Westpac bursary, each annual state winner is offered mentoring, resources and support via its nationwide network of business and community leaders – a life-changing opportunity for women championing to make a difference locally.


While 2020 wasn’t the smoothest ride for the selected state winners thanks to COVID-19, each woman showed why she’d been selected in the first place – pivoting to change their ideas and proposed pilot programs to circumnavigate new restrictions and challenges thrown their way. With the national winner to be announced later in 2021, the seven state champions are all busy putting their ideas into action, watching the fruits of their labour starting to take shape.


Photograph by: Jesse Edwards

ELISHA PARKER

Queensland

They say if you’re looking to get something done, ask a busy woman. If that’s the case, Elisha Parker is your girl. The mother of two is a co-founder of Cattlesales.com.au – a national cattle advertising website that is the first of its kind in Australia – that she operates while working full-time remotely as a lawyer specialising in asbestos disease. Did I mention her daughter is also home-schooled via School of the Air? Yeah, she’s pretty busy.


Elisha won Queensland’s Rural Women’s Award for her work with Cattle Sales, the idea for which was sparked four and a half-years ago. With no single national site built just for cattle, Elisha and co-founder Annabelle Spann created one; despite living 1000-kilometres apart. The pair ironically sold a mob of cattle to get the site built and have been perfecting it ever since. “We built it to take away the problems with geography and make it transparent as to what cattle were where and when,” she says. “It’s such a simple idea, we couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist.”


The entrepreneur says virtual and augmented reality is the future for digital sales; rendering the idea of geography being more meaningless than ever. “We’ve got all the capabilities to host that sort of technology on our site, but it’ll be a little while before everyone is able to go and virtually film their bull, for people at home to put on their goggles and have a virtual experience walking around it,” she says.


Photograph by: Lean Timms

CRESSIDA CAIN

New South Wales

The passion for the dairy industry shines from Cressida Cain’s voice. The mum of two and award-winning artisanal sheep cheese maker was awarded the 2020 NSW title for her project, Dairy Cocoon; a not-for-profit online platform and support hub to encourage dairy entrepreneurship, with marketing help and business modelling ideas. The idea came about after Cressida saw firsthand the Australian demand for boutique dairy products with a strong story of provenance.


“In 1980, there were 22,000 dairy farms and today there are just over 5000. In 2019, we had 486 small, family-owned dairies close, which is the largest annual exit,” she says. “Australia is importing a huge amount of cheese. In 1980, we imported 65,000 tonnes and last year we imported 105,000 tonnes and that’s going up by about 4000 tonnes every year, so there is huge opportunity for local independent dairy brands.”


The dairy farmer milks the family’s 150 East Friesian ewes alongside her husband, Michael, every morning on their lush property in the Southern Highlands. Originally hailing from Sydney, the pair made the tree-and-career change in 2011 alongside their two young sons – and haven’t looked back since. “I firmly believe that a rising tide can lift all boats. I have such a passion for the dairy industry and I believe strongly there is room for so many more independent brands,” she says. “The Rural Women’s Award is an amazing and supportive program. To now be part of the alumni, who are an incredible bunch of capable, intelligent women, so collaborative and supportive of each other, is an absolute honour.”


Photograph by: Ness Vanderburgh

KAREN BROCK

Tasmania

Karen Brock has overcome more than her fair share of challenges to take the 2020 crown for Tasmania. The Karen you see today is changing the face of the plant supply chain through her specialisation in plant tissue culture – but 25 years ago, things looked vastly different. Leaving school without an HSC score, Brock married a local dairy farmer and had her first child at just 20. After suffering five years of domestic violence, she gathered up her two children and left – with no qualifications or assets to her name. “I went and studied Horticulture at TAFE just to give myself a certificate in something,” she says.


From there, Karen has built skill upon skill, learning to propagate before buying a run-down farm in the Tamar Valley hinterlands which she turned into a wholesale nursery. When she developed an allergy to mould spores in potting mix she again pivoted; studying tissue culture at Gatton University. The scientist – now a Nuffield scholar – produces more than a million genetically-improved plants every year, with a focus on disease resistance, climate tolerance and high yields.


“Winning the Rural Women’s Award has given me a heap of tools and an amazing network of people,” Karen says. “I don’t think at this stage I’ve actually got words to encompass it. Every week I realise the value of it. It’s like opening up birthday presents every week.”


Photograph by: Shaana Mcnaught

AMY KIRKE

Northern Territory

Part mermaid, part human, Amy Kirke’s dedication to the ocean and its inhabitants has seen her develop an interactive outreach program, intent on educating early about sustainable fishing.

The PhD student and marine biologist is passionate about drawing more women into the world of Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) – her commitment earning her the title of Northern Territory’s Rural Women’s Award Winner.


“I’ve always loved teaching. I’m obviously quite obsessed with the ocean; I really love it and I love learning facts,” Amy says. “I just want to share them with everyone else because it’s so cool and surely everyone will think it is as cool as I do!”


Developing her pilot outreach program, the Science Totally Roadshow, the researcher hopes to take the program on the road with a particular focus on Arnhem Land and schools near Katherine. Boasting a simulated, interactive fishing game, the roadshow educates school kids on all things sustainable fishing. “It was an absolute honour to win, I was very surprised. I applied because I really want to push myself to do more outreach,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to start the ball rolling on something that’s quite important. One of the goals outlined in the 2020 Close the Gap report is to get more Indigenous kids into tertiary level education. I think stuff like this, where I’m a role model for women in STEM, is to go out and show others it can be done.”


Photograph by: Stephanie Coombes

CARA PEEK

Western Australia

Western Australia winner, Cara Peek is evoking change in her community through the sport of rodeo. A proud Yawuru / Bunuba woman, the Native Title lawyer founded her for-purpose organisation, Saltwater Country, in 2016. Based in Broome, the organisation helps create employment pathways and training opportunities for at-risk Indigenous youth, through bull riding clinics, campdraft and the running of large scale events – including the annual rodeo and country music festival, Rhythm & Ride.


“Rodeo and stock work is definitely a career pathway and it just depends on what part of the industry or the sport you actually want to be involved in,” she says. “Is it as a competitor? An event organiser? A photographer? A stock contractor? We want to create a culturally-safe place where people can train, work, learn and show how brilliant they are.”


For Cara, it’s about helping her community re-identify with the symbolic power of the iconic Aboriginal cowboy – representing the rich pastoral heritage of Indigenous Western Australia. “When you live in a community that has some of the highest suicide rates in Australia and the world, jumping on a bull is not really the biggest risk you’re going to take,” she says. “The collective success of our people in delivering events and programs is empowering in the social, emotional and economic development and advancement of Indigenous people in the north. It provides real time experience and solutions – it’s a place for our people to shine. It’s also an opportunity for training and development with transferable skills.”


Photograph by: Emily Wilson

KELLY BARNES

Victoria

For Kelly Barnes, the lockdown of COVID-19 demonstrated perfectly the isolation she is hoping to combat through her project, Mates Working Dog School. The Victorian Rural Women’s Award winner and avid dog lover created the concept in a bid to help farmers gain more social opportunities to lessen the effects of solitude, while building low stress stock handling skills and strong bonds with their working dogs.


“I’d been interested in farmer information workshop-type groups that not only offer information, but also a social wellbeing aspect where they interact and get together,” Kelly says. “I was pondering how you could evaluate how these groups affect producer wellbeing. Looking at all my photos with dogs, I realised there could be something meaningful in researching working dogs and their relationship with farmers.”


Kelly knows firsthand the wellspring of benefits dogs offer, having battled her own experience with chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Receiving the nod from Agrifutures as the recipient of the Award showed the entrepreneur her lived-experience wasn’t in vain. “Winning the Award really boosted my confidence, because I didn’t really know if other people would think it was a good idea. Going through the application process and brainstorming and fine tuning it, you really get all this backing and then all these people saying what a good idea it is,” she says. “You think, I’ve got something here, I’m actually worth something. I have got value and I’ve got something to give. You don’t have to have a fine-tuned, amazing idea; you just have to start and the process is designed to help you fine-tune it along the way. There are so many people out there who will help you.”


Photograph by: Alysha Sparks

STEPHANIE SCHMIDT

South Australia

South Australian farmer and clinical psychologist Stephanie Schmidt also developed her concept after experiencing the need for resources designed for those in the bush. After giving birth to her son Ted in 2015, Stephanie suffered from Postnatal Depression. After seeking the help of a psychologist and finding the right medication for her, the now mother of three saw the need to bridge the gap for farmers looking to access psychological resources.

“Mental health is for everyone, not just whether you’ve got depression; it’s kind of the same as eating our fruit, vegetables each day,” Steph says. “If we look after ourselves, it has a ripple effect; we’re more effective, our farms will be more effective and our families will be healthier.”


Thanks to AgriFutures’ South Australian Rural Women’s Award research bursary, Stephanie has been able to launch her pilot program, ACTFORAG. Combining her clinical knowledge and on-farm experience, the program offers practical strength and resilience-building strategies for farmers, businesses and families through face-to-face and digital consultations. In 2021, the psychologist is also developing a stepped program and mobile app to deliver resources directly to farming communities. This new program will be offered to businesses that work closely with primary producers, who are often the first to see earlier signs of mental health deterioration.


“The idea is to equip consultants, such as bank managers and agronomists, with simple skills in psychological flexibility so that they can share them in their daily interactions with farmers and small business owners. This links in with a pool of resources available within an online community,” she says.


{words: Emily Herbert}