Thursday, 26 April 2018

Celebrating Rural Women

G’Day Mob,

Last month I was honoured to speak to a group of ladies in Injune on International Women’s Day. They wanted to know a little of how I came to be in front of them so they heard stories from the deserts of Western Australia to the Tasman Sea off Eden in southern New South Wales.; and heard of our gypsy lifestyle that has seen me work as a geologist, a deckhand, a bookkeeper, a grazier, an opal miner and a writer/photographer. It’s been a  bit of a ride.

But I want to talk about the women who inspire me. I culled a long list down to six, which was no easy task, and all of these women are from the bush. Let’s meet them:

Two female geologists (Steph and Mandy) living the dream in the Western Australian deserts in the mid 1990s

1.         Sue Skinner

No-one I have ever met (men included) works harder than Sue Skinner from Tenterfield.

I first met Sue on the Mole River where she was having a very rare day off doing what she loves – fishing. She bounded up from the river bank with a smile as wide as a split watermelon and we were instantly friends.

Sue runs a successful fruit and vegetable wholesale business in Tenterfield – sourcing the freshest of produce from regional farms. She used to grow much of it herself. I know this because she has conned me into picking squash and zucchini and has used my head for target practice when tossing pumpkins. I know how hard she works, and she makes me feel like a slacko.

Sue usually runs her vege business seven days a week but also manages to shear alpacas and organise bow-hunting safaris. Last year she ran the shearing section of the Tenterfield Show. She had roped in family and friends and would have given me a job as well if I didn’t have a good excuse – which I did. I was writing about agricultural shows for R. M. Williams Outback so with camera in hand I escaped hard labour. You can read about Sue and the shows here.

2.         Kelly Foran

If you’ve never heard of Kelly Foran I suggest you google Friendly Faces Helping Hands and be amazed.

Back in 2002 Kel was pregnant with her first child when, on Boxing Day, she was beset with severe headaches and extreme vomiting and her nightmare began. Three days later she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was given one hour’s notice to be in Sydney, 600km away, for surgery. 

Kel tells the story: “I was given steroids to shrink the brain tumour and then, via caesarian section, I gave birth to Jake who weighed 12.5 pounds at 36 weeks gestation. He was born with a hole in his lung, hyper insulin anemia and jaundice. In the next four months I developed diabetes, had 16 hours of surgery on my head, suffered a slight stroke on my right-hand side, spent three weeks in intensive care, a week in neurosurgery, developed meningitis (which required another six hour operation), and was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. I had pain in every joint, struggled to walk, talk and eat but finally I was allowed home to my son – and I couldn’t do anything for him.”

But the amazing thing about Kel is this nightmare has created her legacy. Concerned about the lack of practical support for people of the bush who had to travel to the city for medical reasons she set about creating “Friendly Faces Helping Hands”. If you’re in the bush, even if you’re visiting, and things go pear shaped get onto this website and phone Kel. When it feels as though your world is sinking Kel is the person who will throw the life-buoy.

Read more about Kel here in Outback .

3.         Lynne Strong

If you’ve ever seen a fibreglass cow looking like a motorbike or a flying pig then you’ve entered the whirlwind world of Lynne Strong.

Lynne Strong (left) with Young Farming Champions Dione Howard and Peta Bradley (and an Archie)

Lynne has a knack for finding young people with a passion for agriculture and giving them the support and training to take their story to the world. She calls them the Young Farming Champions and they come from all aspects of this great industry. There are wool brokers, agronomists, financial advisors, researchers, shearers and government advisors. They work with cotton and wool, with beef and pork, with chickens and with grains. Some grew up on vast sheep stations in South Australia. Some are from inner Sydney. All are brilliant.

Each year the Young Farming Champions go into schools as part of The Archibull Prize, and that’s where the fibreglass cows come in. Every school is assigned an agricultural industry to study, a Young Farming Champion to assist them and a life-sized fibreglass cow, which becomes the canvas for their research and findings. Last year a Brisbane school studying the wool industry took to their cow with a chainsaw and created a baby’s nursery. Another year a Sydney school transformed their cow (known as an Archie) into a grain-fuelled motorbike called Cowasaki. You really have to see it to believe what these kids come up with.

Read more about Lynne and The Archibull Prize here and the Young Farming Champions here.

4.         Judi Earl

There are plenty of people around who will tell you what you should be doing in agriculture. Not so many of them actually turn around and practice what they preach. Dr Judi Earl is the exception.

I first heard the name Judi Earl when my husband came home from a field day and told me, in raptured tones, about this grasslands ecologist he had met. A bit of research confirmed that, yes, she was quite an expert in her field. The second time I heard the name was when she rang me to enquire about a neighbouring property for sale. The voice was down-to-earth and inquisitive and I remember thinking to myself, in raptured tones, that this couldn’t be THE Judi Earl.

Well it was and for a couple of years Jude was our neighbour and font of all knowledge. For years she has studied holistic management and taught about grasslands management and that on its own makes her one hell of a knowledgeable woman. But Jude didn’t stop there. By purchasing our neighbouring property she had bought a whole lot of Coolatai grass and a whole lot of learning. And that’s what I admire most about her. She puts her theory into practice in the most daunting of ways – by actually putting her money where her mouth is. She is learning the challenges of running a property while wanting to do the best by the land. It is what we all aspire to.

I’m yet to write about Jude in Outback. Stay tuned.

5.         Kath Walker

Kath Walker was an absolute legend who I had the honour of knowing for a couple of years before she passed away. Every Australian should know about Kath Walker.

Kath was conceived in Cairo during World War One, her officer father Wally having privileges not afforded to the common soldier, and she grew up in his military world, drinking milk as generals sipped whiskey. Determined and dynamic, by age 19 she was the Australian 12 foot Skipper Champion, and by age 21 had graduated as one of the country’s first female veterinarians. She worked with the Department of Agriculture during a major swine flu outbreak and in 1943 joined the war as a Captain in the Australian Women’s Army Service.

As the only female veterinarian in the entire Allied Forces, Kath worked alongside the Australian Army Veterinary Corp at the animal hospital in Enogerra, Brisbane, overseeing a large contingent of men as she treated military dogs and transport horses until she was discharged in 1946.

She then returned to Coolootai Station in northern New South Wales where she married her sweetheart Tom and tended to patients, both animal and human, on properties across the north-west. She was intelligent, strong-willed and one of the most admirable women I have ever met. At her funeral her son Gavin said of Kath: “Mother’s aim in life was to equal or better anything with testicles – and if that couldn’t be achieved the testicles were removed!”

Read more about Kath and her military family in Outback here.

6.         Charmaine Potter

Rural Australia is all the stronger for the women mentioned above, yet to be truly strong every community needs a Charmaine Potter.

Charm is our heart. The tennis club committee, the CWA, the SES or the rural fire brigade – Charm is there volunteering her time. At the local dog trials she is in the judge’s box, giving scores without fear or favour. When blood is spilt Charm will be rung before the ambulance. And to the aged of the community she is a godsend.

Charm grew up on a starvation block outside Roma before moving with her husband to Bedwell Downs in northern New South Wales where for twenty years she “picked up every fence on the place often with a kid on one hip and a crowbar and a roll of wire slung over my shoulder”. She has been a wool-classer, a rabbit breeder, a sewing teacher and so much more yet she describes herself as “just a farmer’s wife”.  And for that I could just smack her.

Charm is one of the heartbeats that make rural Australia live and breathe. She epitomises all that the rural woman is – all her strengths, all her doubts, all her dreams and all her actions.

Read more about Charm here.

Rural women. It makes me proud to know them. It makes me proud to be one.

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