Indulge me for a moment as I present these facts.
- Women make half the food and fibre in the world. The entire freaking world.
- Up until 23 years ago any Australian woman filling in the Census could not be categorised as a farmer. Women could be ‘farmer’s wives’ or ‘help meets’ but even if they were sole property owners, they were not considered actual farmers.
- This very day, if you search Google Images for farmers you’ll mostly see older blokes in hats.
I already knew the first fact, but I wasn’t aware of the Census bias until listening to an ABC Radio Melbourne interview about the Invisible Farmer Project. This is and was an initiative by Museums Victoria and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to get the stories of women in agriculture out into the world. ABC Open don’t seem to be taking stories any more, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still be told.
This is mine.
Before I tell it, I want to say it feels mostly unremarkable to me. I mean I was there. But then I remember I live in the second most urbanised nation on earth (yeah behind Belgium – but this might have changed). I grew up in a state with maybe about one million people now – and most of them live in the capital city. So maybe I’m more remarkable than most, simply because I am rare.
Now I can begin.
I can’t say that I am or was a ‘woman in agriculture’. But I was a kid and a teen who lived and also very much worked on rural properties. I suppose I was the ‘invisible farm girl.’ Sometimes, I was doing stereotypical ‘farm wife’ things like baking cakes and making cups of tea for shearers, tooling around in the ute or on my bike transporting food. I was also boiling milk from the gorgeous Jersey cow we had for a while. Occasionally, I read the Stock Journal.
Then again, I recall occasions when I painted the entire shearing shed with linseed oil. I also raked wool, fed the dogs and chickens, herded animals through dips and runs, cobalted sheep, did all sorts of ill-advised gardening, helped with fencing and with the birthing (that would be ‘pulling’ calves in Dad-speak). In other words some of the more physically involved bits of farming traditionally ascribed to men.
But unpaid farm work was not recorded on the Census, and isn’t now. Unpaid work is not a thing the Census or any one much cares about, no matter what family business you are in or how old you are.
Yet this was the way it was. Or at least from the age of four, when I was responsible for steering the truck while Dad threw hay to the sheep. Truly, I only steered into a tree once.
This kind of work, which, to be fair was shared out between my brothers and me, occurred until I was 19 and had my first and last paid agricultural gig. Yep, the first summer back from university I was employed in a vineyard for a few weeks of hot and un-romantically named ‘shoot bashing,’ (aka pruning).
And now? I can’t say I miss any of it too much, even if sometimes I get a hankering for a rural aspect out the window. At those times, I do want the starred night sky, the willy wagtails flitting about the bracken, the wedge tail eagles circling above, the emus on the edge of the paddock. Instead of my neighbours I want to hear the bulls lo from the paddock near the wetland, and to listen for the thump of kangaroos as they leave off predawn grazing on the lawn beside the house.
But all that’s the window dressing of a country life in Australia, not the main gig. I lack the physical fitness I had, and the business acumen needed if I wanted to go back. Then I always dreaded the fire dangers, real and imagined, and never fancied the uncertainty of weather and market forces. Making a go of a farm is really close to nigh on impossible.
Thus, here I am at the keyboard, listening to the steady hum of the traffic thinking about how no one back then ever suggested a farming life for me. Not my parents, nor my careers adviser, not any one of my friends, many of whom also lived on farms. It just didn’t seem like an option for *girls*. Eventually, some of my peers did go on to have a career in agriculture, but I only remember one student who was passionate about it. He didn’t have a farming background at all. But it was what he wanted. I hope he got it.
The advice I got about work consisted of my school bus driver advocating learning to type so I could be a secretary. My English teacher thought I could be a journalist. I worked in my mother’s shop for a bit (also unpaid). The only thing I wanted was to attend university. And I did.
Thus, that is the extent of my farming career, as far as I can remember. It was formative I suppose, however, I wouldn’t have thought to *tell* it directly, if not for that ABC interview. So while people are beginning to acknowledge the role of women on the land, I suggest we need to remember the girls and the boys too. Then, and now.