Who is a farmer anyway?

Ask the person sitting next to you to describe a farmer and chances are their response will include something along the lines of…white…male…mid fifties…probably wearing an Akubra… yet despite this 49% of the food grown in Australia is in fact, produced by women.

Women are farmers in their own right — ‘we’ve just got to get better at telling our stories’ says Annabelle Coppin, a beef producer in the WA Pilbara region who featured in the aptly named Visible Farmer Project (a 2019 documentary series designed to put a spotlight on the untold stories of women living and working on the land). Women have had a fair bit of catching up to do with men; until the 70’s women were unable to enrol in agricultural courses in Australia and even more astonishingly until 1994 women could not legally list their status on the census as ‘farmer,’ given the alternatives ‘silent partner, ‘domestic’ or ‘farmer’s wife as options instead.

In the late 1980s, women across many industries, including agriculture were sick of taking a back seat and began attending Women on Farms gatherings, which were an important part of the Rural Women’s Movement. In 1986, the Victorian Rural Women’s Network was initiated, followed by NSW in 1992. Progress has not necessarily been speedy but it has been steady as women farmers gradually begin to tell their stories and take pride in their work on the land.

Debbie Dowden, a Western Australian cattle farmer also features in the Visible Farmer series. “The general public looks at women on farms as being ‘farmer’s wives’ [who] send them off to work with a big kiss. That’s not the reality. Living on the land for over 20 years, I could never really categorise myself as anything and after a while I started to reflect and I thought, I have every right to call myself a farmer because this is what I do for a living and I need to stand up and claim it for myself.”

Jane Sale manages three large cattle stations in the Kimberley with her husband and is proud to tell her story. “I came out [to the country], but I didn’t marry into this. It’s a project my husband and I are building together.” With the aim of encouraging others to share their story, Jane founded Central Station, a website, blog and now podcast, giving farmers in outback Australia a voice. Just as farmers are not all men, farming is not just about driving tractors, mustering cattle and fixing machinery. Farming is incredibly technical, requiring strategies around crop & stock supervision and marketing, weather monitoring, as well as water & resource management. Just as gender diversity around the boardroom table or on management teams builds resilience and innovation, our food systems and agricultural industry has and will continue to benefit from more women building careers ‘in Ag’.

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Women are not only working on the farm, ABARES also reports women contribute a massive 75% of ‘off-farm’ income to rural families in Australia which is often what is used to keep food on the table when things are tough. In addition, we are now beginning to see a movement of female ‘farmpreneurs’. Frances Jones from Wooleen Station is a fantastic example. When Frances’ husband David took over his family cattle farm and made the controversial decision to completely destock in an attempt to rehabilitate the land, Frances founded Wooleen as an eco-tourism experience and education facility, generating an income stream for the property and raising sustainability awareness.

In a similar vein, Jade Miles farms alongside her husband Charlie in their orchards at Black Barn Farm, as well as opening up the property to offer nursery and tree sales and a ‘pick your own fruit’ service to the general public. Jade also spends a considerable amount of time travelling around the country running workshops for school children and community groups on various permaculture topics such as grafting and seed saving.

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Now more than ever, women farmers need to be proud of what they do and get on board with the growing number of programs designed to support and inspire. The NFF’s Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program is building a nation wide alumni of skilled female leaders who have a vision and commitment to agriculture, while the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award acknowledges the essential role women play in rural industries, businesses and communities.

At a grassroots level, the internet and social media are increasingly important tools to give women a voice. Community organisation, Women Who Farm who feature and celebrate women farmers from around the world, has 123,000 followers on Instagram and their corresponding hashtag #womenwhofarm has been used nearly 250,000 times so far. Armed with the tools, programs and support to stand up and be heard there’s never been a better time for women to tackle the traditional view and tell that world that yes, we are farmers too!