Could farmers with multi pronged professions be agriculture’s silver bullet?

How does it make you feel when your role in the big picture is undervalued because of stereotypes?

My regular readers will know I have strong feelings about the time and energy that goes into the debate around ‘Who has the right to call themselves a Farmer’

My personal story gives some interesting background as to why I advocate so vehemently to change the image and perception of the word “farmer” particularly at grass roots level

As my readers will know I come from a long line of dairy farmers. Seven generations in Australia and only god knows how far I can trace dairy farming back in my Irish roots.  I grew up on a mixed farm in Central NSW and nothing in my childhood except for love of farm life inspired me to seek a career in agriculture

In fact as soon as I got my HSC results I took the fastest route I could find to Sydney University and a life in the big city.

After a 25 year career in retail pharmacy circumstances found me back on the dairy farm.  Growing up my dairy farming background father had always told me “no matter what you do don’t NEVER ever learn to milk a cow”

Now in the spirit of being as multi-skilled as possible I did give it a go. I quickly realised it was not one of my strengths, nor was driving tractors and estimating how to divide the paddock  up to be strip grazed based on the number of cows  to eat the feed available and the nuances that ensure the fence is in a straight line. But this didn’t worry me because I know I had plenty of skills nobody else on our team had

And what a great team we made in those first years of our journey to turn our little dairy business into a big business brand.  But I was constantly perplexed by the notion that you weren’t a real dairy farmer unless you milked cows.

I was doing some research on our cow families earlier this week and came across this article from 2005 in the international Semex Balance Magazine on our business. See page 3/4 here .

Milking Morning Noon and Night

You will note there is no mention of me. This really amused me for a number of reasons particularly as the Australian version of this story did include me.

The story was commissioned after Semex Australia boss Jim Conroy visited our farm to discuss events I was sourcing sponsorship for the 2005 Sydney Royal Easter Show. See background here and here

Whilst at the farm he also did a tour of the farm and looked at our herd. Apparently he was impressed and he commissioned wordsmith Jim Lindsay to write a story

Being the ultimate in quiet achievers Michael and Nicholas found this concept pretty daunting. There was a lot of discussion before Jim arrived about “What people will be interested in and what to say”.

So to help them feel more confident I put together a background briefing document for Jim and Jim was very grateful we had taken the time to do this. He told us there are lots of great farmers in Australia but so often he would turn up at the farm to interview them and they would find the process a struggle –  and it was clear to Michael and Nicholas they were not alone. It was also clear to Michael and Nicholas that this briefing document allowed them to talk openly and with much more confidence to Jim.  Michael and Nick were pretty chuffed with how they handled the interview and the end result. As the story shows Michael Strong cares a great deal about is beloved cows having the best  genetic foundation and  Michael and Nick were over the moon to see their story showcased to the international Holstein community

But getting back to where I fit in. I found the interview process a big learning curve. One of the things that made us unique at that point in time – was we milked 3 times daily and it was clear Jim was fascinated by this and how we made it work

He asked me which milking shift I did and he appeared mortified when I said none. He also asked Michael and Nick to change into their “milking clothes” for the photos and I put my foot down and made a very strong statement along the lines of “There will be no people with cow shit on them in photos in the press from our farm”

What was a light bulb moment for me was Jim treated my part of the story as a breakout story focusing on my beyond the farmgate activities which was fine but (and I may be wrong) this highlighted to me at the time that there was a struggle to correlate advocacy beyond the farmgate with business success behind it

Over the last ten years our story has featured much more widely in mainstream press than rural press and the focus has been on my advocacy work and nobody was happier to get out of the limelight than Michael and Nicholas.

My interaction with mainstream journalists has shown me a lot of things. Firstly the wider community couldn’t care less whether I milk cows or not. The wider community was excited to see women farmers in the press, they were excited to hear that young people were passionate about agriculture, they were excited that farmers were telling positive stories and they especially loved stories about people debunking the stereotype. In our region they were particularly excited that their beloved local dairy industry (yes our community loves it dairy farmers) was not a sunset industry and I was constantly asked to talk about how the community can best support its farmers.

I am so passionate in this space because I know from great experience that grass roots agriculture is doing itself a great disservice by not taking every opportunity it can to promote the diversity of people who are attracted to our sector and those  who  have the time, capacity and capability to promote it in a way that resonates with our audience

In fact it breaks my heart and it will bring tears to my eyes when these people are dismissed because they don’t have 365 “dirt under their fingernails”

Yes we need people doing the hard yards with dirt under their fingernails 365 .  Our 365 day farmers have such great stories to tell  but not everyone is a lucky as Nicholas and Michael to have some-one on their team who can find the tools to help them have the confidence to do it.

Too often I hear people say “farmers can be their own worst enemy ” and in the total waste of space debate around who has the right to call themselves a ‘farmer’ I tend to agree

We also need farmers  who list ‘farmer’ as part of a list of multi-faceted profession career pathway. I will go so far as to say these farmers could just be agriculture’s silver bullet.

The question is will the grass roots embraces them before its too late ?

BTW to me nobody reinforces my point of view better that one of Australian agriculture’s bravest and most influential leaders of the 21st Century Rick Farley who the SMH even listed “actor’ and Nimbin hippie as part of the long list of credentials he bought to the sector

Agriculture cant have it both ways. We cant celebrate people like Rick and Mick Keogh and Andrew Campbell  and Barry Irvin whilst at the same time dismissing the potential of, and not encouraging  our new wave of future influencers

Further Reading

Great article on leadership mindset in Canada here