The female farmers taking a stand to change the face of Australian agriculture

Female farmers - precision agriculture - farm management app - DecipherAg
Agriculture / Company News / Industry News

The female farmers taking a stand to change the face of Australian agriculture

When Debbie Dowden moved to Challa Station in the southern rangelands of WA to work alongside her husband on what was then a sheep property, she was not legally allowed to call herself a farmer.

Key points:

  • Women were only legally recognised as farmers in Australia 25 years ago
  • More women are studying agriculture but many never work in the sector
  • The Visible Farmer documentary aims to raise the profile of women in the sector

And she was not alone. Until 1994, no Australian woman was allowed to list their legal status as “farmer”.

Instead, women on the land were officially defined as unproductive “silent partners”, “domestics”, “helpmates”, or even “farmers’ wives”.

While legal recognition led to improvements for women in the industry, 25 years later many believe their significance is still not fully recognised.

“I have absolutely been invisible in my role — not just myself, but I speak on behalf of a lot of women on the land,” Ms Dowden said.

“Quite a lot of the time we’re perfectly content to be invisible.

“But every now and then we have to stand out from the shadows [to] remind people that agriculture has depended so heavily upon women for centuries.

A woman crouches next to a black calf in a shed

“We know how hard we work, and our sisters in the bush know how hard we work, but a lot of people don’t really imagine a woman when they see a farmer.

“These days, with the way the farming of the agricultural industries are going — there’s a lot more technology out there — physical work is often replaced by machinery and women are taking a much more active role in the day-to-day farming activities.”

Ms Dowden has shared her story of what it is like to work alongside her husband, Ashley, on what they now run as a cattle property to shine a spotlight on women in the industry.

Her story will be told in the first episode of a new documentary series, Visible Farmer, set to have its premiere at WA’s Dowerin Field Day on August 28.

A new image of a farmer

Producer and director of Visible Farmer Gisela Kaufmann was inspired to create the series when she came across Invisible Farmer, a nationwide research project working to highlight the role of women in the industry, both past and present.

A woman wearing a hat and mask across her mouth stands in a dusty yard of goats.

“We want to get the story out there and change that image of the farmer with the dog and the tractor in the back,” she said.

“It really is about showing what the women bring to the table.”

Over 12 months Ms Kaufmann and her business partner, Carsten Orlt, travelled across the vast expanse of WA, speaking to women of all ages working on the land in what became both a humbling and inspiring experience.

“The support you get when people think you are doing a genuine project, you know, this is not some big headline current affairs story, this is their personal stories,” Ms Kaufmann said.

‘It gives my life meaning’

One of the farmers who took part in the series was 27-year-old Melissa Charlick.

In early 2018 she gave up her career as a high school teacher to begin Roly Poly Farm at Gidgegannup, on the outskirts of Perth, alongside her partner, Declan McGill.

“It was full-on but it was pretty awesome being able to share what we’re doing and just knowing the wider lens that Visible Farmer is placing upon a sector that is often forgotten,” Ms Charlick said of being involved in the documentary.

A woman holds up a bunch of carrots, with a man in the background.

“I was lucky enough to grow up with a lot of strong female farmer role models in my family.

“But I don’t think a lot of people see that, especially younger people.”

Roly Poly is a regenerative farm that does not use chemicals, and while the work was very different to her former profession, Ms Charlick said she could not imagine doing anything else.

“It sounds corny but it gives my life meaning, it’s what gets me up in the morning,” she said.

“It’s the way I can invest my life in something that I can see is worthwhile and important.

“The community you immerse yourself in is really special and people in Perth seem to be hungry for this.

“[We produce] slightly weird-looking veg, but you know the hands and the people who have grown it and who have harvested it, and you get handed it straight into your shopping basket.”

Call for policy change

Headshot of a smiling woman in a hat holding a handful of small fish up to the camera.

Census data showed women made up 32 per cent of Australia’s agricultural workforce in 2016.

Yet while the number of women studying agriculture was increasing, in some cases surpassing men, a significant portion never went on to work in the sector.

Ray Johnson, who runs national recruitment company Agricultural Appointments, said attracting more women into agriculture would rely on practical changes in the work environment.

“I think it’s up to the leaders … in Australian agriculture to come to grips with this,” he said.

“Because there’s policy issues and there’s also workplace issues and flexibility issues and attitudinal issues, and they’re all embedded very heavily in Australian agriculture.”

Dr Johnson said the issue should be prioritised.

“If it’s not addressed, it really will hold Australian agriculture back from productivity gains in the future, there’s no doubt about that whatsoever,” he said.

Women ‘must be prominent’

Those involved in Visible Farmer hoped by simply sharing their stories they might be able to contribute towards changing those statistics for future generations.

“I think there is a responsibility for those people in less recognised areas — or representations of groups — to make themselves visible,” Ms Charlick said.

“It’s really uncomfortable being on a camera and it’s really uncomfortable being a face of social media for example, but I think it’s really important.

“I get girls coming up to me — not just myself but Declan as well — and recognising what we’re doing.

“We try to communicate it as a really tangible, real and accessible career move, and one that should be looked upon favourably.

“I’d love for farming to be something to strive for.”

A smiling couple wearing farmers' hats stand together in front of a wire fence.

Ms Kaufmann hoped to take the Visible Farmer documentary across the country and share the stories of more women and the important role they play.

“We really face some challenges out there,” she said.

“We need to produce more food — we have a growing population, we have a shrinking workforce in agriculture and we have changing climatic conditions which makes things a lot harder.

“So the more ideas, diversity, innovation we can get into agriculture the better.

“And women are half of all the people out there working it, so it’s very important to tell their stories.”


Originally published by ABC News.

Useful links:

Don’t miss another update!