Farmers’ daughters keeping rural WA on the move
It was just the way things were. When it came to splitting up the family farm, the boys would inevitably become the farmer while the girls would aim to marry one.
Whether you were talking cattle stations across the vast North West, wheat and sheep concerns down in the Great Southern or the smaller but lucrative operations in WA’s South West rain belt, sons were first in line when it came to who got what.
The daughters came a very distant second.
Not any more.
Just as migrants are now changing the rural dynamic by opening shops and cafes and breathing new life into struggling WA towns, confident, well-educated young women are positioning themselves to take over the reins of the family operation.
Partners in Grain WA make the point that if you Google “Australian farmer” you are more likely to see photos of dogs than women. But, it says, 27.4 per cent of WA farms are now run by women, and that figure is much higher if you take into account the other decision-making roles within the business.
With young men continuing to turn their backs on the family farm, and the average age of an Australian farmer 56 and rising, opportunity abounds for women as never before.
And it’s about time, says Jessie Davis, a bubbly 27-year-old from the central Wheatbelt community of Narembeen, 286km east of Perth.
The younger of two daughters to Vicki and Murray Dixon — sister Sophie is a Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps nurse deployed in Iraq — Jessie has her parents’ firm handshake and easygoing nature.
However, there is nothing relaxed about the work she does. This is a business and with the district’s rainfall as fickle as a Chinese light bulb, she must make hay while the sun shines, so to speak.
Married to Trent, who is building up a plumbing business around the district, Jessie is now busy preparing for harvest. They will be taking off the crop soon and there is plenty to do.
Narembeen is having a good season. Everyone is hoping for a bumper crop and the family operation — now just the three of them, following the recent departure of a farmhand — is going at full capacity.
Having a tight family unit helps when the pressure is on.
“We’ve always been a close-knit family,” she says, “and we’ve always been encouraged to have a crack at things.”
Having finished a Bachelor of Agribusiness degree at Northam’s Muresk Institute, Jessie worked at Agworld, an ag-tech business, before heading bush again and getting a job with Katanning Shire. “Then Trent said to me, ‘Why don’t you have a go at farming?’.
“I love it. It’s really challenging, and at the moment, I think the biggest challenge I probably face is trying to get the work-life balance thing right, which I haven’t done so far.
“There are just so many things to do. I haven’t had a holiday for four years,” she laughs.
The Dixons have been on the land all their lives. Murray was thrust into the family hot seat from an early age after his dad had a heart attack at just 42. There have been a few general discussions about succession plans.
“Dad still holds the chequebook and makes the final decisions, but I have done 14 to 15 harvests, which is more than most of my male peers,” Jessie says. “I have been on the farm full-time for over four years now, so I would say I am a partner in the business rather than an apprentice these days.”
But she is in no rush to take over. They all know there is a lot for her to learn. Murray is still only in his 50s, healthy and his affinity with the land is still strong.
“There’s so much to learn, but Dad’s really encouraging and I know he wants me to succeed, obviously. But there’s a long way to go before I’m in charge,” she says.
“You need to be on top of so many things. You need people skills if you are hiring, you need mechanical skills or at least an understanding, you need an understanding of livestock, but I think you also need a gut feel for this sort of work. And I think I’ve got that.”
They run 1500 merino ewes across 1200ha and crop about 2800ha with wheat, oats and lupins.
She recalls the days on the back of her dad’s quad bike, with Sophie, helping with the sheep work, driving the chaser bins, doing the stuff kids from the bush do that city kids can only dream of.
Jessie knows how important any women’s role is in any farming family. Mum Vicki has been a pivotal part of the operation, running the books and keeping the home fires burning through drought and disease.
When asked what qualities women bring to the land, without hesitation Jessie says patience — especially when it comes to livestock.
“We are more nurturers, I think,” Vicki adds. “There’s probably more of a natural connection towards young animals.”
She believes the role of women in farming operations has often been underrated.
“Women out here are usually considered farmers’ wives, but that’s changing. In my mind, there is not a lot of difference between a farmer’s wife and a farmer. They carry so much of the load.”
Jessie is often asked to talk to women’s groups and with a keen interest in showjumping and tennis, the little time she does have to herself is spent either on the road pulling a float or down at the Narembeen Recreation Centre.
“I find women will often seek clarification about things happening on their own farms,” she says. “And that open communication I have with others seems to empower them and, I hope, encourage them to keep being involved.”
Her career decision to follow Dad’s example has delighted her parents. “When your kids head off to boarding school, and they go at such a young age, you quite often think that they’ll never come back, particularly the girls, so when they do, it’s wonderful,” Vicki says.
Murray says the growing influence of technology in modern farming practices means today’s farmer “doesn’t need to be a six-foot-five bloke”.
“There’s so much compliance, paperwork, red tape, record-keeping, and so much of it today is data and technology and stuff that takes much more brains than brawn,” Murray says.
About 300km to the south-west at Kojonup, Sophie Forrester is working ewes in the yards at her family’s 1800ha holding, Glenkeith.
Uncertain of what she wanted to do after boarding school, Sophie did an online agribusiness degree with Charles Sturt University. She then decided to confront her choices and “have a crack” at farming.
Her timing is impeccable. With record wool and lamb prices, things are looking up.
In a couple of weeks, the busiest part of the year kicks in, with a team of Maori and Australian shearers arriving. It will take them up to a month to shear the 18,000 sheep that roam Glenkeith.
Sophie’s dad, David, has always been a farmer, as was his dad and his dad before that. In other words, there has always been a boy in the Forrester family to take over. But not this time. Sophie’s younger sibling, Kate, is a schoolteacher.
That makes David Forrester a very proud dad. He remembers the days when farmers consoled anyone who had the “misfortune” of having daughters instead of sons.
Leaning on the tray of his ute while watching Sophie work the sheep with her dogs Billy and Josie, the pride in his eyes is visible.
“She’s a ripper,” he says. “She’s always been really good on the farm, especially when it came to the animals.
“Just because you haven’t had a son, doesn’t mean that’s the end of the road. In fact, it’s just the beginning.
“And there’s heaps of ‘Sophs’ out there, more and more of them, and that’s great.”
“Back yourself in and don’t be afraid to fail every now and again and if you don’t know, just ask,” she says. “Everyone’s happy to help and show you the way.”
Over at Boyup Brook, 80km to the west, Lucy Bleechmore is trying to gently round her “girls” towards the paddock fence so the photographer can get a better shot at the family property, Tara.
But they are not co-operating, munching on the abundant shin-high feed while gently swishing away the flies with their tails.
Lucy is showing us some of the 1700 plump, happy shorthorn breeders and young bulls that are part of the family’s expanding cattle and stud operations that stretch all the way to their other property, the 264,000ha Dalgety Downs in the Gascoyne.
Like everyone around Boyup Brook, the Bleechmores’ season has been saved by some timely spring rain.
It is a beautiful spring day and the stands of red gums and jarrah among the rolling hills are picture perfect.
With mum Kylie, dad Tim, brother Benjamin and younger sister Nicki, who is still at university, Tara is a family operation.
At 20, Benjamin is yet to decide whether a career on the land beckons. Lucy has already made up her mind.
“I just love it here,” she says. “The lifestyle is great, and when you’re busy, you’re really flat out, which is great. It’s what I know.”
Having bought her first mob of cattle at 15, and after a couple of years working with Genstock — a leader in artificial insemination and other livestock breeding techniques — Lucy has been concentrating on building Tara’s stud capacity.
There is lots of talk of birth weights and data and pedigree and genetics and frozen embryos and semen and eye-muscle areas and growth rates and estimated breeding values.
It is complicated and complex to the ignorant, but to Lucy it is just plain fascinating. She also mentions Lynley Anderson as a role model, having heard her talk at a rural women’s gathering.
Lucy also knows nothing comes quickly or easily. “I’m learning and I’ve got a very long way to go,” she says.
Her brother Benjamin can do some tasks quite easily while she may need a tractor to tackle the same project.
“But that’s OK,” she smiles. “We’re all different and we all have our different strengths and weaknesses.”
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