Today’s guest blog comes from Art4agriculture Young Farming Champion and founder of Ask an Aussie Farmer Kylie Stretton. Kylie shares with us this highly entertaining presentation she gave on International Women’s Day
Rural women are gaining momentum; we are at the forefront of change in how the rest of the country views rural Australia. And our first step is building connections with our urban counterparts. They want to know more, they want to support us, but we need to make the first step. And please know that when I speak about rural Australia, I don’t just mean those working in Agriculture. We need our rural communities as much as they need farmers. Charters Towers is considered “rural”, you are in essence rural women in a rural community, supported by and supporting rural families. A title I wear with immense pride.
The rural population of Australia stands at 11% of total population; we need to find ways to make urban Australia including policy makers aware of us. We want them to understand that our numbers may not be huge, but our importance is. We are essential to Australia’s vibrant economic health, natural resource management and producing some of the highest quality food and fibre in the world.
I haven’t always been so vocal about my passion for rural Australia, but it’s obviously been lying dormant within in me, a culmination of having the land in my blood for hundreds of years.
I have a fairly interesting family history, men who were famous watchmakers, opera singers, written about by Charles Dickens and what not. The first of my family to come to Australia were considered pioneers of the Hunter Valley. But there is very little mention about the women. But from what I’ve found out they’re pretty amazing too. There was my Great-Great-Great-Great Grandmother, a farmer’s daughter who sailed with her husband and children from England to Van Diemen’s Land in 1826. They bought with them one of the first purebred Devon heifers to grace Australia’s shores, starting off a legacy in the Australian beef industry, of which I am now 7th generation in.
We’ve just moved further north each generation and the preferred choice of breed is no longer the hairy Devons but the sleek Brahmans. And apart from my grandfather, that line of the family tree has been passed down through women.
Then there was my great-great Grandmother on another branch of the family tree who was apparently a four foot, fiery haired, Irish woman who raised her family among the sand dunes of Cameron’s Corner and was respected (or possibly feared) by many. Then my Grandmother from another branch left Sydney as a young woman and travelled to a station near Boulia in Outback Qld to become the first female bookkeeper that those parts had ever seen.
Aberglassyn House, Hunter Valley. This was built by my great-great-great-great Grandparents in the 1840’s
Then there’s all the other amazing women like my mum, aunty, sister and cousins who probably don’t think they do anything special. But they do. Rural Australia can be a beautiful place but can be harsh and unforgiving for those that eke out a living producing enough food and fibre to feed and clothe 60 million people worldwide each year. These “everyday” women bring a softness into this environment, they bring love and grace to temper the mood swings of the awe inspiring Mother Nature.
Like all bush kids I learnt just how fickle Mother Nature could be. I grew up on a station south east of Charters Towers, down near the Burdekin Dam. (My maiden name is Barnicoat for those of you trying to work out exactly where I fit into Charters Towers) and my schooling was done through the School of Distance Education and Blackheath and Thornburgh College as a boarder. We went from having a massive wet season in 1991 to barely seeing a drop of rain until my first day of Boarding school in 1994. It had been that dry that on my first weekend home from school, I was kept awake by this awful noise. It got the better of me in the end I ran crying to Mum. It turns out that at 13, I’d forgotten what frogs and toads sounded like when they had water to play in.
When I finished school I decided to follow in my Grandmothers footsteps and head west. Not to be a bookkeeper though, my sister got more than her fair share of those sorts of brains, leaving absolutely none for me. Which is scary as we run our own business and I do the books…..
Nor was I going to be a Jillaroo as cattle and horses scare the bejeezus out of me if they get too close. I was going to be a governess and had been offered a job on Gallipoli, which is an Outstation of Alexandria. On the wide open spaces of the Barkly Tableland in the Northern Territory, Alexandria is one of the biggest cattle stations in the world, it is about a quarter of the size of Tasmania and can run up to 55 000hd of cattle.
The Land of “Nothing”, Barkly Tableland
At first glance it seems to be a “land of nothing”. All blue sky and brown treeless plains. It’s like being in a western movie and you expect a heard of bison to trundle past. But then a massive flock of wild budgerigars wheel over head or some kind of poisonous snake tries to sneak into the school room and you remember exactly what country you’re in.
It’s also isolated by road in the wet season. Which meant I had to fly in on the mail plane. Which was this little sardine can of a Cessna. I had never been on a plane before and it scarred me that much that it took me another 12 years to get on even a 747 heading to Brisbane. I stumbled down the metal shonky steps of this little box of hell, pale as a ghost but still very green around the gills to stand blinking on the rocky dirt airstrip. I squinted through the glare and tears at my welcoming party which consisted of two little brown eyed, blonde haired kids and their dad. And as I shuffled to the left a bit my fuzzy eyes noticed this huge strapping lad. “Oh dear god, please do not let me vomit on his boots.” No, I didn’t disgrace myself, in fact I still must have cut an alright figure. Or maybe my frailness touched this young man’s heart. Or maybe he just moved quick before all the other young ringers came back from holidays as women are scarce out there. Because we’ve been married for nearly 12 years and have two blonde children of our own.
After moving around a bit, we came back to Charters Towers for the kids to be closer to their Grandparents and cousins. And it was good to be home. I’ve heard it said before that you don’t have to be indigenous to feel an affinity for the land. And I get that. My heart lies in the sandy creeks with paper bark tea trees, milky water and black basalt rocks of the Burdekin region. I am so pleased that our little block has a couple of these creeks. They may be hard work with the noxious weeds in them, but I hope Ella-Beth and Clancy grow up appreciating the true beauty and vitality of this district.
And a few years after that we decided to bite the bullet and start our own livestock agency. Now in case anyone’s confused about what a livestock agent does, it means we buy and sell cattle on behalf of our clients, trying to source the best market for them. Like real estate with cattle. Not trying to get them acting gigs like someone has suggested before. Our client base extends across the Southern Gulf, Burdekin and Fitzroy regions, all in the top five beef producing regions of Australia. Because of the diversity, our clients also supply all different types of markets, including live export.
Assessing cattle for Auctions Plus, an online livestock marketing tool
But then came the Four Corners episode “A Bloody Business”, showing horrific cruel treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesia. The footage sent shock waves through Australia, urban and rural. And within a week Minister for Agricultural Joe Ludwig bowed under the pressure and suspended live export to Indonesia even to first class facilities, effectively shutting down Northern Australia. And what followed, and still happening today on our own shores is just as heartbreaking as the cruelty inflicted on our beautiful cattle.
Families just like yours, families such as mine are still floundering in the aftermath. The most viable market that many cattle producers had in the north has been halved. And it’s the smaller, family owned stations that are suffering the most. Many are saying that they can’t go another two years at this rate, they will be forced to leave the land they love so much. Property prices have plummeted and in some areas are unsaleable. Without an income, producers cannot run their properties, which will in turn lead to a decrease in natural resource management and animal welfare. As these things don’t come cheap. Many have had to put off staff and bring their children home from boarding school. They are spending less and less in their local communities which means these communities have a declining population. And with smaller populations it’s harder for these communities to hold on to essential services such as education, emergency services, health and aged care. The effect goes much further than a few rich pastoralists as many would have us believe.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, there has been plenty of positives to come out of it. At that time, I used Facebook to keep in touch with old school friends and other friends from towns I’d moved from. But then I noticed the prevalence of all these anti live export, anti livestock production and anti farmer groups. And I got mad. Be damned if I let an animal rights organisation in Melbourne tell the world how we raised our cattle and ran our business. Social Media played a big factor in taking the industry down, it would be an important tool in building it back up again. Gone were the days where we just went about our work, we had to build those connections; we couldn’t let anyone else tell our stories.
And I started to stumble upon people on Facebook and Twitter who had the same idea as I did, and not just live exporting sheep and cattle producers. Farmers from all sorts of industries, all over the country. Wool, dairy, pigs, chicken, cotton, rice farmers, just to name a few all had the misinformed condemning finger of small but very loud groups pointed at them. And we realised that we had to be proactive rather than reactive, we had to learn how to engage with consumers and the general public better. Agriculture and farmers are among the highest trusted industries and professions in Australia, we need to keep it like that.
So a group of us started up Ask An Aussie Farmer, a Facebook and Twitter initiative where consumers can come and ask farmers directly why and how they do things rather than relying on Google and anti farming sites. The support we’ve received from people is overwhelming and every positive connection makes a difference. I have learnt so much about all different types of farming. Every system has its pros and cons. But the biggest thing I’ve learnt and would love to share with everyone is that we as consumers are extremely lucky in Australia to have a such a choice in farming methods that we can choose a product that best suits our values, needs and circumstances.
I was also accepted to be an Art4Agriculture Young Farming Champion representing beef. Which meant I had to get on a plane and go to Sydney for the first time in my life. Being a YFC has been an awesome experience. I should explain that in the farming world under 35 is considered young. The average age of Australian Farmers is 59, compared to 40 of other professions. We get to meet other young people from other industries and learn important skills such as public speaking, engaging with the community, promoting our industry in a positive manner and handling the media.
Then we go into schools, in Brisbane, Sydney and their greater regions and talk to the students about our industry and the enormous opportunities for careers in Agriculture available to anyone regardless of their past or future.
I also talk about life on a cattle station in North Queensland as it’s a very different world. The schools in return have to complete blogs and videos about what they’ve learned. And the best bit is that they get to decorate life sized, fibreglass cows, the best winning prizes.
These children are amazing, they are so switched on, they love hearing about what we do and some keep in touch and try and soak up everything they can about agriculture. This program, known as the Archibull Prize has been opened right up, so if there’s any teachers here that are interested, or you want your child’s school to participate, please see me afterwards for more details.
Then I was nominated for Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women’s Network (or QRRRWN for short) Strong Women leadership awards. My nomination was for my dedication in encouraging others to tell their stories, to stand up and be heard but most of all to believe in themselves. It was very humbling to be nominated, I love what I do and to be recognised for it gave me a huge confidence boost.
So I packed the kids in the car, and drove over 1000km to St George where the annual conference was being held. I finally got to meet all these wonderful women I only knew from the internet or media interviews. I attended a series of workshops, built a huge network and even got to meet foreign correspondent Sally Sara and listen to her speak .
QRRWN is a fantastic organisation dedicated to building stronger rural communities. The support network they have formed for the farmers devastated by floods in South East Queensland is tremendous. They have two new recent initiatives, one being the Strong Women Leadership Awards. Nominations for the 2013 awards opened today, I have brought along some fliers, so please nominate those you think deserve that recognition. The other new initiative is the Strong Women Webinars. Every month an inspiring woman talks about her journey and her vision. I have also brought along some fliers and registration forms for the Webinars. There is also a form to sign up for the QRRRWN E-newsletter. Everyone who puts their name down to receive that goes into the draw to win a yearly subscription to the Strong Women Webinars. I listened to the amazing Catherine Marriott, runner up for Rural Woman of the year in 2012 this morning. Some upcoming webinars will feature chef Maggie Beer, clothing designer Liz Davenport and amazing business woman Miriam Silva The QRRRWN 2014 conference will be held here in Charters Towers, so keep your eyes peeled for upcoming details.
One thing I’ve learnt through all of this is that if you want change, you need to participate. If you want better education, health, safety, understanding for your cause or whatever your community needs don’t be afraid to stand up and say your piece. We can’t sit back and expect industry bodies and government to change everything for us, it’s up to us to get the ball rolling. It is up to us to affect change. Believe in yourself, your community and your cause and others will support you. Three years ago I would have never of believed that I would be doing the things I am.
Everyone has a gift, just not everyone has opened theirs yet.