Here’s a great story about a farmer…

RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Awards – Week 5

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Planting the apricot orchard, 2004

Here’s a story about a farmer…

A young woman came home to the family farm in her thirties, because her dad was about to sell the farm, and she suddenly realised she wanted to be a farmer. After serving an apprenticeship with her dad, she and her husband then decided to convert the farm to organic production, and spent the next 5 years studying, changing the way they farmed and making lots of mistakes. The drought hit, and along with it came bird plagues, hail storms, disease outbreaks…but they kept absorbing the shocks, learning and adapting. Then the drought broke, with record-breaking floods, and it almost…almost…did them in. In the 10 years of the drought the number of farmers in their district had halved, as one after another succumbed to the combined pressures of drought and debt, and left the farm (none, mercifully, by taking their own lives). And they came very close to making the same decision…

But they didn’t. Instead they got some great advice and decided to stay, rebuild and expand. Most importantly, they learned the value of diversification to protect them in the future against the risks inherent in farming. While they decided they would keep farming, they also decided they needed another income stream that wasn’t dependent on the weather, and so, Grow Great Fruit was born.

That’s my story of course, with a hundred other little stories hidden in there as well…why we went organic, how we started an online business, what it’s like to work with your husband AND your father (that’s a story!!). Of course we’re not unique, every farming family in Australia would have their own stories to tell, and I think their time has come!

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Dad and Hugh, planting the new peach block, 2010

As my Award project unfolds, I’ve been connecting with the two pilot markets for this project – Castlemaine Farmers Market, and Coburg Farmers Market. I’ve had a look at which stallholders already use social media and I’m shocked to say – not many! I already had a sense of that, but hadn’t done the figures until now.  Only 30% have a presence on social media, and only about 10% are actively using it.

I wonder why?

My theory (which I’ll shortly have evidence for – or against!) is that one of the main barriers to farmers market stallholders using social media to connect with their customers, is that they don’t think their story is worth telling. As we know, millions of people are using social media to tell their stories daily – why aren’t farmers?

Some are, of course, and are doing a fantastic job. I follow several of them, and always find their their farming stories and their trials, tribulations and successes fascinating. And we know from our own experience that it’s easy to engage people with our story – simply by telling it! Since we started using social media for our business a couple of years ago, we’ve built up the community around us to almost 4,000 ‘likers’ on Facebook, almost 2,000 people on our newsletter mailing list, and 200 followers on Twitter.

And (surprisingly, maybe) it actually feels like a community, despite existing in internet-world. Some of them we know, but many more have chosen to ‘like’ us because they like what they see when we post stories. As they comment, ‘like’ our posts, or share them with their own networks we gradually get to know some of them, and this often leads to real-world encounters at the farm for an open day, at the market to buy fruit, or at one of our workshops, or they go on to join our Grow Great Fruit membership program.

It’s not that long ago that most families would have had some connection with a farm – an uncle, or grandfather, or a family friend. But in the last 50 or so years a lot of those connections have been lost, and now the majority of people that live in cities and large towns don’t have a farm they can easily visit, which means they’ve lost that vital connection to where their food comes from. Food production is just so intrinsic to our human nature that I think people are longing to reconnect with the land, and social media provide us with the perfect medium to re-establish those connections.

Persuaded? Great, but that was probably easy, because if you’re reading my blog, you’re already a social media user. My real challenge is to connect with farmers and other stallholders at the farmers markets to (a) persuade them it’s a good idea, (b) help them understand the benefits for themselves and their markets, and (c) teach them how to do it.  I think it’s possibly going to be a big challenge, but I can’t wait!

Many thanks to RIRDC for supporting rural women through the Rural Women’s Award.

This week I’ve been:

* finalising the survey of stallholders which will survey their existing social media use, and (hopefully) recruit them for the project
* meeting with Coburg Primary School, the community partner organisation for Coburg Farmers Market, who have a very special role to play in the project* working on goal setting and timelines
* scheduling 6 winter workshops for our farm business
* having a brief and beautiful holiday with my gorgeous husband
* interviewed by Apple and Pear Australia for Australian Fruitgrower magazine
* training two new pruners for our pruning crew (hooray!)
* accepting an invitation to the Regional Leaders Forum in Bendigo
* working on my application to be a speaker at the Connecting Rural Business Women conference

RIRDC Vic Rural Women’s Awards – Who Inspires You, Baby?

 

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I can’t tell you how many times this week I’ve found myself saying “RIRDC – that’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, look them up online, they offer this amazing Award for rural women, you should enter,” or words to that effect!

I’m finding in my travels, and as I talk to lots of women about the Award, that many of them haven’t heard of it yet. Well! There’s a mission for me, to spread the word. It’s such a great opportunity to get more skills and take a step up towards leadership, as well as the very welcome financial support of the bursary to get your project done.

Of course there’s also other leadership opportunities, other courses, even other awards, for both women and men in agriculture and rural communities, and they’re all great. But first, you have to see yourself as the potential in yourself.

Lots of women seem to feel like it doesn’t apply to them – they don’t see themselves as leaders, or successful enough, or …. something … to even enter an award or start a leadership course, and I’m meeting them all the time. This week I met Sam, who regularly travels from her new home on the other side of Melbourne all the way back to Ballarat to work on the volunteer committee that organises the Ballarat Rural Living Expo (as well as other major events during the year). How’s that for dedication? I reckon she deserves an award!

Which brings me back to the question of who inspires you? One of the influential women for me, who helped set me on the path to winning this award, was Cathy McGowan, now independent MP for Indi, when she taught a Women in Organics course I was lucky enough to do a few years ago. And there are lots of other women who have been key in helping me believe in myself and give it a go. I’ve been thinking a lot about who inspires me, and some of them are well known, but many of them you will never have heard of, because they’re just quietly going about being leaders in their own field, or town, or family. All important, all inspirational. I started a list, but it got very long, very quickly, so I’m just going to tell you about three of them.

Clare – one of our Grow Great Fruit members who joined after their property was burned out by bushfire a few years ago. They saved their house but lost some of their precious stock and all but a few remnants of the garden, and had to start again from scratch. Since the trauma of the fire, they’ve dealt with illness and the rehabilitation of their property with endless good humour and persistence, and have been amongst our most active members, soaking up every scrap of information we can provide them about how to grow their own fruit and then asking for more. Jane and her husband are the sort of resilient folk that epitomise rural Australians.

Vandana Shiva – an Indian activist who actively campaigns against GMO technology and for a return to a more women-centred traditional farming model in India as a way of increasing prosperity for rural women and their families, while protecting the environment and food sovereignty. She’s awesome.

Cathy – from Bliss Blend organic teas, who has the stall next to us at Bendigo Community Farmers Market. Cathy started her organic tea business from scratch, and has come up with her own recipes, sourced all the organic ingredients (almost all Australian), come up with thoughtful and beautiful packaging, learned how to do her own marketing, and built a thriving small business from nothing. She’s just committed to the big step of attending an expensive interstate trade show, and I’ve got my fingers crossed she lands her first big contract, which will be just what she needs to expand her business to the next step. I can just see her as Australia’s organic tea queen (and can highly recommend her licorice tea – addictive!).

So, you’re surrounded by amazing women – and if you’re a rural woman, are no doubt one yourself! Who are you feeling inspired by?

Meanwhile back at Project Central, this week I’ve been

* interviewed by Southern Farmer newspaper;
* met with the lovely folk at the Victorian Farmers Markets Association to tell them about my project (that’s where I took the photo, just to show I occasionally get close to Giorgio Armani, even if I would never in a million years shop there!);
* writing the survey I’m going to send to all the stallholders at the pilot markets – Coburg and Castlemaine Farmers Market – and sending it to various mentors for feedback;
* organising a pruning crew – hooray!! – this is going to give me the time I need to work on the project;
* hosting a “Cooking for Numbers” group from Castlemaine Community House at the farm, telling them how small family farms like us market and sell our produce;
* doing fruit tree talkback on Local ABC radio;
* giving a fruit tree workshop to a packed marquee at the Ballarat Rural Living Expo;
* interviewing our new farm intern with Hugh;
* Hugh and I have been finalising negotiations to lease some land on the farm to some enterprising young women farmers who want to start a market garden; and
* having our annual NASAA farm inspection.

Wow. That was a big week, but honestly, aren’t they all? And after all, you’re a long time dead….

Victorian Rural Woman of the Year Award – Week 2

Week 2 (I know, last week I said week 2, but it was really only week 1! I was maybe still a bit overwhelmed at that stage…)

Winning this award right now was perfect timing! Not only did it come almost at the end of our fruit season, when my farm work had settled from ridiculously busy to just ordinarily busy, but it also feels like it’s the right stage of my life—I don’t think I was ready for a challenge of this magnitude before now!

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The last of our (five) children moved to Melbourne to start Uni a month ago (that’s him in the photo above). Yep, we’re empty nesters, which is a very bittersweet experience! Though it was delightful to see how excited, and ready, he was to spread his wings and leave home, it was uniquely sad to come home to a house full of empty bedrooms—but we had two WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) at the time, and three of the kids were home the following weekend, so we didn’t have long to feel sad!

And then came the dawning realization that there’s no more school run, no more sporting commitments, no more endless buying of stuff, no more school fees, no more sitting in the passenger seat while they get their 120 hours driving practise. Oh my goodness! You mean our time really is our own now??? WOO HOO!!!

This was a big relief when I was sitting at the Alumni lunch after the RIRDC awards ceremony in Melbourne, hearing stories from past winners and runners-up about some of the challenges the year of their Award had posed for their husbands, kids and in their workplaces. Luckily, we work for ourselves, Hugh is very supportive and on board, and we’re in the very privileged position of being able, wherever possible, to travel together and turn commitments into opportunities to have a holiday together off the farm. Hugh makes his off-farm income as an online editor—work which can travel with him wherever we go.

If you’re thinking about applying for the Award (which I would strongly recommend that you do…contact me if you want to talk about this), take the time commitment into consideration. However, don’t be daunted if you don’t currently have the capacity to make the time available…that’s what the bursary can be used for! So far the time commitment required has just been for interviews, and for planning, but there is also the possibility of speaking engagements coming up through the year, and of course the important bit…doing the project!

Hugh has also recently bought a motorbike, the realization of a long-held plan to return to the biker-freedom days of his youth. And yes, I’m more than willing to ride pillion as his bikie-chick. Would it be wrong to turn up to a RIRDC speaking engagement in leathers?

This week I’ve been

  • working on my project plan
  • informed by RIRDC of dates for the Company Directors Course (July/August), the national selection interview (August), and the national Award celebration (September)
  • contacting RIRDC to find out about business cards, which apparently will be forthcoming (can’t wait to see them!)
  • trying to learn Microsoft Project to help me keep control over my life for the next 12 months!
  • making a time to see one of my mentors to get feedback about my project plan
  • making a time to visit with the lovely folk at Melbourne Farmers Markets to talk through my project and choose pilot markets
  • asking advice from RIRDC about whether I should be looking for opportunities to speak as their ambassador
  • talking to a fantastic local harvest group called Growing Abundance about running a series of pruning workshops on the farm, aiming to skill up some local folk we can then employ in our orchard (using part of my RIRDC bursary)
  • interviewed on Main FM
  • interviewed for the Castlemaine Mail

Thanks to RIRDC for supporting rural women (and me!) through the Rural Women’s Award.