Feature Article - The invisible farmers - women in agriculture
Contributed by Ruth Paterson, Dept of Primary Industries, Water and Environment
Women have always worked the land and helped to provide the food to nourish Australians. Aboriginal women gathered their food as it ripened with the seasons in the annual cycle of migration.
When the Europeans arrived in 1788, the women worked with their husbands or farmed in their own right to develop primary production in Australia and their roles went unacknowledged. Even now, as then, many of these women remain unacknowledged. The traditional perception of an Australian farmer is still that of a tall, bronzed, tough Aussie man in an akubra hat - despite the fact that one third of the rural work force are women.
The lack of recognition for rural women in Australia actually has a historical basis. In the late 19th century, the Australian government felt there was a sense of shame for a developing nation such as Australia to admit the extent of women’s involvement in Agriculture. There was a deliberate avoidance of recognising women in agricultural pursuits for fear of creating the impression that women were in the habit of working in the fields as they were in some of the older countries of the world - not something a new and prospering country like Australia wanted to publicise. As a result, the census no longer recorded women’s farm work and until 1994, the legal status for farm women was “sleeping partner, non productive.”
Australian agriculture can boast a huge range of primary products and food processing industries. Women have always played a part in their development and the rural communities in which they are based. When World War II came, many of Australia’s women joined the Land Army and kept the economy afloat.
Responding to needs, often because of hardship and isolation, women have brought innovation to country Australia. The Country Women’s Association, formed in NSW in 1922, brought health services to the Australian bush. The School of the Air, established in 1952, and since the late 1980s, the Landcare environmental movement were both developed by women.
Through socialisation, women have tended to accept their role as the invisible farmers. These stereotypes were especially reinforced by the media through the imagery of advertising and editorial decisions. How often did you see women featuring in glossy rural advertising? How often were women’s perspectives put on the front of magazines, rather than being buried down the back in the pink girlie pages? Did these images really reflect modern agriculture? Even though farming is primarily a family business, was the male primary producer the only recipient and user of information and services relating to primary production? This emphasis has generally ignored a customer base - hardly good business ethics.
We went through a period of change when the contribution of farming women began to be publicly recognised. We saw some of the tall and brave poppies being unjustly branded with by-lines like, ‘Well who does she think she is! You’d think her husband didn’t work on the farm when you read/hear that!’. Thankfully, those reactions are beginning to disappear. It is now commonplace to see and read about farming couples and families - women and men commanding equal recognition for their hard work and expert skills in their own right.
Coinciding with the developing rural women’s movement, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation developed the Rural Woman of the Year Award. The Award, which was aimed at raising awareness of the role and contribution of rural women, ran for four years between 1994 and 1997 with approximately 1,200 women involved in some way. It helped highlight, time and time again, the incredible array of skills and talents of rural women.
In an effort to address some of these cultural and social problems, government-sponsored Rural Women’s Networks have established themselves since the early 1980s at National, State and local levels. These networks encourage rural women to look beyond their individual context and to identify themselves as part of a much larger group of women. There is also a Federal Government National Action Plan to ensure an increase of women’s participation at decision-making levels, to improve the design and delivery of services for all clients and to ensure that women’s roles are reflected positively in the media.
Today, more than 70,000 women define themselves as farmers or farm managers. In economic terms, women’s contributions amount to at least 28% of the market value of farm output or a gross figure of $4 billion annually.
Women’s main contribution to on-farm output are in the areas of livestock care, value adding, farm tourism and business management. Women also contribute to the overall viability of farming enterprises through off-farm work worth about
$1.1 billion per year.
In recent years, it is off-farm work (81% of which is done by women) which has enabled many farming families to maintain their enterprises and lifestyle through years of prolonged drought and the decline in commodity prices.
As well as contributing to their farming enterprises, women also make essential voluntary contributions to their rural communities. It is estimated that this amounts to at least $0.5 billion a year in addition to the about $8 billion a year they contribute to the rural economy through unpaid household work. Yet, with all these skills, women occupy less than 20% of paid management and board of management positions in the agricultural sector. This imbalance reduces the diversity in leadership needed to improve performance, both domestically and in a competitive global market.
If agriculture is to respond to the challenges of the next century, including the opportunities of the global market place, it will need to draw on the diverse talents and perspectives within the sector, particularly those of rural women and young people. As an industry, it can no longer have the men up the front of the hall making the decisions and the women down the back serving the tea and scones.
Australian agriculture can and will benefit from women’s perspectives, skills and experiences as it does from those of farm men. It’s not about men being less - just women being more.