‘I learnt to take time to talk to my mother in law’: A city woman turned farmer on adjusting to the rural life


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Originally published on Women’s Agenda, who are profiling women working in agriculture and related fields, with the support of AgriFutures Australia.

Transitioning from one lifestyle to another is never easy. And that was especially so for former city woman, Abi Cook (formerly Spehr), who moved into traditional farming as a partner in a fourth generation mixed grazing and cropping property on South Australia’s Limestone Coast.

Abi struggled with adjusting to this new life she had chosen, and understanding her role within the family business.

But once she realised that she was far from alone and that so many rural women were facing the same challenges, Abi began writing about these experiences.

Indeed, she found her own experience with having to negotiate with her mother-in-law and family members was something many other women experienced — and so she started collecting the stories of other mother and daughter in law relationships across the state, and then Australia.

Her passion and interest in understanding the complexity of Australian rural women’s lives grew into a greater desire to publish a research paper about it. This research saw her being named the 2007 SA AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award winner, and ultimately the National Runner-up.

Abi’s passion for improving the lives of rural women continues, as she is further unearthing her research and creating an online tool to support family businesses.

We spoke to Abi as part of our series with AgriFutures, profiling the lives and work of rural women. She shares some great tips on working with family members, and also some excellent advice for women considering a career in agriculture.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your transition from city girl to moving to South Australia’s Limestone Coast? How did this big move shift your perspective on the agricultural space?

I observed rural Australia to basically have a primary production focus, and to be quite isolated and isolating. But what I learnt from entering into an agricultural environment was that rural and regional communities are a part of a really broad network. There’s lots of diversity and the industry relies on community and networks to work together. I didn’t realise how rich in creativity it was, I learnt the true sense of community in the country.

2. You were recognised for your research project working with Rural women across Australia, subsequently releasing a book called “Working Her Out”. What sparked this idea and what was the process like in writing this book?

I had been completely unprepared for the ‘adjustment phase’ of moving onto a family farm. At first I thought it was just me, finding it hard and figuring out where I fitted in to the farm business. Negotiating roles between myself and my mother‐in‐law and understanding expectations between family members, but as I started asking around I discovered other women had found the transition equally challenging. I started writing some of these experiences down and five years ago a colleague encouraged me to take it one step further and put it all in a book.

In 2007 I was fortunate enough to win the SA AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, formally RIRDC, and with the bursary that came with it, I started collecting mother and daughter‐in‐law stories from SA and all over Australia. I think one of the things I have learned from this process is that you really need to make time to talk with your mother‐in‐law. It can be awkward, it can be difficult, but all the successful family farm relationships seem to work hard at keeping the communication lines open. The other piece of advice I have is to make sure you’re ‘communicating’ yourself – not through a third party which is usually the son or husband.

3. What would you advise to women who want to pursue a career in agriculture?

I would strongly encourage it. Women’s contribution and perspective on agriculture is so important at the moment, and the career possibilities are broad. When you are in the business of agriculture you also impact social rural environments and community. I have many friends working in agriculture in many different ways – agriculture is not just commercial production and farming, its photography, education, health etc. I truly feel that rural women and women working within agriculture are so innovative and creative – so if that’s you, I would say go for it!

4. In 2007, you had the honour of winning the SA AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, formally RIRDC. How has winning this award, along with the Westpac bursary, helped support your work, and what have you been up to since?

It was an enormous shock and honour to win the 2007 SA Agrifutures Rural Women’s Award; that would also see me as the National Runner-Up, and take my project interstate and overseas as an academic paper. I was a young women with an enormous passion to  ensure that family and business can thrive together. I did, and still support the gift of living and raising family in a beautiful environment where community is at its centre. I also wanted to achieve success in growing and preserving farming business. The Award grew my networks and reach of community and business, it gave me a platform to make change. The Westpac bursary gave life to the facilitation of regional workshops with farmers across South Australia, it opened up the scope of my project and equipped me with greater knowledge. Since the awards I no longer live in the country and have pulled my skills and learnings to forge a career as a manager in Community Services sector working with the most vulnerable.

5. You recently mentioned that you are currently preparing an online tool to support family businesses. What can you tell us about this upcoming project?

After 24 years in the country I still have the great respect and passion for its people and industry; hence the Working Her Out research paper is currently being updated for publishing as an academic paper. To add further richness to the paper I am hoping to reach the women who contributed to the Working Her Out project and see where they are all at 10 years later?  Having been part of an Agricultural family farming business for 23 years and also being from a fourth generation building family business, I am fascinated by the working dynamics. I am developing an on- line tool (Working It Out)  to support succession planning and equip all members of the family business with the questions they need to ask! This is all thanks to the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.

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