Passionate Mid West farmer a trailblazer for women in agriculture

Zach RelphCountryman
WAMIA chairwoman Sally O'Brien at her Mid West farm.
Camera IconWAMIA chairwoman Sally O'Brien at her Mid West farm. Credit: Justine Rowe/Justine Rowe

More than 20 years ago, it wasn’t the norm to see women in agriculture.

But a Mid West farmer’s daughter was eager to buck the trend, writes journalist Zach Relph.

If you ask Sally O’Brien if she prefers cattle or sheep, she will find it difficult to split the two.

The passionate livestock producer, who is based between Dongara and Mingenew in the Shire of Irwin, also has an affinity for horses and working dogs.

But Sally enjoys the daily farm life associated with overlooking a herd and flock.

“It’s hard to choose a favourite between cattle and sheep,” Sally says.

“We’ve just finished crutching, so when I’ve been flat-out doing sheep work I love sheep.

“But after a few weeks working with mainly cattle, I find I love cattle more.”

Sally farms in partnership with her brother Andrew Gillam, with the duo taking over the mixed-enterprise from their father, Rob Gillam, about 15 years ago.

Sally O'Brien once doubted if she would become a farmer.
Camera IconSally O'Brien once doubted if she would become a farmer. Credit: Justine Rowe/Justine Rowe

As of February 1 this year, Sally’s husband Danny O’Brien and Andrew’s wife Debbie Gillam joined the partnership full-time.

They calve about 400 cows, oversee 8000 mated Merino ewes and co-ordinate a 5000ha cropping program mainly comprising wheat and lupins, in addition to canola, while also growing fodder crops.

“There is a fair bit going on each day,” Sally says.

“It is really busy, but it’s great, that’s for sure — there’s no place I’d rather be.”

Despite boasting a life-long association with agriculture, Sally was once unsure about her farming aspirations.

In all honesty, I didn’t think I’d be a farmer.

Sally O’Brien.

“In all honesty, I didn’t think I’d be a farmer,” she says.

“I wasn’t sure if that opportunity would be presented to me.”

Pastoral childhood

Sally recalls a childhood spent between her family’s pastoral properties in the Murchison and Mid West farming operation.

At the time, her father Rob — a former Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president — was in partnership with his brother, Chris.

Rob would look after the enterprise’s livestock and pastoral interests, while Chris focused on grain growing.

For Sally, her agricultural upbringing is a time she remembers fondly.

“I’ve always loved farming,” she says.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been around it.”

Rob Gillam with daughter Sally O’Brien and with Elders Geraldton stock agent Gary Preston in 2010.
Camera IconRob Gillam with daughter Sally O’Brien and with Elders Geraldton stock agent Gary Preston in 2010. Credit: Claire Tyrrell/Countryman

However, without many women pursuing a career in farming in the late 1980s, Sally sought a job in another field she was passionate about after finishing high school — sport.

“When I left school, I deferred for a year from university,” Sally says.

“I was going to do human movement at UWA and then go into sports physio or something like that — that was my plan.

“But, I came home and worked on the farm for a year.

“About 3/4 of the way through that year, Dad said, ‘I don’t think there is much future in the sports industry and you can always play sport on the weekend’.

“I changed what I had planned to do and went and did agribusiness at Muresk instead.”

Life full-circle

After completing her studies at Muresk, Sally landed a full-time marketing officer position with Landmark based at the company’s Bassendean offices.

Before too long, she was travelling across the country as Wesfarmers shored up its acquisition of farming and pastoral juggernaut Dalgety Farmers in 1993.

Wesfarmers acquired the 147-year-old company for $78 million, with Sally playing a role in aligning and integrating the two organisations.

I loved my time at Wesfarmers and got a huge amount of experience from it.

Sally O’Brien.

“I loved my time at Wesfarmers and got a huge amount of experience from it which has carried me forward in life,” she says.

“I spent a lot of time on a plane for 18 months or so and was on the road a fair bit during the acquisition.

“I think I visited every Dalgety branch in Australia — it was fantastic.”

While working with Wesfarmers, Sally met her now-husband, Danny O’Brien.

Hailing from NSW, Danny does not come from a farming background and was working in WA in construction.

But Danny’s working life led Sally back to her Mid West roots.

“He ended up getting offered a job in Dongara, which was spooky in a way,” Sally says.

Bring it back home

In 1996, a 24-year-old Sally left Wesfarmers and moved north back towards the Gillam’s farming operation with Danny.

The enterprise was still run by Rob and Chris Gillam and included the Murchison-based pastoral properties within its portfolio.

Former Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Rob Gillam.
Camera IconFormer Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Rob Gillam. Credit: Danella Bevis/Countryman

However, the brothers’ partnership was coming to a conclusion.

“Dad and I had a good discussion and he said to me: ‘Do you want to be involved?’ — he didn’t have to ask me twice,” she says.

“I started full-time back here in the business on July 1, 1997, after the previous business was dissolved.”

At first, Sally took control of bookkeeping and also the grain growing duties.

“Apart from taking on the books, Dad handed me the cropping to look after,” she says.

“I went to my uncle a lot about cropping, he was a mentor and he gave me great advice for a number of years.”

Right decision

Fast-forward almost 23 years and Sally does not regret her farming decision.

The 48-year-old has forged a more than two-decade career in agriculture and boasts extensive involvement with both the Mingenew Irwin Group and WA Meat Industry Authority.

Last year, Sally was appointed WAMIA chairwoman, replacing the outgoing chairman David Lock.

Sally, who first joined the WAMIA board in 2011 and also served a stint as deputy chairwoman, admits the role representing WA producers, processors, retailers and red meat industry employees was initially daunting.

However, it is something she now relishes.

Andrew Gillam is a Shire of Irwin councillor.
Camera IconAndrew Gillam is a Shire of Irwin councillor. Credit: Rueben Hale/Countryman

“It has been challenging and I was scared to death when I walked into my first meeting I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified,” she says.

“But, I had a great passion for the ag industry.

“Also, David Lock has remained great mentor and always been willing to support me.”

Although overseeing a vast sheep-cattle-cropping operation is strenuous, Sally says she has never been one to shy away from community involvement.

The farmer says she has always been willing to take on industry roles, inspired by her father’s career in agri-politics.

“The family has always been very involved,” she says.

“Dad spent a lot of time with PGA and Andrew is a Shire of Irwin councillor.

“You can’t be prepared to criticise if you’re not willing to step up and be involved.”

Paving pathways

Sally acknowledged the family were entering exciting times on-farm after Danny and Andrew’s wife Debbie, an agronomist, both started working across the operation.

The two appointments came after the O’Brien-Gillam partnership opted to expand and purchased a nearby property, which settled in February, to grow their business.

Sally O'Brien has always had a passion for agriculture.
Camera IconSally O'Brien has always had a passion for agriculture. Credit: Justine Rowe/Justine Rowe

Sally is glad she grasped the chance to farm and in turn pave a pathway for women in agriculture.

“As much as I loved the farm and got back at every opportunity, I didn’t know if there would be an opportunity for me,” she says.

“Nowadays, you don’t think twice about a female going back into the business, but back then I didn’t know.

“In the mid to late-90s it was an unusual thing to do what I did.

“I don’t put myself out there as a trailblazer for women working on-farm, but others may see me like that given I’m in my late 40s doing what I am doing.

“It has certainly been unusual given up until February this year I was the farmer and my husband worked in town, whereas it is usually the other way around.”

When asked if she has any advice for youngsters who are unsure about a career in agriculture?

“Give it a go,” Sally says.

“But don’t be afraid to go off-farm and do something else first to get other experiences.”

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