Rural Women: From child services to dairy farming

15.10.20

To celebrate International Day of Rural Women, we are shining a light on some of the incredible women from regional, rural and remote parts of Australia who we get to work with at AgriFutures Australia. One of these incredible women is Sarah Parker.

Victorian-based dairy farmer Sarah Parker was to attend the 2020 Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) as part of an Australian Delegation, championing the role of Australian rural women, at the United Nations in New York.

In a year like no other, instead of being in New York, she is finding new ways to connect and stay strong.

“2020 has taught us that the only constant in life is change,” admits Sarah.

“It’s important to realise there are always opportunities and when something ends, it’s not the end of you,” said Sarah.

“Never say never and think about yourself and who you are and think about your skillset.”

It is timely advice.

As part of this year’s International Rural Women’s Day, Sarah says she is in awe of how rural women are learning to pivot with the complexities of a pandemic both on and off farm.

“Rural women wear multiple hats and now more than ever they’ve had to cope with working additional hours on farm, working from home and home schooling and in some cases, the additional off- farm income earning opportunities in their businesses and employment roles have been significantly reduced and in some cases lost completely,” said Sarah.

“The impact of COVID19 which was preceded by drought, floods and fires has no doubt challenged and strained, in some cases, the resilience levels and mental health of our rural communities. This has been further exacerbated by the loss of employment and income generation opportunities.”

Rural women are key to vibrant communities

According to Sarah, rural women hold the key to surviving any kind of crisis.

“Rural women are connected, even if that means virtually because they’ve had to cope with isolation before COVID-19. When you are forced into finding solutions, very often you do,” she said.

But rural women have also benefited enormously from the work of earlier generations, who learnt early on the power of networks.

Networks such as Australian Women in Agriculture (AWiA) of which Sarah is a director and current president and the National Rural Women’s Coalition which brings together Australia Peak Rural Women’s Representative Groups. Sarah is also a Rural Women’s Award Alumni (2009 Victorian Finalist) and a director of the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority. She is also an active member of both the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) Workplace Relations and Education Committee and the VFF’s Farm Business and Regional Development Committee. And is company secretary of the National Rural Women’s Coalition.

What is interesting, is the interconnectedness of lots of commodities and community groups, whether the connection is formal or informal it is empowering and a force that works for the betterment of farming communities, said Sarah.

From child services to dairy farming

Born and raised in Brisbane, Sarah will tell you she did not come to farming naturally but has been able to take her passions and skills in community development and project management and apply these in the farming and rural sector.

Her corporate career began in community development and children’s services working across regions and sectors in areas of low socio-economic status, in challenging communities where unemployment, poverty and food security was intergenerational and well documented.

“I have learnt that I had what you call transferable skills which have served me well transitioning to other areas,” said Sarah, who completed a Masters in Agriculture and Rural Development from the University of Western Sydney, prior to relocating.

Sarah’s husband Raymond grew up on a dairy farm and moved to the city for his career, where they met and settled down. They spent a period of time travelling to dairy farming regions in Australia during holidays, before finally deciding on Victoria in 2004 after Raymond attended International Dairy Week at Tatura and met an Illawarra Breeder who offered to lease them a farm and mentor the move into dairying. They packed up everything into a trailer and headed to a farm in Victoria.

“I was quite naïve about the reality of farming but am thankful for the opportunities it has provided.” Sarah admits.

Sarah Parker

“We were used to a rain fed system and new nothing about irrigation, however soon learnt the importance of it and how without it our shared dream and the desire to change our lives would never happen.”

The dream becomes real and expensive

Initially, they leased a farm from a family friend and eventually bought in a drought during 2006. The first two years they spent a quarter of a million dollars on grain and hay which they eventually paid off.

In 2008-2009, Raymond was badly injured when a bull shattered his leg just when Sarah had come out of hospital from major surgery due to endometriosis and associated issues.

With connections to local students from the Dookie Campus, the University of Melbourne’s rural campus, help arrived in the form of a roster system.

“We learnt the lesson of stepping back and learning how to delegate,” said Sarah.

“We employed a full-time farm manager and the students continued to work on a part time basis, whilst we focused on recovery. It was around 6 months before Raymond was able to step into dairy again.”

Leadership starts on zoom

Never one to stay still for long, Sarah has embarked on a new leadership journey, with the National Farmer’s Federation (NFF) Diversity in Agricultural Leadership Program (DiALP).

As part of this process, Sarah meets online regularly with former AgriFutures Australia Director, Ric Clark, who she hasn’t met face-to-face, yet.

“We meet on zoom every fortnight and to be honest, it’s been my saving grace,” said Sarah.

“We do a lot of analysis around my skills, how to present as a director, core training and it’s really given me something to focus on.”

What mentees want to know

Ric Clark’s long involvement in the corporate world for high profile information and communications technology companies has led to a rewarding role as a mentor, particularly for women.

It’s a role he enjoys, and this is his third year being involved with the NFF DiALP Program.

“Very often mentees are looking for a third person to bounce ideas around with,” said Ric, who estimates he has spent around 15 years mentoring women in various programs both in and out of the corporate world.

“Mentees want to know how to correct a miscommunication and if management are being realistic about their career paths and sometimes they just need to work out if they are really being discriminated or if it is their own personal prejudices getting in the way of success.”

His own personal mantra is to have a great rapport with people who you work with and towards.

“In a previous role I was allocated an executive coach and although I didn’t think I needed one, I raised an issue I was having with an unresponsive senior executive,” said Ric.

“We talked about a few strategies and even though I tried using them, my relationship with that executive did not improve. I didn’t think it was my problem until my coach told me to try harder and to own the problem. It was probably the best piece of advice, I ever received with that relationship ultimately improving.”

Coming full circle

Sarah’s diverse career has led to some unique roles as Chief Executive Officer for Murray Dairy, A projects and development coordinator for the University of Melbourne, Dookie Campus, an Industry Trainer & Assessor, a Rural Entrepreneur Developer, Milk Supply Manager and a Dairy Farmer.

She has also had the opportunity to study internationally, spending International Women’s Day in 2018 overseas attending World Dairy Expo and participating in the International Dairy Management Short Course, in Madison Wisconsin.

Sarah says even though 2020 has been a bit different, it is a reminder to all our farmers and rural women, that life is what you make of it and following on from every challenge, is usually an opportunity.

“What you make of it, is your decision and we all have a role to play and work out how we fit. How we do this is unique to ourselves and our individual situation,” said Sarah.

“Who would have thought that milking cows would have taken us on the journey we’ve had.”

Now she is ready for the next opportunity.

International Day of Rural Women

We have launched a hashtag #hatsofftoruralwomen across our social media channels and encourage you to use this hashtag and share the stories of the rural, regional and remote women you work with and the reasons why they inspire you.

For more information about the United Nations’ International Day of Rural Women, please visit: https://www.un.org/en/observances/rural-women-day