The (women) changes in Agriculture by Pip Courtney

Pip Courtney, ABC Landline

ABC Landline Presenter, Pip Courtney

Welcome to Pip Courtney, who I have to admit is one of my heros in the journalism game. Pip is the ABC Landline presenter and and highly regarded journalist.

I’m thrilled to have her here today, talking about the what changes, regarding women, she’s seen in agriculture since she started with Landline – and let me tell you, there have been a few! I’m proud to have not only seen some of those changes, but been a part of them too.

Pip’s post today is the speech she made at the SA Press Club ot help launch Liz Harfull’s book, Women of the Land – eight rural women and their remarkable everyday lives.



Welcome Pip:

Thank you Mr President (of the SA Press Club) it’s very kind of you to ask me to speak to the club… though why a bunch of ag journos wants to hear from another one of their lot has me beat.

I do the same job as many of you do. I’ve interviewed a lot of the same people, reported on the same issues, and trod the same ground.

I am not sure what insight I can bring that you don’t already have.

Maybe Ian figured she’ll have something to say because of the bloody long time she’s been doing this job – 18 years.

Well yes I have been around in ag journalism a long time… way more than I thought.

I’d always had an interest in farming. I studied ag science in grade 12 and considered doing wool classing after graduating from uni.

Thank god I didn’t! I would have timed it beautifully with wool’s demise.

Journalism won out largely because I admired my dad so much I just wanted to do what he did as he always loved going to work.

I, like many Tasmanians, was desperate to jump Bass Strait and work on the mainland. So after working in radio and TV news in Tasmania I took a job with ‘Landline’ on the mainland, thinking I’d move onto other things after a bit.

I didn’t count on liking it so much and despite advice from well meaning pals that I was sabotaging my career working in rural I decided I loved the travel, the people, the stories, and the issues so much that well what looked like career suicide to others suited me just fine.

So here i am 47 years old clocking up my 18th year on ‘Landline’ still interested in telling rural stories to urban and rural audiences alike.

Panicky about what on earth I could talk to you all about today, Ian steered me towards a topic that I do know a bit about and that’s rural women.

It’s the theme of the lunch and the wonderful book Liz Harful has written which I am launching later today.

In 1994 I’d been working at landline for a year when ABC radio announced it was sponsoring a new award, The Rural Woman Of The Year.

ABC ran the awards for 4 years, in the process bringing together each year a talented and diverse group of women from different states and industries that continued networking, agitating and ‘ambassadoring’ long after they were done with their official duties.

RIRDC has since picked them up and the award’s now in its 17th year.

While the debate now is getting more women on boards and more women into agri-politics, back in 1994 it was about much more fundamental issues, like the legal status of women who worked on farms, and, in inverted commas the ‘right’ for a woman who ‘worked’ on farm to claim, legally and without embarrassment the title ‘farmer’, as opposed to farmer’s wife.

The first winner was south Australian grain grower Deb Thiele.

I was lucky enough to be asked to go to South Australia to do a profile on her.

It was remarkable the stir it caused when we showed pictures of her driving a massive John Deere tractor. It was assumed it was a set up for the cameras and that she didn’t really drive this big beast, which of course she did.

Back in ’94 if a woman worked on a farm it was assumed by many she was inside doing the books, and if she did work outside mustering cattle, drenching sheep, or driving headers well she still couldn’t call herself a farmer because that was a bloke’s job. She was someone’s mum, sister, daughter or wife who helped out when needed.

At the time for insurance purposes if a woman was injured in a farm accident she was not regarded as a farm worker but as a home maker. And surprise, surprise the actuaries who decide these things didn’t rate the role of home maker very highly in financial terms.

I recall being told of a case of a woman who worked alongside her husband every day being permanently incapacitated in a truck accident, when she was driving a grain truck to the silo.

There was a meagre payout because she couldn’t possibly be regarded as a doing the work a bloke did. She did not fit the definition of farmer because of her gender.

I still have male farmers say to me – the ones who think a rural women award is silly – “oh Pip when will there be a male farmer of the year?”

Well back when the award was just getting off the ground one of the situations facing women in the bush that was used to illustrate the need for the award was their financial power, or lack of it.

In 1994 a widow who happened to be a farmer had trouble getting a bank loan so she could stay on the farm.

Bank managers didn’t accept that a woman would know enough to keep running the property the way her husband had.

The 1995 Victorian winner was such a case. She found the money eventually and turned the farm around, but it was a battle.

The prejudice that existed back then forced some women who could have run farm businesses to sell up.

The rural woman of the year award raised the profile of Australia’s so called “silent farmers” and gave women a chance to talk about how it should be ok for them to ask that not only their contribution be taken seriously, but that when they did do farm work, that it not be seen as a charming novelty.

These things take time though don’t they?

I remember being asked to do a story on a woman shearer – a woman making it in a man’s world story. I made a few calls and realised she wasn’t the best the quickest the oldest or the youngest – the only hook for the story was her gender.

I ark’d up and said ‘oh yeah after I’ve done that can I do a story on a woman doctor and a woman engineer oh and how about after that I do a yarn on a woman who flies a plane’.

It was a patronising request and needless to say I didn’t do the story.

Pip Courtney presenting ABC Landline

Pip Courtney presenting ABC Landline


The winner in the 4th year of the award was a 29 year old dynamo called Jane Bennett.

A cheese maker from Tasmania the award boosted her profile enormously, and she wrung every last opportunity out of it to push for rural issues and rural women issues to be taken seriously within their own communities industries and at all levels of government.

At the time she said in just 4 years the award’s impact had been marked.

“The past 4 years has seen a remarkable change not just in rural Australia but urban Australia as well to the role of rural women and our contribution to our society. It’s not just what we do on our farms it’s what we do in our society that is really, really important.’

She told me at the time.

“I sincerely hope that the results of the award’s rural leadership programme and the increased profile it gives finalists and winners will result in more women particularly young women getting involved in agri-politics and their industry sectors because we really need your contribution.”

Her message to others reading about and watching stories about the winners was “you don’t need to have years and years of experience to get out there and make an impact.”

Jane is an award winning cheese maker was on the Telstra board and is now on the ABC board.

Two years ago i was lucky enough to meet the 2010 rural woman of the year Sue Middleton.

A pig and grain producer from Western Australia she is so ferociously intelligent. When I’m around her I feel like all my brains have been sucked out of my skull and sent into space never to return.

I’ve seen her hold a crowd in the palm of her hand as she weaves together statistics, anecdote, serious academic work, and government and industry reports into an engaging and compelling speech.

Ask her to name the key issues she came across in agriculture during her year and she doesn’t automatically swing to women’s issues but to the complex and endemic structural problems she sees in the rural economy. She is a woman talking about agriculture, economics and politics.

Sue says the award’s been an extraordinary gift as she’ll always be connected to 13 other women in her year, as well as the 198 state winners and runners up since 1994 – the whole alumni group.

She says they’re using the passion, resilience and courage that rural women have to network, collaborate, support and learn from each other.

At the end of her year she said what really mattered was the network left behind

When I did a story with sue at the end of her reign I fired her a question I thought I knew the answer to.

It was ‘how many more years will this award be necessary?’

I thought she’d say ‘oh a year or two should pull it up Pip as there won’t be a need for it anymore.’

I really thought she’d say that, as no one argues the toss over a woman being called a farmer anymore and everywhere I go no matter what state or what industry women are in all areas of agriculture.

I also can’t think of a chief of staff who’d say ‘hey Courtney there’s this bird who shears sheep/flies a crop duster/brands cattle go out and do a yarn on her ‘cos she’s a woman.’

But Sue pulled me up in my tracks

While she conceded dramatic change has occurred in the last 17 years with the farm wife tag pretty much disappearing …with women readily acknowledged as being equal partners in farm businesses ….and with women making up 50% of all ag course enrolments, she said the award needed to go for another 20 years; two more generations at least before its work is done.

I asked why and she said; “Pip look at the top positions in ag only 8% of those positions are held by women. The next level is to have women participating in that higher level leadership.”

To get there, she says every industry body needs to ask itself what can we do to lift this figure?

She wants them to set targets. For some industry’s it might be 10% for others 25% – as long as the target in some way represents women’s participation and contribution in that industry.

I recently spoke to Janine Perrett the former channel 9 business now SkyNews business reporter about this issue of more women on boards.

Janine is a feisty woman and she said straight out ‘oh bugger getting women on boards it’s the management level that’s really important, that’s where the important influential jobs are. Board appointments will flow when more women are running things, but people should stop focusing on board numbers.”

She’s going to get Sue on her show and I’d buy a ticket to see those two debate this issue.

Sue says women do things differently to men and so some board ready women bail as they tire of the gamesmanship of working on boards, and so while there might be women qualified to do it they are put off by the boys club atmosphere.

Networking is important though as you never know who you will meet at a conference, a dinner, or even a board meeting. So bailing because it’s too blokey might sometimes not be the right move.

I’ve certainly met a stack of go getters in my time. Women who don’t seem to have noticed the grass ceiling.

You smash through a glass ceiling so I am not sure what you do to a grass one. Mow though it? Whipper snipper through it?

Anyway out of all the women whose stories have stuck with me, and there are countless I could talk to you about here today, one I think apart from Deb, Jane and Sue sticks with me.

Her name is Claire McShane and I first did a story on her wool business in Tasmania in 1993.

She had always loved knitting and when wool crashed in the early 90’s the family’s Midlands wool property “Casaveen” was in trouble.

She recruited local women who had home knitting machines and they knitted jumpers cardigans vests and scarves to her designs which she sold through mail order.

She advertised in Country Style magazine and went to every field day imaginable.

She and her husband Alan had wool from their sheep dyed and spun in Australia and their on-farm work force knitted at home at hours that suited them.

Then the company that made the knitting machines went out of business. So one by one as their machines broke down and could not be repaired she had to let her workforce go.

Instead of giving up she had the family’s wool knitted to her designs by an Australian knitwear company.


Then the rationalisation of the Australian wool processing sector took out their knitwear manufacturer. So she went to Japan, where commercial knitting machines were made. She learnt how to use them and set up her own factory in her home town of Oatlands in the middle of Tasmania.

Then the company that spun and dyed their wool went out of business.

Undeterred the McShanes decided to sell their farm, buy coloured Australian yarn and knit the jumpers on their own machines in their own factory.

Oatlands is a gorgeous little town full of sandstone buildings from early settlement.

The McShanes set up a cafe selling good coffee and gourmet food – a foodie oasis in what was then a foodie desert.

The factory became a tourist attraction attached to the cafe and they opened their own knitwear shop.

It’s still going. How many knitwear businesses established as a result of the down turn in wool are still going?

Not many.

But “Casaveen” is.

Claire McShane was hard headed adaptable, knew when to ask for help and when to learn new things, and in what must have been a heart breaking decision, when to sell the farm.

Adaptable, resilient, tough, clever

With each blow the company was dealt she responded with a new idea, a new take on their business.

Like Jane Bennett and Sue Middleton and countless other ‘silent farmers’ she kept on, kept at it, kept going which is all I guess we can do. The other option is to throw in the towel.

Now she is a businesswoman running a successful knitwear manufacturing and tourism business in a tiny Tasmanian town.

She’s inspired woolgrowers, her four children, others in the rural woman alumni and her husband who could not be prouder.

One thing she always did which I wished other who achieved would do is agree to talk to the media.

So often I am at a farm and the woman is clearly part of the success story we are there to document, and yet when they are invited to speak they decline and defer to their husbands.

I am not in the business of pushing people to do things they don’t want to do but over the years i have pushed these women to speak up, so “Landline” is not a show dominated by middle aged men.

Young women and men need to see on our show the real contribution women make. In the short term so it’s recognised, and, taking the longer view so one day it becomes normal and unremarkable.

I have seen rural women come so far since I started reporting on agriculture.

They are running farms and rural businesses and they are moving up the ladder in agri-politics and yes even a few sit on ag boards.

I look forward to the day that we don’t need a rural woman of the year award.

That farmers aren’t men or women they’re just farmers.

But that day is not yet with us so we need to celebrate promote and profile the heroes that are out there now.

Which is exactly what Liz has done in her book.

I look forward to hearing from the 8 heroes in her book that we are honoured to have with us today.

They an inspiration to us all.


Twitter:  @pipcourtney@ABCaustralia



Comments 5

  1. Wow, what an interesting read!! I am involved in the rural industry, I am a govie on a station, teaching my two girls and my husband is a bore mechanic. We have lived here for 8 years and in recent years there was a jillaroo here (amongst others, but she stood out). She had a rural upbringing in NSW, her father and mother are self-employed, turning their hand to many jobs and therefore, she had a strong work ethic. She arrived when she was 19 and it was amazing to see the maturing that took place in that first year, over the next two years she wholeheartedly threw her whole mind, body and soul into her job, as well as taking on studies in her spare time to improve her agricultural knowledge and therefore, her employability. In the last year she was here she could have easily coped with the leading hand job, one level below headstockman, but she was a girl, she didn’t have the connections and I think the men felt that their ego might have been in jeopardy if she was promoted. I know there are a few headstockwomen, but it is still a male dominated industry. My girls, at 14 and 15 can see that women have to work three times as hard and be “tough” to be considered equal. It is very sad to see as I thought times were improving, but maybe not?

    1. When I first started my career in farming, Yvonne, I had to leave Sth Aust to get a job because the men were too set in their ways to hire a female jillaroo. However WA was a new frontier and women are accepted without question here. I think they are in most states these days, although we do need to prove ourselves. Still blokes do too, so there isn’t that much difference.

    2. interesting reply Yvonne! I know it depends on where you are – my cousins jillarooed in the Territory and they are real ‘go-get-em’ girls and did okay. But I know there can be some real issues with promotion for women in some areas…

  2. In real terms women in agriculture are forging new frontiers just like women all over the world, and come to think of it many other previously disadvantaged groups. Awards like this are an opportunity to create a platform to implement a community good project that is close to your heart. Whilst a group of sponsors are willing to back the award winner and she kicks goals for the beneficiaries of her project I say let the RIRDC award go on Ad infinitum.

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