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Barb Grey Primary Producer, Mungindi, Qld. Recipient of 2008 Australian Rural Leadership Program; Chair of WinCott; Co-founder of the Mungindi Women's Forum
07 March 2011
\"There are negative perceptions held about living and working in rural and regional Australia, usually held by people who have not visited or had the experience\"
What were the key stepping-stones that led you to where you are now?
I married into cotton farming and have been farming for 30 years. What, and how we farm, has changed dramatically with time. In fact, we're best defined now as food and fibre producers.
I've always worked in partnership with my husband and for a very long time I looked no further than the farm gate. I was there for my family. Head down tail up, I worked on the farm.
I began looking at how we could recruit and retain good people, and it was a light bulb moment to realise that HR practices are essential to business, including agriculture. I realised I knew little, so to learn I enrolled in a Bachelor of Business.
I loved the study and it has been a lifelong dream to obtain a Uni degree. It was the beginning of my journey involving 'off farm' activities. I only wish I'd started earlier…
I had to sell my husband on the idea of implementing HR strategies into our business. My strengths are in people management (the 'soft' skills) and my husband's are with the soil, the water, the farm's physical resources. We operate a multi-million dollar business and to be professional and achieve high standards in all areas, I believed HR management needed to receive the same attention. We'd had no real HR strategy before this. Now, we view our people as an investment not a cost. It makes us very selective about who we recruit.
In 2007 we won Cotton Australia's Innovative Grower of the Year award. That put us on the radar for our practices, and it was the beginning of my journey in off-farm development. I actually began my own recruitment business which in the end I sold to restore some balance in my life.
In 2008 I was awarded an Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) scholarship. Course participants come from all over Australia, from all walks of life. This has been an exciting developmental opportunity that's taken me from 0 to100 in a very short time. It's about leaving your perceptions and assumptions parked at the gate, a willingness to relearn, rework your attitudes, and address your values. We've worked with the homeless in Sydney and been in survival situations in the Kimberleys. We also undertake international leadership study - in September we're off to India.
What are some of the problems facing you in rural life?
There are negative perceptions held about living and working in rural and regional Australia, usually held by people who have not visited or had the experience. A rural move is often viewed as a backward lifestyle step, and the stereo-type of the whinging farmer certainly doesn't help. We need the good news stories; the positive stories of the bush, and there are many.
Australian farmers are the best in the world. This is not about blowing our trumpet. It's a true but little-known fact. And for those of us who live it, it's important to get this message across the divide and into the media. Australia is the most water efficient producer of the best quality cotton in the world, however, the negative perception among people, young and old, about cotton and what we do needs redressing.
Many people living in the urban, non-rural environments have lost touch with where and how we produce our food – milk now comes from a carton in the supermarket. In the past we all had links to the land, either through family or friends, but for urban people now that isn't the case. Consequently, Aussie farmers now have a struggle with profile and relevance. Considering the looming imbalance between global food production and population growth, and the consumer's focus on accountability and transparency in food production, I believe Australia's agricultural producers need to actively promote their sustainable practices – that is, the practices undertaken with consideration to the triple bottom-line (the economic, social & environmental).
What would you say is your biggest challenge as a rural business?
Succession planning. Succession planning is extremely difficult because convincing young people to move into agriculture, especially women, isn't easy. Remoteness adds to the difficulty of attracting suitable staff.
I understand it takes time to change attitudes, but in the end it's about how we market agriculture as a job and a lifestyle. There's this fantastic program being piloted by the cotton industry for Year 10 students, called Cotton Seed. It introduces students to a career in cotton, showing them that agriculture is more than just driving tractors or mustering stock. If they learn about careers in agriculture at an early age, they may better understand the multitude of opportunities - that it's a highly technical resource management environment.
What would you say is your biggest challenge as a rural business?
Agriculture is an exciting, dynamic environment, with new challenges and learning experiences every day. There is a vast array of career opportunities – for example, science, agronomy, business management, engineering, natural resource management. An individual's success is only limited by their determination and their imagination.
However, my main advice is to young women. Don't park your ambitions at the farm gate. You can get caught up in being the farmer's wife and a mother, and neglect your own professional and personal development. If you become engulfed by the farm and in fulfilling its demands and the needs of others, you can lose your own sense of identity. From my own perspective, I had made myself domestically indispensable to my family – and then had a reality check. I was selling myself short and underperforming: surely I could contribute on more fronts. When this realisation struck me, it was even harder to re-start my development because I had lost traction and lacked confidence.
Thankfully I have a supportive partner and family. Undoing the position I had so energetically constructed over the years and redefining my role was challenging for my family, because they were comfortable with the status-quo.
So my take-home message for young women - I believe to develop you need creative tension and intellectual stimulation in your life, to keep hold of the next interesting challenge. Agriculture needs diversity; it needs women at the executive, decision-making levels.
2007 Cotton Australia Innovative Grower of the Year award
The ARLP scholarship
\"Don't park your ambitions at the farm gate… Agriculture needs women at the executive, decision-making levels\"
www.rural-leaders.com.au www.cottonaustralia.com.au www.wincott.net.au