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Women in agriculture face unique challenges

Tags: Rural Rural Insight

Thanks to technology, better access and growing equality, the agricultural sector has more women than ever engaged in the sector, across the spectrum of job types.

Whether it is maintaining a professional career in a nearby town or city while living in the country, or engaged at a hands on level within the farming business, participating in daily tactical decisions and having equal input to “big picture” strategic moves on farm, more women than ever are regarded as equal partners in multi-million dollar businesses.

But the choice to live in a rural environment can come with its own social costs, something that “Farming Mums NZ” Facebook group founder Chanelle O’Sullivan recognised when she established the group back in 2013.

Starting with a blog she ironically titled ‘Just’ a farmer’s wife, the qualified vet nurse, mum, Kellogg Scholar and long-distance runner captured many of the issues rural women grapple with, and turned it into a popular Facebook page.

The ex-city woman is living a life far removed from the big city, but it is the social networks that go with such a city she has endeavoured to create in an online social network.

With its many and varied subject topics ranging from managing farm working dogs to choosing a suitable dress pattern, the site has grown to have almost 11,000 followers.

It has also helped its creator play a major role in helping raise awareness of the issues facing women on the land.

Chanelle’s work has helped prompt a national research survey funded by Farmstrong that is due to kick off this winter. It is founded on initial findings from interviews with 26 women in rural New Zealand on what their key issues were.

“What that work revealed was the high level of stress many rural women experience, particularly younger ones – it comes with having to support husbands in their business, which is often subject to weather and price variations that can’t be controlled, maintain family life, and often deal with the paperwork and compliance demands.”

She praises the work done by groups including Farmstrong, with its focus on farmers’ mental health, but points out women on the land also face mental health challenges that she hopes the survey will clearly identify and help rectify.

Kathy Young, Bayleys rural agent for Waipukurau has been involved in the agricultural sector for over 25 years, kicking off her career as a sole charge milker on a dairy farm near Wanganui.

Today she is a shareholder and director of a drystock and dairy farming company, while also busy selling rural properties in the Tararua and Central Hawke’s Bay districts.

She says attitudes towards women on the land have changed markedly since she started in the industry, but she admits being surprised even today at some of the comments she hears.

“These come from others’ own experiences and perception of life and can often be taken in good humour. It is a different matter however if someone is being disrespectful, don’t put up with that, you have to set the tone of how you wish to be treated.”

She says fortunately most people in the rural sector are “lovely” – down to earth and delightful to work with.

She believes the role of women at governance and board level in agribusiness firms is something to continue to encourage, and firms will only benefit from having greater diversity on their boards, through both gender and skill sets.

“The role of women at governance and board level in agribusiness firms is something to be encouraged, with diversity of gender and skill sets bringing multiple benefits.”

“In my experience, a lot of the women in farming partnerships are either taking care of the finances or at least have a big say in any major financial decisions.”

Like Chanelle she is acutely aware of the challenges around geographical isolation, internet connectivity and time-labour challenges that go with being a farming woman.

“A personal challenge for me, as for many others, was combining the physical demands of farming with starting and raising a family. I planned to be one of those amazing women who would keep milking cows until the day I gave birth – that plan lasted about all of one week when severe morning sickness developed!”

She says it is wise to have a plan A, B and C and remember the quote “women can do everything, but not at the same time.”

Her advice to women entering the rural sector is to take some “me time” away from distractions of family and farm where possible, focusing on goal setting, and having some flexibility about how those goals will be achieved.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about which gender you are or who your industry has traditionally been dominated by, it’s about you; your values, interests, goals, skill sets and what you have that you can offer to others. If there is an industry or a role that you are passionate about – go for it!”

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