Rural Women’s Award Alumni Leader: ‘There’s strength in numbers’

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The experience of being a finalist in the 2019 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award empowered Ann Ross in two ways – it gave her the momentum to think about what she could ‘give back’ to the agriculture sector and made her more aware of the strength and knowledge in numbers.

Ann was nominated for Hive Haven, the business she runs with her husband Jeff that specialises in Australian native stingless bees. Over a challenging 10 years, they have pioneered an innovative, award-winning stingless native bee box, Native bees are recognised as effective pollinators and currently complement the work of the European honeybee.

Today the Sunshine Coast businesswoman is State Chair of the Queensland Rural Women’s Award (RWA) Alumni Committee, tasked along with a fellow Chair from each state and territory to support more than 300 RWA Alumni Australia wide.

“The greatest development for me has been in meeting like-minded women and learning from our shared experiences,” Ann said.

“I gain inspiration from every person who applies for the Award.”

For 21 years the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award has identified, celebrated, and empowered women in regional and rural Australia, and the Alumni Committees provide a network of support for their future work.

Women with a project, business or program having a positive impact on rural and emerging industries, businesses and communities are encouraged to apply.

‘Dream team’ necessary for native bee business

If it wasn’t for the fact that she was working with native bees, which play a critical role in pollination, Ann says she would have ‘tipped over’ in the early years of her decade-long business journey.

At the time she was a mature age student studying accounting at the University of the Sunshine Coast, where a minor elective in entrepreneurial studies helped her to develop a business plan and gain a year’s free access to the USC Innovation Centre and mentors.

“I remember sitting in the car one afternoon on my return home and crying because I’d told the family that morning that ‘today was the day’ I was going to ‘make it all happen’ – but sadly I didn’t, and I was devastated. Without a product I couldn’t generate an income, so I had to learn how to apply for patents and trademarks myself. I even put ten 3D-printed concept hives out in prominent spaces like Australia Zoo and the Queensland University of Technology QUT with a ‘help’ note saying what Hive Haven were trying to achieve,” she remembers.

“But every time I failed, people picked me up and told me to have another go. I was lucky I had encouragement. That’s the biggest thing, create a ‘dream team’ to get you across the line, because so many people will say your idea is not going to work.”

Changing the stereotype of rural women

Ann says Queensland has seen a steady increase in applications for the Rural Women’s Award over the past two years, and she is constantly seeking to encourage women to apply from all over Australia’s second largest state.

“I don’t think a lot of Australia is in touch with rural women. I never would’ve gained an understanding if I hadn’t lived at Kynuna for three years in the northwest or visited my daughter when she was a doctor in Longreach, and I think the Award is helping to change the stereotypical way that many people see rural women,” she said.

“In our business we had so much support from the community that I call our native bee box ‘The box that the Sunshine Coast built’, but in an inland town or on a property in remote parts of Queensland, it’s so much more difficult to get that support.”

In March 2023, another Sunshine Coast businesswoman, Emma Gibbons, won the 2023 Queensland Rural Women’s Award for her innovative dog food business, Hud’s and Toke, made from Australian-farmed insect protein and vegetable surplus.

Innovation, connectivity a constant challenge for ag

Ann says she’d like to see more women like Emma coming forward to promote innovation in ag tech and mentor others, but there are challenges to uptake and adoption that Ann has experienced personally.

Hive Haven’s V9 Native Bee Box broke new ground in Australian beekeeping by including a hollow insulation cavity which can be filled with a liquid or soft solid to alleviate hive overheating… But it’s been a rocky path to achieving the right outcome.

“The smart technology we incorporated into the design means hive temperatures can be recorded and we’re getting better all the time at protecting our native bees, which in certain geographical zones are susceptible to heat stress,” Ann explained.

“The hive itself is manufactured from recycled blended plastic, (and for instance) the lid is made using 100% recycled milk bottles manufactured by local school students.

The hive design enables people to harvest stingless native bee honey and propolis. It’s a growing industry and we can see a bright future for the preservation of the native bee.

“Now our biggest bug is reliable temperature sensors. We currently are lucky if we get more than two years out of each unit which makes our return on investment extremely challenging. Wi-Fi reliability is hit and miss as well.

While on a business front Ann continues to overcome hurdles and educate people about native stingless bees as essential food pollinators, Ann is also extremely proud of what the Queensland RWA Alumni Committee has achieved. We recently completed two workshops facilitated by Jacqui Wilson-Smith from Sustainable Solutions and have nutted out a business plan with achievable goals for the next five years.  Our current focus is organising a workshop around ‘Personal and Professional Development on Authentic Story Telling.

“On the home front I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of business and the self-discipline and maturity needed to keep chipping away at it.  I also believe that ‘dream teams’ are essential for support and encouragement and in essence they are a big part of what makes the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Alumni so special.

To find out more about the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award click here

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