Working as a woman in agriculture can be difficult at the best of times, so imagine working in change management role for a subsector of the industry that is experiencing the most challenging period in its history.
The AgWrap’s Jane Lindhe caught up with Amy Fay at this year’s evokeAg event. Amy is a strategic projects manager at Murray Dairy, working across change management in the dairy industry in northern Victoria and southern NSW. A big part of her work is understanding the future of irrigation and how dairy farmers can operate when water is limited.
What is your background? Has it always been in agriculture?
I grew up on a farm in Western Victoria. I was the oldest of five children on a family farm. We had four girls and one boy. Mum and Dad knew for a while that it was mostly girls (my brother was the last child). It was a pretty traditional community, but I never felt any barriers to being a girl – we were always heavily involved in the farm, and a lot of women in the community were called on to work out of necessity.
My family also had farms in the Wimmera and Mallee, so we always spent a lot of time working between farms. In year ten I had the opportunity to go to boarding school, and that brought education and life experience.
Did you think from a young age that agriculture was the industry for you?
No, not at all. I had loved working on the farm…but at university, I was really keen on being a meteorologist and studied it for years. I also did policy and environmental science. I had somewhat of an early mid-life crisis at 20 and that I was going down a path that I didn’t want to. I then changed into an agricultural science undergraduate degree and I never looked back.
Do you have your own farm now?
No, I live on a farm with my baby daughter and husband who manages a big corporate farm in Boort, Victoria.
What does your role entail?
I’m a strategic project manager for Murray Dairy, which is a research and development extension program for Dairy Australia and other partnerships. It is part of the levy system – farmers pay a levy on the value of their products and it goes to organisations to do research on their behalf. We are located in the southern Murray Darling basin, so our farmers are in northern Victoria and the NSW southern Riverina and also in the alpine valley. The focus of my work is helping farmers through that to a post-Murray basin plan life, which is a waterless future.
I also have my own project management business, called Propagate Projects, and I work with various clients and partners on a whole range of things in agriculture.
We hear a lot about the huge challenges facing dairy. What about the opportunities? Are there opportunities?
Absolutely there are opportunities. We can’t gloss over the extent of the challenges. There are a whole lot of drivers of change that are happening. Extreme volatility with the climate, water availability, the impact of water policy reform, fires, foods…you name it. Coupled with that there is rapidly changing commodity markets, increasing impacts of regulation – all that type of thing. So, the amount of change is huge.
When you face strong resistance, it’s because you are going through a change process. It is really difficult, but it does provide lots of opportunities. It’s a great opportunity for people to transform how they run their business in terms of production – so how they can change their feed base. Setting up feeding systems that take advantage of dry-land crops for example. There’s always the opportunity of consolidation too. There’s emerging opportunities in genetics, food technology, nutrition, skills and capability – that type of thing.
Do you see international opportunities?
We are seeing a lot more American systems rather than European systems that farmers have used in the past. This is because our climate is closer to America’s in some parts. But like anything – we need to really take these systems home and stress test them and understand if it is going to work.
How do you find being a woman in such a male dominated industry?
I have definitely had mixed experiences. I don’t think that we can deny that traditionally agriculture has been a very male-dominated environment – there are relics of that that still exist in institutions and structures and culture and that type of thing.
I do believe that I have had to work extra hard to prove my credibility. I do think that young woman do have to work extra hard to have a voice and to gain trust and establish themselves. I have had experiences that have been horrendous in terms of sexism and misogyny and people treating me poorly. I think my experiences have centred around people being challenged and then dismissing my input. Lots of institutions have done a significant amount of work in order to try to change this.
How are farmers at responding to change?
We are trying to build on the success that traditional systems have given us while shrugging off the relics that no longer serve us. This not only refers to farming, but as people too. I think farmers often don’t recognise the amount of change they have gone through because they are living it. They are doing it every day. It’s incremental. They have made decisions based on what is in front of them, what resources they have. People say they haven’t changed, but if you go back they have changed significantly.
Do you bring your ideas home to your husband (a large company farm manager)?
Absolutely. My husband and I have been together for 10 years but we have only lived together for three years. We recently had a baby, and when I went on maternity leave I moved to his farm. I think I am a great support to him, but he might think otherwise with me hanging over his shoulder evaluating his farming practices all the time! We often have very lively discussions about how to manage the farm and what the strategies are. We are a great sounding board for each other. It helps us keep ourselves accountable for the different stakeholders we work with.
How is it being a new Mum and living on a rural property?
Our daughter is nine months old. It has been extremely challenging because there is no childcare anywhere. We have a huge problem with accessing affordable childcare in our region.
We live nowhere near our family members…so there’s not much support. I found the first six months of Sadie’s life really hard. I was really isolated, I had no mother’s group, limited health services – it was hard. I did a survey on Twitter on childcare and what potential that could unlock. 100 families replied and said they were losing $2 million in income just through not being able to access childcare. The only way I got around it was to hire a local girl to be a nanny. One of the reasons I started my consultancy is because I am so geographically isolated from any career opportunities. It’s a huge issue for many rural and regional women.